My third-grade teacher at Ketchum Elementary School should never have been allowed near children. Her favorite form of discipline was hammering her students between the shoulder blades with the flat of her hand. The sight of an 8-year-old boy being hit this way—head snapping back, arms flailing, mouth open and moaning—was educational, especially if you were an 8-year-old. I spent the whole year in a state of terror.
I busied myself with the mimeographed extra-credit assignment slips that were stored in a bin on the wall. You took a slip from the bin and learned to use a spelling word in a sentence, or found a country on a map, or worked a long division problem. You handed it in with your regular schoolwork. I did so many of these I attracted the attention of the district guidance counselor, who put me through a series of cognitive tests and decreed that I was to skip fourth grade and go directly to fifth the following September.
That was in early May. Third grade was almost over, but I was no longer the drab little student in the corner, the one a bit silly about extra credit. I got my beating in Music Period, for singing the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner twice, instead of going on to the second. I had never understood the second stanza, but the teacher sang out its words to the slap of her palm on my back and I finally understood it then.
I discovered the violence of skipping a grade when I had to fight all the fifth-grade boys on the playground to find my place in the pecking order of the class. I had escaped a far worse experience: One night that February the fourth-grade teacher hung herself in her garage, necessitating sessions with the guidance counselor for all fourth-graders and lots more tests before everybody could be declared whole.
The next year, our sixth-grade teacher, screaming in rage, ripped off a student's shirt and began chasing him around the classroom. Finally cornered, the kid jumped out a second-story window into the snow.
Our seventh-grade teacher had a paddle made of a sawn-off boat oar, and used it as his personal mood stabilizer. Once when I was late for class, he kicked me hard enough to lift me off the floor. The bruise lasted for weeks.
I'm not making any of this up. Later, when I was a teacher myself, I recognized my grade-school teachers as tormented human beings, victims of domestic battering or of mental illness, poverty or deep social isolation, or they were just people doing the best they could in an institutional climate that found it normal to beat the crap out of kids.
Ten years ago I asked my mother—whose normally tactful nature had by then been unfenced by the early stages of Alzheimer's—if she knew what had gone on in my third-grade class. She had, and by way of explanation said my teacher had been a beautiful woman once and never gotten over getting old. "No excuse for beating up little kids," I said.
"She could have benefited from psychotherapy," my mother admitted. She smiled. "Those days, everybody in Ketchum could have benefited from psychotherapy. That's why we lived in Hailey."
My sixth-grade teacher ended up running a small antique shop on the Oregon Coast with his partner, but in Ketchum he was barely hanging on as a straight married man with a wife and kids and a job that didn't pay much and a classroom full of 11-year-olds who laughed at him. The teacher who hung herself did so in the midst of a severe seasonal depression. In those days a diagnosis of depression got you a prescription for Dexedrine, which wasn't good for anybody's long-term prognosis.
The year I began teaching seventh-grade English I saw my old seventh-grade teacher in a coffee shop, and sat down across a table from him. I told him I was following in his footsteps. "Don't kick anyone," he said. "You'll get sued."
These days, I occasionally run into my former opponents in those fifth-grade playground fights. From our conversations, which are always cordial and all about the stunning news that we've gotten old, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one who remembers fighting. The pecking order is different now. If your joints work, if your lungs still pull oxygen, if your heart still pumps blood, if you've benefited from psychotherapy—you're right there at the top.
In the early '90s, my third-grade teacher, still living in Hailey and incredibly aged, was walking home from the pharmacy and fell down in a snowbank and wasn't found until a day later. She died after a couple of weeks. Third grade came back in a flood of memory. "Serves her right," I thought. That might seem uncharitable if not unforgiving, but not when you consider she had finally escaped a life so long she had spent most of it miserable about her lost beauty.
My teaching career was mostly violence-free. I identified with the frightened students in my classes, and taking care of them turned out to be a good way of taking care of the rest of the class. But if I could go back to Ketchum Elementary School, in 1958, that's not the first thing I would tell my old teachers. The first thing would be, "Go easy on these kids. Some of them might have long memories."