Education Opinion

Speak Firmly And Carry A Small Stick

By Susan Richards Shreve — August 01, 2000 17 min read
At the heart of teaching is not content but a recognition of the child as an individual.

I have had half a century of an uneasy alliance with school. I have been a student, of course, a bad student, a very bad student, and finally a good one. I have been a teacher of kindergarten and 4th grade and 6th grade and 7th grade and high school and undergraduates in public universities and undergraduates in private universities, a founder of an alternative school in Philadelphia for difficult-to-impossible children. And for the last 20 years, a professor of English in a master of fine arts program at a large public university. I am a mother of four children—one of whom at 4 was asked to leave the school at which his father was headmaster; the second packed up her book bag in kindergarten, walked out the front door, crossed six streets, one major, and arrived home as the telephone was ringing with the news that she had disappeared. The third, recovering from his early elementary years as a good boy, led a four-year opposition to the administration of his school, which required that I leave home early in the morning before the principal began to call with his complaints. And the fourth, a daughter, an actual committed scholar, simply didn’t go to school very much at all, preferring to read Anna Karenina at home over and over again. It is sufficient to say that during my children’s combined 52 years in various schools before they went off to college, I spent as many hours talking to principals, teachers, other parents, and to them about their relationship to school as I spent at any other job.

I am the daughter of a teacher, whose father, also a teacher, took her out of school when she was 6 and taught her at home until she was 15 because she was left-handed and the school was trying to change that. At the heart of each of the nine tales that follow is a child who was different, who didn’t exactly fit the changing definitions of institutional learning perhaps inevitable in a vast, pluralistic country working its way back and forth toward democracy.

1. The first day of 1st grade and I’m sitting in the front row, chewing off the collar of the dress my mother made me, a habit I had of eating the cotton collars of several outfits a year—a condition of general agitation that would be corrected today with regular doses of Ritalin. I’m watching Mrs. Comstock, soft, plump, weary, and very old, write on the blackboard.

“Who reads?” she asks.

I put up my hand. I don’t read and wonder as I look around the room whether the other students with their hands up are telling the truth.

“Good,” Mrs. Comstock says, satisfied that we’re off to a fine start. “I’m going to write down the rules for First Grade, Section A, Mrs. Comstock’s class.”

1. NO lateness 2. NO impudence 3. NO speaking out in class 4. NO whispering 5. NO bathroom visits during class 6. NO morning recess unless classwork is completed 7. NO food in the classroom 8. NO temper tantrums 9. NO pushing or shoving when you line up 10. NO tears

I’m extremely pleased as I watch the list run down the blackboard. Although I can’t read—do not even want to learn if it means, as I’m afraid it will, giving up the hours sitting next to my mother or father in my small bed while they read to me—I do recognize the word “NO.” I even count the number of “NOs” filling up the blackboard. There are 10.

Although I can’t read, I do recognize the word “NO.”

“So,” Mrs. Comstock says, turning around to face us. “Who can read me the rules?”

I don’t raise my hand, but there I am sitting directly in front of her, and without a second’s hesitation, she calls my name. I don’t even stop to think.

“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,” I say, without taking a breath.

2. Checking the obituaries in the Washington Post as I have done forever—preferring the story of a whole life, pleased to fill in the missing spaces—I find on page three of the metro section the notice that my 5th grade teacher, age 93, is dead of natural causes. Dead and I didn’t know it. She slipped out of the world, and I wasn’t even aware of the sudden absence of danger when I woke up this morning.

I am a grown-up, 42, with four children of my own, a responsible job as a teacher. A teacher, of course, a teacher of all things.

“Why would you throw your life away?” my mother, the teacher, said to me the first year I taught school. “You could be anything, and you choose to be a teacher.”

I cut out the obit and tape it on the refrigerator. “My 5th grade teacher,” I say when my children ask why the death of a stranger is noted on the fridge.

‘Why would you throw your life away?’ my mother said to me. ‘You could be anything, and you choose to be a teacher.’

Friends School, Section 5-B on the first floor next to the library. I sat in the middle of the last row between Harry Slough, who smelled of old bananas, and God’s perfect creation, Toni Brewer, with her loopy blond braids and straight A’s.

“I never heard you mention your 5th grade teacher to us,” one of my children says to me. “Are you very upset?”

“Not a bit,” I reply. “Only that it took so long to happen.”

They look at me in horror, knowing, maybe for the first time, the full measure of revenge.

