I had the meanest, most wretched teacher in the world when I was in grade 4. To protect the innocent, I’ll call her Ms Crank. For the year she was my teacher I don’t think she smiled even once, except maybe when she caught the scent of a child on the verge of breakdown. A small corner of her mouth could be seen curling just a little upward and her eye would twitch involuntarily. When we handed in our assignments Crank used to make us cross out with only one line any mistakes we made in our composition so she could see the mistake. She liked to humiliate us for making the same mistakes all the time, I guess so she had proof that we were a bunch of morons. It didn’t seem to strike her that WE WERE FUCKING NINE YEAR OLDS! In correcting our errors we were forbidden from using white out. To be sure, when we handed in our work, she’d scan the page with the palm of her hand, and if she felt white out or saw more than one line through a mistake, she’d make a witch-like face at us as she crumpled up the page and tossed it in her garbage bin. Then she’d yell ‘zero’, forcing us to redo it. She made a lot of kids cry.
When I was nine, anyone who was over the age of 30 was from the ‘olden days’, which I used to believe was when the world was black and white, before colour was invented in the 1950s. In my mind, Crank was from the really ‘olden days’, before the combustion-engine and the printing press. Her hair looked old and wiry like mannequins at museum exhibits that demonstrated how everything back then was fifty times harder than it was when I was nine; back when people used to wade through mountainous snow-drifts and fight off bands of marauders and stampeding buffalos in the hours it took to walk to and from school every day. Like all ladies of that age in the 1970s, she had pantyhose that only went up to her knees and these continually sagged and bunched up midway down her varicose-vein infested calves.
Crank also had that old people smell : a mixture of menthol, ammonia, and halitosis. There was a hair-topped wart jutting out of her face and no force in the world could stop you from staring at it, which seemed to make her even more angry at the world for having been born a hideous and unsightly troll. Her big round glasses with thick lenses made her bulgy mean eyes seem as big as saucers when she scoured, which was all the time. She also had that chain old people always seemed to have attached to their glasses to keep them around their neck, ostensibly so their dementia-ridden minds would not misplace them, like the idiot-strings I had running through my winter coat to keep my wool mits from disappearing. For added effect she used to toss them off so she could stare at you with her beady eyes and turn you to stone. In spite of the idiot string, I usually lost six pairs of mitts every winter, often accompanied by the loss of a jacket, toques, boots, and once, even a snowsuit.
Crank had a litany of arbitrary rules that I could never seem to grasp. She used to address us with the salutation ‘Mr’ or ‘Ms’ and expected us to do the same to our classmates. I was terrible with names, usually calling them ‘hey’ or ‘man’, so I was instantly destined for failure at this task. Plus, I’m going to call Jerry Johnson – who still shit his pants and picked his nose incessantly – ‘Mr Johnson’ like he’s worthy of that sort of decorum? When I was nine, it was uncommon to hear the term ‘Ms’ so naturally with Crank I just kept calling her ‘Miss’ assuming no sentient being was capable of marrying that thing. Plus it was obvious to me she wasn’t getting laid, which is why she was so touchy about the ‘Ms’ thing. Only with Suzie Ames was I able to get the salutation rule straight and it was because I had spent much of the summer playing ‘doctor’ with her in the bushes : ‘what ails you today, Ms Ames. Hmm, I think we’ll have to remove your top’. Suzie repeatedly called me ‘Dr’ in Crank’s class which drove Crank to a quizzical state of madness that made her wretch like a baboon in heat.
Up until I encountered Crank, other teachers had sung my praises as a model student and treated me as their favourite. I loved the attention, the swag, and the free ride that I sometimes got. Now that I look back, I am certain this reputation poisoned me in her mind. It’s obvious she was a zealous believer in original sin; and she approached children as gluttonous, slobbering heathens that had to be dragged by their ears into civility. A continuous unleashing of scorn, humiliation and degradation of a select few to serve as examples was her main method of securing the desired behaviour from others.
In her mind the students were a bunch of snot oozing, shit-stained, bubblegum chewing boils to be lanced, so this idea that there was a perfect child in her midst was probably interpreted by her as the fixings of a crafty little shit who had hoodwinked a trail of starry-eyed teachers before her. Well, she would not be falling for my little charms, nor would she abide any of the serfs in her fiefdom harbouring ideas about their alleged infallibility, especially not some second-rate nine year old Svengali. There was room for one perfect being in room 6 and that was her worship, Empress Crank II, spawn of the evil Lord Vader from the Dark Side, friend with benefits to Jabba the Hut. The rest of us tikes were jawas from tattooine and I was Lando Calrissian who would get his comeuppance. In the first month she terrorized me for the slightest transgressions, believing she had spied my weakness – a wry contempt for her authority.
Her anger intensified when I consistently messed up the ‘Mr/Ms’ rule and the line-up-in-single-file-outside-the-classroom-door-before-coming-into-class-after-recess rule. I thought I was being a good boy by showing eagerness to get back to work. That’s not how she saw it. I was getting cheeky with her Geritol; shaking her Maalox; pissing on her Pepto Bismol. She’d bring the class in, sit them down, then tell me to go get my jacket on, leave the class, shut the door and knock on the door to get back into the class. If I slouched or fidgeted through any of these steps she’d make me start again. The added time would come off our lunch break. At first I really did not set out to break her rules, but I grew intolerant of her caprice, and I’m the first to admit that resignation had stunted the attention to detail she commanded. It was like she’d spend the previous evening making shit up she knew I’d never get right. What was worse, she attempted to pit my classmates against me. These were my homies she was messing with.
