The summer that I was 11 years old, my family moved from the city to a small town, my father’s hometown. Hesitant to leave my neighborhood friends, movie theater, and especially the city pool, I was assured of all the wonderful opportunities that only small towns afford. “The whole town is just like one big family,” my father imparted convincingly. “The kids are friendlier and the teachers more caring. Small towns are like that.”
I soon blended with the 6th grade crowd. It was amazing to me how interrelated my classmates were and how everyone seemed to know so much about each other’s lives. Their provincial customs of addressing their friends’ parents by their first names and identifying peers by their church association were strange to this young outsider. I’d hear such things as: “That’s Fred, he’s a Baptist and a little strange, but if you knew Maymie and Ralph, you’d know why.” And true to my father’s words, the teachers appeared to have the dubious advantage of knowing the history of their students. Several quizzed me concerning my mother’s origins, as if she were from the North Star.
But it was an incident I witnessed a year after I arrived that truly showed me the ultimate truth and wisdom of my father’s words. It was a beautiful spring day, and all the windows in the school were pushed up, allowing the warm air and welcome sounds of nature to enter our sphere. Mr. Hardigan was teaching our 7th grade health class, but we 12-year-olds were not into academic achievement. We were there in body only; our spirits were floating out into the nearby fields and meadows doing those things that children long for after being cooped up during the long winter months.
Our versatile teacher, who seemed to be licensed to teach everything, had diligently taught in that same antiquated brick building for 40 years. Not only our parents but also some of our grandparents had been taught by this austere man. We ascertained that he must have come over on the Mayflower.
This tall, gruff teacher with his wire-rimmed glasses and thin black hair parted down the middle allowed no nonsense in his classes and was more intimidating than any man I had ever encountered. It seemed to be his awesome duty to act as a paragon of dignity and preserve the sanctity of the classroom.
Our stern taskmaster, who had been given the gift of glare, squelched our various disruptive behavior patterns with the speed of light. The tactics of this avenging thunderbolt were legendary. If his stern countenance and resounding voice did not merit complete attention, a sharp rap with his knuckles on a perpetrator’s head usually worked. And, more than once, we had witnessed a wooden armchair being hurtled toward the door with its passenger intact and wide-eyed.
Real life usually lacks such grand gestures, and we recorded them diligently. We agreed he was surely a member of the American Nazi party and faithfully obeyed his injunctions.
As he droned on that particular day about whatever it is that fills 7th grade health books, I was suddenly but irrevocably called from my reverie by the strong and distinct smell of...fingernail polish! Looking immediately across the aisle, I saw what made my 12-year-old heart almost stop: My classmate, Mandy Blake, always a risk-taker, was polishing her nails—IN HARD-NOSED HARDIGAN’S CLASS!
Mandy, who was quite flippant and unfailingly braver than the rest of us, lived with her elderly aunt and uncle. She was undeniably the prettiest girl in the class, and her carnal knowledge far exceeded that of her classmates.
Drawn by the draft of the open windows, the pungent smell of fresh nail polish permeated the room, like ripples caused by a pebble tossed into a pond. Heads turned one by one as our classmates identified the pervasive smell and discreetly searched for its source. Incredulity soon gave way to fear. I knew it would soon reach Mr. Hardigan’s olfactory senses, and, with my usual lack of composure, I hysterically made futile attempts to warn Mandy of her impending doom.
Suddenly, our noble teacher whiffed it. It was too late. His eyebrows hit his hairline. His eyes widened. His speech halted. His nostrils flared. Everyone knew Mandy was dead. We trembled in unison. All eyes were on him as he located and glared at the culprit.
Total silence filled the room, yet it was noisy; the clock was ticking loudly, and hearts were booming. All eyes were on the plucky Mandy, who seemed totally oblivious to her perilous situation and went on daintily tending to her task at hand. My anxiety soared as I, her nearest neighbor, recalled knuckle-rapping punishments for much lesser offenses.
Mr. Hardigan, staring with outrage and making no attempt to hide his enormous contempt, slowly got up and started down our aisle, like a predator resolutely advancing to claim its prey. As he stood, all eight feet of him, between our desks, I fought an irresistible urge for flight. I grimaced and prayed that he wouldn’t at the last minute confuse me for her and rap my head. He gazed at Mandy in disbelief, as if she had just desecrated the flag. The entire class knew that a major confrontation was looming and that soon there would be great wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Mandy did then what assured me she was certifiably insane; she persisted on her suicide mission and painstakingly continued slowly and deliberately polishing her nails. As he watched and glowered, towering over her old wooden nailed-to-the-floor desk, she carefully finished her manicure, slowly replaced the lid, nonchalantly put the polish away, and then did the unthinkable: Totally undaunted by his imposing presence, she further flirted with disaster and met his glare with the sweetest smile I had ever seen. It held and didn’t waver. Her eyes didn’t blink. As they stared at each other, time seemed like an eternity. Wills had met. Breaths were held. It was high noon.
Then, the strangest and most unlikely thing happened. For some inexplicable reason, the formidable Mr. Hardigan seemed to dissolve. His stance changed; his whole body seemed to deflate and relax. With hands hanging limply to his sides, he slowly turned and walked back to his old, battered desk, where he sat down in his chair and began working on a pile of papers.
Even as 7th graders, we were astute enough to recognize this unsettling reversal of roles. With wide-eyed astonishment, we saw our teacher, whom we had until then regarded as a giant, diminished to a mere replica of his once gigantic self. Bewildered, we slowly came to life and adjusted to our new adrenaline levels. We began our assignment for the next day. I felt like I was waking from a bad dream.
That evening, groping for words to express myself, I relayed the incident to my father, who also taught in the town’s only school. His interest perked when I described our teacher’s golden metamorphosis. I asked him what possibly could have deterred his colleague from delivering his wrath and vengeance on Mandy’s deserving noggin. He thought for a while and then deduced with his psychoanalytic bent that most likely Mr. Hardigan had remembered the tragic circumstances of Mandy’s birth, since he had taught her parents as children and knew her history.
For the first time, I learned how her mother had died during childbirth and left her young father with five small children. Unable to care for his family and his farm, he had been forced to send his children away to be reared by various relatives and neighbors.
The tragedy had evoked the sympathy and concern of the whole town, as friends and family came forward to help take care of the children. “Maybe Mr. Hardigan,” my father said wisely, “was helping take care of Mandy, too. Small town teachers are like that.”
Clearly, Mr. Hardigan’s compassion had superseded his time-honored rules concerning the sanctity of the classroom. Although it was comforting to know that he was not without compassion, it was ironic that I would learn about compassion that day from a man who I thought was as hard as steel.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 1984 edition of Education Week as Hard-Nosed Hardigan