This is the fourth in a series of posts: Memories of an Educator. Unlike the previous reflections, this one celebrates a teacher, a unique and dedicated teacher of many, many years.
She was indeed a presence. She didn’t merely enter a room, she presented herself. Everything about her was deliberate—purposeful: her walk, the words she chose to speak, her manner of speech and her rare gestures, the way she could be seen carefully sizing up the people who surrounded her, what she wore. I would say that few ever “chatted” or “visited” with J.E. No, you encountered her.
She was tall and large for a woman. I’m a rather tall man, over 6′, yet I did not look down at her though I don’t recall her being taller than I. We saw each other eye-to-eye.
And then, there were the pervasive, hushed rumors: a former social studies teacher for sure, but what of the whispers of former CIA? Many were convinced. She had never married, had traveled the world extensively, had met numerous important figures of her day, was a firsthand witness to international unrest, and was always noticeably vague about details of her past—only hints, innuendo, and that carefully mastered look. Enigma.
Have I mentioned? J.E. was a presence.
I first met Miss E. when I was an assistant principal, and she was now the teacher in charge of In School Suspension—the room to which children who had misbehaved were sent when their misbehavior was not so serious as to warrant suspension from school. Dealing with student discipline was one of my responsibilities. As it happened, the In School Suspension room (ISS—Miss E.’s room) and my office shared a common wall with a door between the two rooms.
I am not exaggerating when I tell you that 8th grade boys would literally shake and cry in my office, begging me to suspend them from school rather than sending them to ISS with Miss E. She absolutely terrified them. Needless to say, her reputation had a very positive impact on student behavior at school.
I could literally make deals with students for smaller infractions: I won’t send you to ISS this time, but if you ever misbehave again, you will have to go for twice as long! The students were so relieved and appreciative. They thought I was the kindest man they ever knew and promised they would never misbehave again. I carefully kept track: not a single repeat offender.
I knew Miss E. as exceptionally strict and all but unbearably demanding, to be sure, but she was always fair-minded.
The Earth Shook
One day, unexpectedly, the shared door between my office and the ISS room swung open with such force I thought it would come off of its metal frame. The door nob crashed into the cement block wall, chipping it from the force. The whole building seemed to reverberate as Miss E. thundered, “Dr. Tyson, I need you in here immediately!!!”
My god! What had happened in ISS? Her tone was one of intense anger, not concern; otherwise, I would have feared some dire, life-threatening student medical emergency. Very concerned, I rushed in before anyone was killed. “What is wrong?” I said looking down at the cowering student held captive by Miss E.’s withering gaze.
In a slow, ponderous, deliberate pace, Miss E. said, “As you know, Dr. Tyson… [insert a very long, loud, tediously detailed tirade about character, rule-following, punishment for misbehavior, and a deep narrative about rehabilitation and making amends through structure and compliance here—one I thought would never end]. I never, never, never will tell a student 3 times to not look up from his work while in ISS. And yet, Mr. [student’s last name] just looked up from his work a 3rd time today.” Grinding each individual word, “I. will. not. tell. him. again! Perhaps if you speak with him, he will understand that I mean what I say when I say it the first time.”
The child’s eyes were filled with terror as the presence bore down on him with all her might. I must confess, I felt sorry for the poor boy. “Son, you really don’t want me to have to put you back in ISS for another day because you are breaking the ISS rules, do you?” I said sympathetically. Tears began pouring down his face as he shook his head.
“That’s not how you respond in ISS to any question, let alone a question asked of you by the assistant principal! At all times you speak in complete sentences and with politeness and respect in this room.” she thundered.
“No, sir, Dr. Tyson. I will not break any more rules in ISS. I promise.” the child managed to choke out.
“Good.” I replied, placing my hand kindly on his cowered shoulder. I then turned to Miss E., knowing I had probably just infuriated her by not decapitating the repellant postulant, and said, “Miss E., I know you can be a merciful teacher. I really don’t think [student’s first name] will break any more rules. But, if he does, there will be no mercy. Just let me know.”
“It’s up to you now; isn’t it! Just as it always has been and will be. You. Alone. Accept that responsibility with broad shoulders!” she said leaning forward toward him and peering through his soul. Everything in ISS was a character lesson from Miss. E.
My god! I now had a headache!
Our school was a really good school. The community genuinely loved the school. The students paraded back to the school even when much older. There was the special annual band and orchestra concert where everyone who had ever been in those programs returned to perform again. You couldn’t even fit everyone in the theater let alone onto the stage.
Everyone loved their former teachers here as it was a magical place. They frequently expressed their appreciation to them as they came back to visit from high school, college, or with their own children.
The funniest thing to me: More students came back to see Miss E. than any other teacher in the building. Yet, as the ISS teacher, she had the fewest students of all of the teachers. They thanked her for instilling character in them1 , for caring about them, for being so strict. Many genuinely believed and spoke of how she turned their lives around. She was a legend. I know this for a fact because I saw it time and time again with my own eyes! Somehow, under that militantly harsh presence, she connected with them, and they knew she deeply cared about them.
This was almost the only time I ever saw J.E. smile. Warming her heart, their appreciation pleased her more than anything. She was always a proud woman, but not of herself. She took great pride in what she held dear: them, what they had accomplished in their lives—pleased beyond measure that they attributed some of who they were as adults to her.
Early Morning Hysterics
I always arrived early to the school, before almost anyone showed up. One of the office workers, Diane H., also came in early to supervise students who needed to arrive at school before the building was officially open. She had them all sit in the theater doing their work while she stood at the front doors, right by the theater entrance. One morning I could hear her laughing her head off as she said, “Tim! You’ve got to come see this. Quick! Hurry!!”