Early in the year I decided to rise against her reign of tyranny and pledged to avenge the ridicule I was subjected to. I had worked to gain the respect and good graces of the faculty and my classmates. In the first month I am sure she had besmirched me in the faculty lounge and I was starting to get hairy eyeballs from my mates for cutting into their recess. I would not stand to be slandered and publicly chagrined by that wart-infested, saggy-stockinged ogre.
I felt I’d at least earned a few privileges afforded by a reputation as a top student with an unblemished behavioural record. But even a goody-two-shoes like me was not spared the bilious wrath of Crank. She was making me look like a putz. So this is how it was going to be eh? In the words of Snoop Dogg, have it your way mutha fucka, we gonna do this gangsta style.
(I realize that in 1979 I was probably not thinking this way, that I am projecting current cultural references into historical events for convenience. I know, I know. It is waaaaay out of line to fudge history like that when everyone else in the West is tireless in setting the historical record straight about slavery, colonialism, the acquisition of land from North America’s native peoples, foreign policy in the middle east, or the invention of jazz. I should be ashamed. As if I was thinking like a gangsta. This would have made me a cultural maven and a luminary, since I was basically one of few random black flecks of vanilla root in a city of creamy vanilla ice cream. The only ‘gangstas’ I knew of at the time were Al Capone and the mafioso profiteers from prohibition days which I learned from my Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia collection. In the 70’s Blaxploitation was still in vogue, but for the life of me, I can’t think of a pimp reference that fits this scenario. It’s more likely I was taking my inspiration from Bugs Bunny who would drive Black Jacques Shellac, Elmer Fudd, or Yosemite Sam insane with rage, but that’s kinda lame nowadays, isn’t it? So, just let me just say I was fixing to bust a cap in Crank’s ass without getting all up in my grill about it okay?)
The first step in my rise from the angelic ashes to the vaunted heights of rebellion was messing with that rule about how we corrected our mistakes on assignments. I interspersed mistaken words throughout my assignment so that together they made a sentence like ‘Cralnk’ and ‘iz’ and ‘uh’ and ‘wartie’ and ‘whitch’. It took a couple of assignments for her to catch on that the words made a sentence. This slow-wittedness only further diminished her stature as a formidable adversary in my mind. When she did finally cotton on – I may have substituted more eye-catching words like ‘anuss’ – she took me by the ear and dragged me to the principal’s office.
When she explained what I had done I caught a festering whiff of fraternity emanating from the principal, who was only slightly taller than me. That cowardly little Munchkin from Oz actually liked what I had done to the Wicked Witch of the West. I guessed that she had delayed her retirement beyond her 97th birthday because she enjoyed persecuting little tikes too much and this was not working for the principal. At staff meetings I imagined her riding around on her broom correcting his grammar and chastising him for slouching in his chair. Because of his stature she treated him like one of us rotten kids and he hated it. There is no doubt she made the younger flower-generation teachers cry for wearing jeans or not putting their long flowing hair in a bun. The principal was in a jam. He wanted teachers who did not rely on an abacus to do math and weren’t dismissive of new faculty just because their fashion metier wasn’t Hutterite chic. She was mean as a rabid squirrel, but her actual teacher-work could not be assailed. Kids were scared shitless from sloughing off and tended to improve in her class. When he spied the crumpled page with my clever ploy, I saw a glimmer in his eye. I was his little bucket of water.
In the many visits that would follow, I’d seen the same mixture of exasperation tempered by a modicum of respect for the ingenuity of my schemes. He would expect no less from a top student. I hadn’t stolen, or swore, or hit anybody, so my crimes were of the prankster variety – insubordinate to be sure, but not serious crimes worthy of execution. She’d have to learn to deal with me. Theoretically she had the power to fail me, but that would look pretty suspicious given I got a 100% on provincial math examinations, had the top marks in the school and had won the spelling bee two years in a row. If I failed, that could easily be seen as her failing, not mine. She was screwed because, unlike the legions of children that came before me, her tactics did not scare me, they strengthened my resolve and brought out a fight in me I did not yet know I had.
At that first incident the principal assured Crank he’d deal with the matter. For a moment she stood, expecting to watch, maybe even participate in the punishment to be meted out, but the principal gestured for her to leave. She and her hairy wart huffed, and she scurried back to the classroom leaving a trail of dust droppings and cobwebs behind her. What I would have done for a vile of holy water or some garlic at that moment. Instead of letting me have it, he just implored me to channel my clever, creative energies into my school work and not to tormenting Ms Crank. This was my first offence so he wasn’t going to press the matter. She had her ways and I had to learn to respect that without these clever games.
Fuck that, I thought. I could smell the lie on his breath and the renewed hope in his heart. His words were saying ‘be a good boy, now’ but his soul was crying ‘rid me of this wench, pleeeease’. This was the first time I ever mused about the possibility of extorting a bribe in return for my ‘co-operation’. I quickly recoiled from that view. The sheer joy I’d felt at getting under the cold reptilian skin of Crank was not something that could be bought. Not now. Not ever.
The seeds of my rebellion had been sown.