Mercerized

Pointing a long bony finger at a boy in the front row, our sixth grade teacher thundered, “Do you know what your problem is? You are lackadaisical! You have no ambition!” Taking a quick glance at the large wall clock, she turned to address the other forty-nine children in the classroom to command, “Take out your ‘Readers’. When I have finished my coffee, we will begin English class. You read the story for this week. I will call on each one of you to check your comprehension.”

Pulling the English book out from my desk’s storage space, I looked at the clock on the wall. Both the long and short hands were pointing at nine. Opening my book, I peeked over it at the front of the room. Our teacher was seated at her desk, pulling a thermos and small package of cookies from the bottom drawer. A moment later the strong smell of coffee filled the room. Another peek confirmed my suspicion. She was having her usual coffee break snack; fig newton cookies.

Our teacher wasn’t afraid to use her pointer, a long, slender stick to point at things on the chalk board. It also came in handy to snap sense into misbehaving children.

Whenever my class when out to recess, downstairs to the lunchroom or to church for Mass, we walked single file. We were supposed to do this silently. One day as we were walking down a staircase, a boy in my class kept turning back and talking to me. I told him to stop it. Our teacher only saw me talking. I have no idea what weapon she used when she came up behind me and cracked me on the head.

Arithmetic was my worst subject. Given time and patience, I was able to marginally comprehend our lessons. The stress of being put on the spot when called on made my mind buzz like the test pattern on a television after the station went off air. (Only someone my age will understand what I’m referring to.)

One day our teacher sent me to the chalkboard to work out an equation. My prepubescent body went into nervous, sweaty overdrive and my mind went off air. The marks my chalk made on the board weren’t right. Teacher stomped up to me, took me by the shoulders and shook me. Instead of shaking sense into me, she shook the chalk out of my damp, limp hand.

I felt shamed as the teacher made me walk past three rows of desks to retrieve the chalk. I returned to the board, but since my mind was no longer functioning, I was soon sent back to my seat as hopeless.

Although I am now much older than my teacher was back in the early 1960’s, I will forever remember the woman as ancient; as ancient as a human being can possibly be and still function. I had her as a teacher for two of my grade school years. I feared her, but did manage to learn several interesting things under her tutelage.

To this day, when I read or hear the word lackadaisical, a picture of this teacher instantly forms in my mind. The same thing happens if I spot the word ‘mercerized’ on a spool of cotton thread. Although I never was able to remember the times table, I can easily summon up the memory of her telling the class how in the 1800’s, a Mr. Mercer discovered that a certain fabric treatment could make cotton thread and material stronger, shrink proof and silky looking.

I now recognize that my teacher may have only been in her 50’s when she taught me, but I will forever feel much younger, shrink proof and stronger. In some way, I must have been mercerized from having her as a teacher.

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