The story of my 5th grade teacher goes like this:

I was going to a Quaker school selective in its choice of students—no blacks, no learning disabilities—but willing to accept the occasional handicapped child that the public schools did not. I wasn’t exactly handicapped, but I had had polio, and when I was young I wore metal braces and went around on crutches.

Children like me used to be taught at home by drop-in tutors, our social lives accommodated by regular deliveries of turkeys and gumdrops and occasional coloring books from the local Kiwanis Club, which did nothing to compensate for the lonely life of homeschooling.

It was late autumn before Thanksgiving, and I had been in the habit of forgetting my math homework. Maybe I didn’t do it and lied about it, maybe I never did my math homework—those details I have forgotten. But this morning, the 5th grade teacher noted to the class that once again I had flunked my math test.

“But,” she added with a show of enduring patience, folding her arms across her military chest, “we have to be nice to little Suzie Richards because she had polio.”

3. In 12th grade, with little distinction as a student but a belief, not commonly shared, that I was a promising writer, I had Mr. Forsythe as a teacher. We all did. We’d been waiting throughout high school for this extraordinary opportunity to write under his direction. The papers were long, analytic essays in response to questions about our readings in English literature. I had in mind to rescue my academic reputation in Mr. Forsythe’s senior English and was stunned as paper after paper came back to me full of red pencil and paragraphs of criticism written in his tiny, crabbed hand with D plus and C minus and D and D and D.

“I suppose you think I’m a terrible writer,” I said when I finally went into his office.

He looked up under hooded eyes, an expression of unspeakable boredom on his face. “You make up your answers,” he replied. “These questions require research.”

4. I am 22, living in England, and I’m hired to teach what would be 4th grade at a school in a working-class community across the river from Liverpool. These students are hard-core tough, raised on cowboy movies from which they’ve learned a new vocabulary—ain’t, for example. There are 40 of them, and I have never taught school. The only thing I’m told before I walk into the makeshift classroom, two to a desk, is that caning in England is against the law. Of course, I think. I have a Dickensian view of caning, the craggy, long-faced, wet-eyed master beating the child to smithereens with a heavy cane.

I have begun to imagine the stick in my desk drawer being applied to the bottom of Lily Diamond.

My despair as a teacher focuses on Lily Diamond, a small, plump, vacant child who has it in mind to drive me crazy. Maybe 60 times a day, she falls off her chair, turns upside down, her legs in the air, screaming, “Ain’t, ain’t, ain’t, ain’t,” while the rest of the class goes wild with excitement. I have absolutely no control.

It has come to my attention that in the top drawer of my desk there is a small stick, not much longer than a pencil, the same width and hollow like a reed. I have begun to imagine this stick applied to the bottom of Lily Diamond. And one Wednesday during math, right in the middle of a chorus of “ain’ts” from the floor, I take out the stick, walk down the aisle— the children have gone dead silent—and carry out my fantasy. The rest of the school day is bliss. For the first time in weeks, I can actually hear my own voice above theirs.

The following morning when I arrive at Birkenhead Elementary, the police and the head of the school are standing on the front steps waiting for me. I’m ushered into the principal’s office, and there—face down on the principal’s desk, her dress up, her pink panties pulled down so the full bottom is exposed—is Lily Diamond. Her mother is there with her arms folded across her chest, the officers of the law are examining Lily Diamond’s bottom, and Lily is screaming.

“I told the American that caning is against the law in England,” the head of the school says to the police.

“I had thought a cane was an actual cane,” I say, product of the ‘60s, against all punishment, certainly corporal, now a sudden criminal in my own court.

“A cane is a cane,” the head of the school says coolly.

The police make their assessment, give Lily a friendly slap.

“No mark appears to be evident,” they say.

Lily hops off the desk, pulls up her pants, shakes herself proudly, giving me a look of complete disdain.

“Ain’t you terrible sorry,” she says, drawing the word to its full length.

5. It is the summer of my younger son’s freshman year in high school, and 30 boys are in our living room planning an insurrection. One among them, Danny C., has been dismissed, voted out by the faculty, flunked, they say, unable to return to the Quaker school for his sophomore year.

“How come?” I ask.

“He’s an artist,” my son says. “They think he’s weird.”



“Learning disabled.” The new catch phrase.

We drive them to school on the morning of their meeting—30 adolescent boys with their argument in hand.

I have known this boy since he was 5—a curious, ebullient boy, neither athletic nor in a conventional sense academic, imaginative, impulsive, fearless.

