July 26, 1999
Dig for me the narrow bed
Now I am bereft.
All my pretty hates are dead,
And what have I left?
— Dorothy Parker, 1893-1967
American writer and critic
Let’s call her Violet Stone. That’s a pseudonym, the only one I’ve used so far in these pages. She was my fourth grade teacher, school year 1956-1957, and for more than forty years now I have carried an intense, abiding hatred for her.
There was some difficulty finding a teacher that year for the fourth grade at Holy Sepulchre School (also a pseudonym). The nun who traditionally had the fourth grade suddenly became ill late in August, so other arrangements had to be made. For the first two weeks we had a series of substitutes (college girls, I think, and a mother or two) who kept us busy distributing books, covering them, reviewing third grade math facts and principles of the Baltimore Catechism (blue cover version, getting us ready for the fourth grade green cover edition). Finally, Mrs. Stone arrived.
She was the largest woman I had ever seen. Her hips were like puffy pillows that made a shelf for her forearms. Her upper arms had bags of fatty flesh that swayed back and forth when she wrote on the board. She wore soft-soled Hush Puppy shoes that silenced her step but made more audible the thup-thup of her thighs rubbing together. She painted her lips a vivid purple that seeped into the creases of her skin and accentuated the downturn of her mouth. And worst of all, she was a “lady teacher,” not a nun. I was wary of her from the start.
And for reasons I can only guess at, she seemed to take an instant dislike to me. Over the course of that school year she would call on me unexpectedly and then belittle my efforts to frame an answer. She would remind me that I wasn’t really as smart as I thought I was. When I won a prize for selling the most parish bazaar raffle tickets, she made me stand up and tell the class that I hadn’t really sold any of them, they’d been sold in my name by our childless neighbor at his business. And when I produced a detailed research paper (including a poster with maps and photographs) about a neighborhood historical site, she reminded me that I had an unfair advantage because, unlike many of my classmates, I had parents who were educated and had only two children so they could spend lots and lots of time on me and my projects.
I endured that awful year with Mrs. Stone because I had a goal. I wanted a perfect attendance certificate. I’d gotten other awards – for having the second highest class average in second grade and exemplary penmanship in third grade – but I wanted that Award for Perfect Attendance. And so I persevered, through autumn allergies and winter sniffles, through Mrs. Stone’s endless math and science lessons (which squeezed out literature and history), 180 miserable days.
It was the morning of the last day of school, with eighth grade commencement and the awards ceremony slated for the evening, that Mrs. Stone dropped her bomb. She was informing the class about who had earned the highest average, the second highest, the perfect attendance awards. She read the list as she checked her roll book – Mary Hartman, Paul Ritrievi, Elizabeth Sierotowicz – and then she stopped. She looked at her book closely, and then looked over at me and frowned. “Just a minute, boys and girls,” she said, and thup-thupped out of the room.
When she returned, she was holding one of the coveted Perfect Attendance Certificates. “The Perfect Attendance Certificate is awarded to those who have been present and (here she looked directly at me) ON TIME for each school session. I am afraid that we cannot give you one, Margaret Mary, because you were late for the afternoon session on (here she consulted her book) . . . ” She read the dates, but I don’t remember them now. There were maybe five. “I might add, Margaret Mary, ” she went on, “that you would have had the prize for the highest average in religion, but you misspelled the name of St. Michael the Archangel on the final exam, thus lowering your score. Never forget the importance of good spelling, boys and girls.”
I was devastated. I went home, wept and wailed, but nothing could be done. Or, more precisely, nothing would be done. My mother refused to intercede for me because she feared retaliation by Mrs. Stone upon my sister, who would be in fourth grade in a few years. I would just have to accept things as they were.
Looking back, I can peg this event as my first great loss. Over the years I nursed the resentment, both at Mrs. Stone and at my mother for not standing up for me. (As it happens, my sister’s experience with Mrs. Stone was difficult but not as severe. Rosie was awarded the prize for the highest academic average, but Mrs. Stone made sure to tell everyone that she probably didn’t deserve it because things like this came easily to her.)
Eventually, both our family and Mrs. Stone moved from the neighborhood. When I was in high school, the Stones moved into the other half of a double house occupied by a close friend. They proved to be difficult neighbors, a fact which did not surprise me. Later, I would see a newspaper article lauding Mrs. Stone as teacher of the year in a different parochial school. The honor baffled me. What were the school’s other teachers like, I wondered. Mrs. Stone was pictured at the award ceremony, sitting in a wheel chair and weeping. The wheel chair, it was noted, was due to crippling arthritis whose pain Mrs. Stone valiantly ignored in order to pursue her mission as a molder of young minds.
So what brings this up now? Why have I devoted nearly a thousand words to detailing the genesis of a forty-year-old sorrow? Isn’t it time I let go?
Last week I received my copy of Bishop McDevitt High School’s first-ever alumni directory. It proved to be a rich source of pleasant memories as I looked up the current status and whereabouts not only of my classmates, but of their brothers and sisters and other friends I had among both older and younger schoolmates. I discovered the names of women I remember as my mother’s friends, the young women she hung out with when she was single and unshared in the Harrisburg of the 1940’s.
And I discovered Mrs. Stone’s name. She graduated from Bishop McDevitt in 1941 and lives now in a subsidized senior living facility along the river, not far from the old neighborhood we shared. She’d be 76 years old now, younger than I would have guessed (my mother would be 88), and undoubtedly still suffering from the arthritis that attacked her before she was forty. Her children are scattered about the country.
Yesterday I drove down there. I parked on Second Street and, under the ruse of an exercise walk, made a circuit of the block her high-rise occupies. Despite its proximity to the river, the space around the building steamed in our summer-long hazy humidity. No one was out and about, not even in the shady gazebo in the facility’s picnic area. I counted up the windows to the ninth floor and wondered which one might be harboring Mrs. Stone.
I used to say, even as recently as five years ago, that if I were to meet Mrs. Stone again I would spit on her, figuratively if not literally. I would tell her how petty and mean-spirited she was, how I have felt the loss and the lack of a Perfect Attendance Certificate for four decades. I would use Microsoft Publisher to create a facsimile document and force her to sign it. I would make her apologize.
But I stood outside that red brick warehouse for the elderly and knew that such a display would only, in the end, hurt me. Here I am, in the prime of my life, surrounded by loving family and friends, possessed of health, financial security, and, despite being fifty-two years old, a bright future. It would be cruel, uncharitable, and ultimately counterproductive to visit my rage upon a wizened old woman who wouldn’t even remember who I was.
And so I’m left with a different kind of loss, now. I haven’t really forgiven her, nor my mother, nor have I lost the memory of the disappointment and the pain I felt so long ago. But I have lost the desire to retaliate, and I’ve lost the idea that anything but learning to forgive will bring me peace in this matter.
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