September 1984. The beginning of Grade 6. Unknown to me, my best friend Geoff had moved away; he was the “Leonard Hofstadter” of our little group. The other 2 boys that had comprised our happy group of four for all of our primary years, remained friends, but like most 11 year old boys, they suddenly noticed I was a girl and they didn’t quite know how to handle that.
Add that to the fact that I had Mrs. F. as my teacher…and the year was certain to be the blackest of my academic career. I’m not sure how D and I became friends, but that year we banded together as if our very lives depended on it. At the time, it felt like it did!
Mrs. F. was probably only in her mid to late 40s. She had dark hair and a thin face that never smiled. But her defining physical characteristic was her voice. It was high-pitched and shrill, like Mickey Mouse after he sucked on a helium balloon. She had 2 favourite catchphrases too. 1) “You poor ape” and 2) “it’s time to cut the apron strings”.
No one escaped her vengeful eye. Like Sauron, her red unblinking eyes surveyed her students, searching for any infraction. She handed out detentions like candy on Hallowe’en. Detentions were served consecutively, during recess and every child, even the keener A+ students like me, accumulated several over the course of the year. I learned to forge my mother’s signature that year in order to avoid a detention. But being a “good” kid, I did it in pencil so I could erase it and get her to sign it for real.
Chances were high that even if you didn’t currently have any detentions, you would still lose recess. All it took was someone talking when they shouldn’t, or the class failing to sing “O Canada” to Mrs. F’s standards.
Mrs. F. was environmentally-friendly before it became popular. Our math textbooks had to be covered in gift wrap to protect the covers. Mine was pink with hearts all over it. I used to write my initials in the hearts. She made me erase or colour over them. She also made us use every inch of paper in our notebooks. Our daily math quiz was squeezed into every available space between our math homework questions. If you couldn’t find space, she’d shake her head, announce that you were a “poor ape” and find a space for you.
Grade 6 was the year I learned to hold it until my eyeballs were floating. Mrs. F had a sign-out sheet. 1 page per month. Once the sheet was full, our peeing privileges were revoked until the next month began. As a class, we quickly devised a plan…the last few lines were written on only in pencil and very lightly so that the name could be erased and used again. We took turns sharpening our pencils to make sure lines remained available for emergencies. There was the unspoken rule – abuse the final lines of the bathroom board and you’d pay at recess time. For once, peer pressure was a good thing!
She was merciless. If a “home kid” (i.e., the kids who went home at lunch time) had to bring their lunch one day, she made them sit on the dirty hall floor to eat their lunch. She made the “unsporty” kids take extra turns in gym. And the one time my parents called to complain about a detention I got but didn’t deserve, she erased my name with great ceremony and a long, loud speech about princesses and apron strong. Her intent to humiliate me was highly successful.
I still haven’t forgiven her for accusing me of cheating on a division test. I always struggled in math, but I had worked and studied very hard for this test. And it paid off – I aced the test. She accused me of cheating because someone else also aced the test…someone who sat 4 seats up and 1 row over from me. Way to encourage a student!
Mrs. F. tried to snuff the life out of us, but D. and I forged an alliance. We commiserated with one another at recess. We commiserated with hand gestures only we understood during class. We compared homework before class, and reminded each other by phone to get things signed. That alliance continued for many more years in our academic careers.
We cried together on the last day of Grade 6, but not because we were going to miss Mrs. F. (We went on to have her for some subjects in Grade 7 and 8). No, we cried because we had been given a second chance. We were going to appreciate life and live it fully. We had our whole lives ahead of us…