The boys are examining reasons for his dismissal, studying the school handbook that outlines the rules, looking over Danny’s report cards that he has brought to the meeting, as well as the letters the school has sent to his parents that he has slipped out of his mother’s file cabinet. They spend all day.

The rules are specific. No drugs, no alcohol, no cheating, no failing grades. There are 26 reasons for dismissal, and Danny, as the boys discover, hasn’t measured up to any of them.

“Wear coats and ties,” my husband says as the boys organize their defense for the head of the school.

The mothers of these boys cannot imagine a reversal of the faculty decision, but, cheerleaders always, we drive them to school on the morning of their meeting with Mr. Harrison—30 adolescent boys with their argument in hand, point by point, all 26 reasons for dismissal addressed.

I wasn’t at the meeting. The next I knew they were flooding into the house, shedding their ties, a victorious army, organizing their rule of the school for the next three years.

Mr. Harrison had reversed the decision.

“What happened?” I ask my son after everyone has gone home.

“Mr. Harrison is very brave,” he says, simply.

“How is that?” I ask.

“He listened to us.”

6. When I am called to the nursery school where my oldest child is a student, one of 12 in a class of two teachers, Mrs. Nice and Mrs. Something Else, at the school where his father is head of the high school, I have a new baby and a 2-year-old and no baby sitter, so they come along. I have been called in to witness my son in action so I will understand why these two women in a small class are unable to manage him. So I sit in one of those little chairs with my finger in the new baby’s mouth so he won’t cry and wait for the drama to unfold.

“Po.” Mrs. Nice is talking. “Please sit down at the table and get out your crayons.”

No one else is sitting down, but all around the room the other children turn to look at my son expectantly, a kind of pleasure in their attitude, waiting for something to happen.

My son doesn’t sit down.

“Po,” Mrs. Nice says again. “What did I tell you?”

He puts his hands over his ears and walks around the periphery of the room very quickly—dum dum dum dum de dum de dum de dum de dum. His hands are in his pockets now, and the other children are giggling at him, glancing back and forth at each other. He gives them a knowing collaborator’s look.

“You see?” Mrs. Nice says to me. She turns to my son as he passes her on his march.

I have been called in to witness my son in action so I will understand why his teachers are unable to manage him.

“Your mother is here watching, Po,” she says as if this news will come as a surprise to him. “So you better be good.”

“He doesn’t ever do what I ask him to do,” Mrs. Nice says.

I am beginning to have that mother’s sense of a temperature change in my son, an arriving decision, a moment of action. He has stopped his trip around the classroom and is listening to Mrs. Nice, an expression of bemusement on his face.

“Why haven’t you told the other children to sit down?” I ask.

“Because they will sit down if I ask them to,” she says. “So I don’t need to ask them to, of course.”

I am feeling homicidal.

Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I see my son running across the room toward me, a maniacal smile on his face, leaping onto the table, racing around the edge of the circle with amazing speed and control, not even falling, his balance so perfect. All around the children are looking at him with something between admiration and envy.

Mrs. Nice is a picture of pure happiness.

“You see the problem, Mrs. Shreve?” she says. “Emotionally disturbed.”

I pick up my 2-year-old, grab Po by the hand, and we fly out of the room, down the corridor in which my 4-year-old son spends hours sitting on a chair, into the parking lot, into the car, and home.

“You see, Mom,” Po says to me. “Mrs. Nice is crazy.”

7. I am probably 35, a teacher and administrator of an alternative school in Philadelphia called Our House for smart children in trouble, attending a conference of teachers in Atlanta where the major speaker will be Margaret Mead. I am sitting with my own children in the lobby of the hotel waiting for the speech when I notice a small, square woman, slightly hassled and bewildered, loaded down with bags and books and papers. I am in her line of vision, and she stops.

“Do you know where the speech is?” she asks.

I know who this is, of course. These are the ‘70s, when Margaret Mead in many circles had the aura of a rock star. She was the mother of us all, accumulating weight from our acclamation.

I tell her this.

She is examining my children playing on the floor with Fisher-Price families and Legos and Matchbox cars.

“Are you coming to the speech?”

“Yes, I am,” I reply, adding some compliment that she ignores.

“My speech is about the end of the family as we know it,” she says, looking at me, assessing my role as mother. “Parents have abdicated their role, and now the school must take over the family’s job. In the next 20 years, they won’t have time to educate.” She brushes her small hands together, walks between a plastic Fisher-Price family, and heads to the lectern.

