Main | Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sentences: Redux

Gentle readers, the subject of one of my earliest short stories, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Shireman, has found my story about her here on JMG, through some self-googling. We've had a delightful and delighted email exchange, and with her gracious permission, I am reposting the story today, almost 40 years after its setting, rural North Carolina, 1967. Today Mrs. Shireman lives in San Francisco with her husband Dick, where they recently celebrated their 40th anniversary. Thank you, Mrs. Shireman!


I was in love with Mrs. Shireman.

Teachers in my elementary school were all stamped from the same mold. They wore an air of resigned imposition. Everything was a chore, a bother. Each child a pestering gnat buzzing around their elephantine legs. Miss Rose. Miss June. Miss Virginia. They all seemed to be named after flowers, or months or states. But Judy Shireman, our brand new third grade teacher...she was...different.

The other teachers all wore their hair twisted up into prim buns. Mrs. Shireman had a dyed-blond flip. While her colleagues lumbered through the halls in billowing, shapeless Simplicity pattern muu-muu's, Mrs. Shireman wore mini-skirts with matching jackets or bell-bottomed pantsuits.

She was smart, pretty, funny. When a kid was talking to her, she paid attention. She was Marlo Thomas. She was Agent 99. She was Batgirl.

And I was in love with her.

I was a difficult student. Way too sharp for your average third grader. Insanely hyperactive. Mrs. Shireman would be handing out an assignment, "Boys and girls, please put your names..."

"I'm done, Mrs. Shireman!"

She would smile at me patiently.

"OK, Joey. Let's find something else for you to enjoy while everyone else does the assignment."

She was skilled at using leading words like "enjoy", even when I was driving her nuts with my Ritalin-fueled battiness. I was earning straight A's from Mrs. Shireman, except in the category of "conduct", although I should mention that in Orwellian rural North Carolina, conduct was actually called "citizenship".

I guess if you were a talkative 8-year old you ran the risk of recruitment by Soviet agents.

To battle my hyperactivity, Mrs. Shireman would invent things for me to do. She called them "experiments".

"Joey, let's perform an experiment. I want to find out how many times you can walk out to the flagpole and back, until the last student finishes the test."

She would tap on the classroom window to let me know when the "experiment" was over.

Mrs. Shireman and my mother were friends. They were about the same age, both from New York City. Kindred spirits of sorts, each set adrift in the cultural wasteland of Carteret County. My mom and I visited her at her apartment a few times, where they'd talk about the Beatles and Elvis and I'd wander around marveling at her modern furniture. Eight years old and I was already developing a minimalist aesthetic.

I was the teacher's pet, obviously. I willingly stayed after school to clap erasers, staple papers, whatever. I graded tests, ran the mimeograph machine, anything to earn one of those approving smiles.

The other kids hated me. They knew Mrs. Shireman socialized with my mother, because I bragged about it. They resented her attempts to keep my hummingbird metabolism from totally disrupting their lessons, as favoritism. They'd make kissing sounds whenever I was up at her desk, or write "Joey + Mrs. Shireman" on the chalkboard. I didn't care.

One day, Mrs. Shireman snapped on me. I'd been up and out of my seat several times, and each time she'd return me to my desk with her firm grip on the back of my neck. Then I committed the mortal sin of talking during a test.

"Joey, please come up here!"

The other students exchanged gleeful looks. Hah! Finally!

"Joey, do you think it's fair to the class when you talk during their test?"

"I was just..."

"After school I want you to write sentences. 100 times, 'I will not talk in class'."

I was humiliated. Sentences! Me!

I returned to my desk. The other students found every opportunity during the rest of the day to make fun of me. Mr. Smarty Pants, Mr. Teacher's Pet had to stay after school and write sentences. When the bell rang, the other students filed out the room, taking great care to say 'Goodbye' to me, making sure I knew their pleasure in watching my fall.

Mrs. Shireman brought me 10 sheets of the special 'sentence writing' paper, the coarse sheets with oversized lines meant for first graders to practice writing the alphabet. I didn't even look up at her. I was furious and I had already plotted my revenge.

For an hour, I sat and wrote my sentences. I wrote with strong, angry strokes. A dozen times I had to stop and shake out the cramps in my hand and roll dry the sweaty pencil on my lap. While I wrote, Mrs. Shireman graded some papers, then read from a paperback novel. When I finished, I strode to the front of the class and put the sheets on her desk, face down.

Mrs. Shireman looked at me, sadly.

"Joey, I'm really sorry it had to come to this. You know I love you very much, and all I want is for you to learn and grow up to be the fantastic person I know you can be."

Maybe she said more, it seems like I stood there a long time. I couldn't hear anything else she said, because by then the loud painful buzzing in my ears was drowning out her words. Standing there, unable to meet her eyes, all I could think was: 'WHAT HAVE I DONE??'

On the pages on her desk, still face down, were not 100 sentences saying 'I will not talk in class.' Instead I'd written 100 times, in all capital letters: I HATE MRS. SHIREMAN!

Mrs. Shireman dismissed me, with an affectionate rub of my hair. Wordlessly, I walked out. When I got out of her sight, I raced down the hallway and out of the school doors. Running behind the hedges, so I couldn't be seen, I doubled back along the rows of windows. My mind was racing. I knew how to jimmy the windows to the classroom. Once, when Mrs. Shireman had locked her keys in our room, I broke in for her. All I had to do was zip in and grab those sheets.

It was too late.

Watching from the bushes outside, I saw Mrs. Shireman pick up my sentences. Her head cocked in puzzlement for a moment as she leafed through the pages. Her purse dropped from her shoulder onto the desk, and she pressed the sheets of paper to her chest, slumping down into her chair.

And she began...sobbing.

Her tiny shoulders heaved convulsively, and her head dropped down onto the desk. I could hear her cries.

I saw Miss Virginia walk by the open classroom door. She made a tentative move like she might walk inside to see what was going on. Then she saw me standing outside in the bushes. I jumped back, and fell into the hedge, scraping my face open. On my hands and knees, I burrowed out to the other side, jumped up and ran home.

When I burst through our front door, I was wailing inconsolably. I had blood all over my face from the hedge. I couldn't stop crying to explain to my mother, not that I would have. My mother thought that I'd been beaten up by bullies at the school. It had happened before. She called over to the school, but the principal told her that I'd been kept after class by Mrs. Shireman.

Even though they were friends, Mrs. Shireman never told my mother what I'd done. She continued to treat me fairly, but things were never the same between us. The school year ended a month later.

That was her one and only year as a teacher.

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