I had no idea what could be so funny and rushed to the front entrance. There we stood watching J.E. park her white Toyota Camry in the first space next to the curb, which everyone considered her space. She kept hitting the curb with the tires on the driver’s side of her car. She would back up, and drive into the space again, hitting the curb the exact same way every single time. She did this over and over and over again.
Things suddenly turned serious when she backed her car much further away and then floored the thing, burning rubber in the parking lot. As the driver’s side tires went crashing over the curb all but sending the car airborne, laughing hysterically Diane said, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her, but she does this all the time now.”
J.E. had to expend a lot of effort to get out of her car. Remember, she was a large woman, and the car was tilted, making keeping the driver’s door open a real challenge. When she finally presented herself at the school’s front door, we greeted her as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
The End of Time
The parking lot antics were quickly forgotten as the school day got underway. After school was ended, the students were all out of the building, and the teachers were beginning to head home, I heard the unmistakable voice of J.E. yelling in a full-blown rage in the front office, and her voice was getting closer. “Where is Dr. Tyson?! I need Dr. Tyson, NOW! Where is he?! I’ve had all of this I’m going to take. I’m fed up with this harassment! Where is he?!”
I came rushing out of my office to see what was going on and why Miss E. was so horribly upset. I had never seen a teacher as distraught as she was. I met her en route to my office and, asking if I could get her something to drink, told her to come in, sit down, and calm herself. She was in a state bordering on hysteria.
She wouldn’t sit down and just kept flailing her arms and hands about as she paced my office ranting in a fury. She was repeatedly threatening to quit and never come back to work. I encouraged her to take as long as she needed to calm herself before telling me why she was so upset.
I confess, I had never seen anything like this before or since. I couldn’t imagine what had happened. While she calmed down, I even went out to the hall to see if anyone was out there that might have seen what had happened. No one.
She finally was calm enough to explain that the 3 male PE coaches had been playing tricks on her for weeks, and she wasn’t going to take it any more. If they didn’t stop, she was going to quit. She unquestionably meant what she was saying. Finally, she was able to tell me what they were doing to her.
During the school day they would go out to her car and lift it off the road and put one side of it up on the curb. She had repeatedly told them to stop, and they always denied doing it. She knew it had to be them because they were the only ones at the school who were strong enough to do this to her. She even suspected they solicited students to help them.
I was stupefied. By complete coincidence, I had just watched her ram her own car up on the curb that very morning! Yet she actually believed that these men were doing this to her. To make sure I understood her, I asked questions about how the car was positioned on the curb. She insisted I come and look for myself. And there it was: exactly as she had parked it herself that morning.
She told me that she would not tolerate this type of disrespect and harassment from these men—which had now risen to the level of a titanic clash between the genders. She kept re-iterating that if I didn’t make them stop, she was going to quit.
I told her that I had no idea the PE coaches had been doing this to her and promised her that I would talk to them, and that, from this day on, as long as I was the assistant principal at this school, they would never put her car on the curb, ever. I asked her if she was calm enough to drive herself home or if I needed to have someone drive her home, and then I would drive that teacher back to school.
She was so relieved. Clearly, a huge burden was lifted from her. She believed me: this harassment was going to stop. She would never have to put up with this again. “Thank you, Dr. Tyson. I knew you would take care of this for me. I knew I could count on you. I really appreciate your help. I do. No, I can drive myself home now. I feel much better. Thank you.”
I felt very sorry for Miss E. She really had no idea that she was the one doing this to her car. I knew that this was neither the time nor the place to tell her I had watched her put the car on the curb herself. I was becoming concerned that she needed to consider retiring as she, a completely dedicated teacher, had already worked many years past retirement age.
Talking with the PE Coaches
The next morning, first thing, I told Diane what had happened at the end of the previous school day with J.E. Incredulous, she was saddened and concerned about what had been so funny to watch. I made Diane promise me that she would make it a point to always watch J.E. park her car in the morning. And, if Miss E. ever rammed her car up on the curb again, she promised me she would walk outside and show Miss E. how she had just parked her own car before she came into the building and that she would offer to re-park her car for her. Sure enough, that very morning…
And yes, as promised, I talked with the PE coaches that morning. I have no recollection of what we talked about, but I did talk with them as they were supervising the bus loads of students as they arrived. The coaches were all really good-natured men who would never have been mean to anyone on the staff, especially Miss. E.
Miss E. was shocked when she realized that she had been doing this to herself. She came to see me very upset and humbled that morning as she apologized for erroneously blaming the coaches for something they had no part in. I never told her what I had witnessed, just assured her no harm was done and asked if she wanted to take the day off and do something nice for herself. “No. I will fulfill my responsibilities, Dr. Tyson. You know that.” she said as she pulled herself together and presented herself to the ISS room.
A Short Retirement
Miss E. decided to retire at the end of that year without my ever suggesting anything. Sadly, she didn’t live very long into retirement, dying after a short battle with cancer.
I always liked Miss E. She was a strong woman, self-made, self-reliant. She had a carefully defined sense of who she was and what mattered to her. She was a thoughtful and reflective person.
Her way was unique—completely her own. Utterly committed to them, she lived to serve children as best she knew how. And while I wouldn’t have worked with students the same way she did, those students’ lives were the better for having encountered her.
She was indeed a powerful presence: one that is missed even these many years later.
their words, not mine ↩