part one of two parts
Jesus Savior wash away
All that has been wrong today
Help me every day to be
Good and gentle, more like Thee
At the end of each day of Miss Schoenicke's first grade, we would "put the day to bed" with a song and a prayer. It would give me a peaceful feeling, in the cool green tree-filtered afternoon classroom sunlight, imagining that we could start over tomorrow, with a clean slate. And that glorious first year at grade school came to a close with a play we wrote and staged, presented to the entire student body, in which we all let our talents and imaginations soar. So, the following September, we all returned to school full of renewed anticipation for the joyful work of education to continue.
Within minutes of our arrival at the second-grade room, we each realized that things were going to be drastically different from now on. The harsh eastern sunlight blazed through the glass block and the whole room was dazzlingly brilliant with the new reality. And there were now many more of us. Our A through M first-grade class had been merged with Mrs. Otto's N through Z first grade class - there was only one way through second grade, and there were now thirty-six of us in the merged class. Before long, we got acquainted with those in the last half of the alphabet, because there is security in numbers. And we needed lots of security, for we were in the second-grade class of the legendary Miss Taras.
Miss Taras was slight and tall, fast, and strong. Miss Taras had an unusually low speaking voice, about the same pitch and timbre as a large dog's low bark, And an amazing range of volume - you didn't want to hear that voice yelling at you. When she explained something, she'd sometimes end a sentence with a drawn-out "Yes?" accompanied by a mirthless grin that was terrifying. Sometimes when excited, she would speak so fast, that you didn't wholly understand what it was that she had said, but you just knew that you'd better be nodding when she said "Yes?" with that grin ...
The chalkboard on the side of the classroom was reserved for the names. In chalk squares would be various headings, and under the headings were the penances. It was never good to have your name on that board. If you didn't complete an assignment on time, your name went up there, and then there were the various punishment writing assignments.. "I should obey." - 100 times was the most common. Other writing requirements for other circumstances, all with that persistent mind-numbing repetition, If your name was on the board, the work had to be done, or you had to stay after school to finish it. Only when your name was erased from the board could we "wash away all that has been wrong today".
Turns out, however, there was more to obedience than writing "I should obey" 100 times on sheet after sheet of blue-lined yellow newsprint.
As we descended into the routine of the new regime, we discovered that relentless discipline was now the new norm. Miss Taras had no favorites, and the offenses she singled out followed no discernible pattern - best just to tow the line, look straight ahead, and keep a low profile. There was no telling what would set her off. Inattention, whispering in class, gum, distractions - it didn't take much for that low growl to become a thundering bark. You never knew who would get scolded next. Once, she mentioned casually that if someone was really disobedient,.the "Brown Uncle would come out, and we wouldn't want that - Yes?" (again the heart-stopping ice-in-your veins bleak grin). Thoughts were racing. Who was the Brown Uncle? How did he know when to come out?
You always remember the first time. One brilliant morning, Miss Taras was demonstrating an arithmetic problem on the blackboard. It had been a relatively un-turbulent morning, only a few new names on the board. Suddenly, she stopped in mid-sentence. Without another word, she walked very fast over to her desk, and opened the lower drawer. A cellophane crackle from things in the drawer, and then - a thin brown leather belt. Holding it doubled over above her shoulder, she moved very quickly to the first row of desks. The room sat in stunned silence - 36 of us, and not a sound. Unable to move, our hearts stopped in the moment, we watched. She grabbed Ron Kopp (not his name) by the arm, and pulled him to his feet. Punctuating - each - word with a blow to his backside, she said, in words I'll remember forever "Ron - Don't - Do - Silly - Things!" Those five, and Ron was slammed back down into his seat. In the ensuing silence, the Brown Uncle was returned to the drawer. What went on for the rest of the morning, or for the entire day, for that matter, I do not and can not remember. (My hands are trembling as I write this - didn't realize how potent a memory can be.)
We were clenched in a state of outright terror for the rest of the school year. But she had hit us with her best shot, and we weren't beaten down, not altogether. Our main objective, as a class, was to keep from setting her off. As the year wore on, though, hardly any of us eluded her deadly and unpredictable aim. There was no schadenfreude, no gleeful delight at the discipline of another student. None of that. We were all together in this, and when the Brown Uncle came down on one of us, we all felt it. There were various escapes, contrived illnesses, and some real ones attributable to the tension of the rigid discipline, reticence at home, but, for the most part, the ordeal made us stronger, brought us closer to one another, and made us more appreciative of subsequent teachers. One of our cosmic rewards was the sixth grade, a particularly harmonious year, all of us with Mr. Gottschalk (another story another time), that showed us how close we really were to one another, sharing joy and growing up together.
I don't recall us ever speaking to one another about discipline outside of the classroom, or at home. Perhaps it was different for other students, but for me, what happened in the classroom stayed in the classroom. Mainly, because repercussions from parents would have only made it worse. Things were different in those days.
But, lately, through the miracle of social networking, some of us have been getting together and sharing our experiences, those vivid memories of St. John's Grade School. A hug for all my old friends. Love You all.
part one of two parts - part 2 scheduled for tomorrow
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