8. I sit down in the office of the college guidance counselor, relieved that for the fourth and last time I am about to set out on the trip to look at colleges for a child. Especially with this child, this reader of Anna Karenina who has told me that she would prefer to be homeschooled or else to go to a fiercely strict Catholic school with nuns peering out of stiff white boards who carry rulers. Either freedom or confinement is what she’s after. Not this wishy-washy middle of accommodation and concern and judgment, because no choice a child could possibly make in this atmosphere of freedom of choice will be the right one.

The college guidance counselor and my daughter are already seated, and there is decision about the room.

“We are meeting to talk about Kate’s college choices, which she should make by the end of her junior year,” the counselor says.

Kate has been a good student in spite of her limited attendance, so I’m not worried, in fact almost comfortable this fourth time around.

‘I simply know that I’m not suited to high school.’

“So what are you thinking, Kate?” the counselor asks, a conversation I can tell they have already had and are repeating for my benefit.

“I’m actually leaving high school,” Kate says.

The counselor, a Quaker and therefore by definition nonconfrontational, looks at me with something close to fury.

“We have never had a student choose to drop out of high school in her junior year,” she says.

“I didn’t know this was happening,” I say, immediately sorry that I hadn’t said instead: “Of course. Kate and I discussed the subject last night and decided that high school was absolutely useless for her. Many better things to do with her time.”

“I’m very sorry,” Kate says and, always polite, adds that she is quite fond of the school, admiring of the college counselor, respectful of the values, but simply is no longer willing to spend her time there.

In the car going home, trying to concentrate in order not to run a stop sign or red light or hyperventilate, I ask Kate what she plans to do.

“I haven’t decided,” she says. “I simply know that I’m not suited to high school.”

I am reminded of a conversation I overheard when as a young mother I went to visit a friend whose daughter was in high school. We were sitting in the living room when her daughter came home from school, dropped her books, her coat, and flopped down on the couch.

“I am miserable in high school,” she said crossly to her mother.

“I’m so glad to hear that, darling,” my friend said, cheerfully. “All of the interesting people I know were miserable in high school.”

9. Elizabeth is in 4th grade at a new school, and I imagine that she’s perfectly happy, since that’s what she tells me. She is making new friends, although she doesn’t want them to come over and never seems to be invited to their houses. She only misses her old school at night when I turn out the light in her room.

One of the 4th grade mothers asks me do I know about the I Hate Elizabeth Club.

So it comes as a terrible surprise when one of the 4th grade mothers asks me do I know about the I Hate Elizabeth Club. The mother has just discovered that her daughter belongs to it. Membership in the club costs a dollar, she tells me, and all of the girls in the 4th grade have been asked to join or else to suffer exclusion if they refuse. The rules are simple. No one is allowed to speak to Elizabeth, and members are rewarded for an imaginative punishment, such as the sticking of straight pins in my daughter’s back during Meeting for Worship.

“I thought it was my fault,” Elizabeth says when I ask her why she never told me. She doesn’t cry. She begs me not to tell the teacher or it will be worse for her.

“I have to,” I tell her. “What they have done is terrible, and your teacher has to know about it. She’s in charge.”

That night she tells me everything. Day after miserable day of the I Hate Elizabeth Club while I in my stupidity was thinking she was happy.

“What are you going to do to them?” she asks, lying next to me in the dark.

I have made a decision. Already what was done to my child is forming itself into a story in my mind.

“I’m going to write a book about them and call them each by name,” I say.

“Maybe you’ll be sued,” she says.

“I won’t be sued,” I reply.

Sometime later, maybe three years, I am at lunch with Elizabeth and the former president of the I Hate Elizabeth Club. They aren’t friends, of course, but the former president is trying. I can tell she wants to tell me something, has thought about it for a long time. She has apologized to Elizabeth, once when she had to because she was caught, and recently, just weeks before, when she meant it.

“You used my real name,” she says finally.

“Yes I did.”

“I read the book,” she says. “I didn’t realize what I’d done until I read about myself.”

One of the reasons I record tales like these is to illustrate the value of difference, to honor the importance of connection, to show the way in which a story reminds us what it is like to be a child in case we have forgotten. At the heart of teaching is not content but a recognition of the child as an individual. Those few teachers who know us when we are young go the full distance in our internal lives. It is not an easy task. What good teachers finally do is make things right for the line of children behind their own childhood, and, like me, they remember their own tales out of school.