[Sharing experiences from our school days at writers’ group this morning reminded me of learning in the 1960’s.]
I Threw the Book Back at the Teacher
Mrs. Cranky (not her real name), our relief teacher looked like she’d stepped out of a Dickens’ tale—that’s what I remember of her from when I was in Grade 1. At the age of six, to me, she appeared so old, as though she were prehistoric; all skin and bone and a scowl fixed on her face.
Mrs. Cranky’s methods of discipline matched her looks; old fashioned and mean. I started school in the late 1960’s in Australia.
The regular infant schoolteachers were kind and gentle. I loved school. I loved learning. I came from a home that valued education. The regular teachers perhaps tired of my constant hand-in-the-air to answer every question and tried to dampen my enthusiasm saying, ‘Give someone else a go.’ But I experienced no trouble until Mrs. Cranky took over our Grade 1 class for a term.
Mrs. Cranky seemed to have been buried in the education system and then dug up. I reckon probably as a last resort and I’m sure the headmistress must’ve done an archaeological dig in search of a relief teacher and come up with this old fossil.
I mean to say, if the department had known what archaic methods this woman was using to control the class of us infants, surely, she would’ve been asked to retire.
As Grade 1 students, we submitted to her authority with fear and trembling, not to mention a few toileting accidents on the classroom’s linoleum floor. I guess Mrs. Cranky’s colleagues congratulated Mrs. Cranky on her class of obedient and quiet students.
How was I to know, as a six-year-old, that a teacher shaking, hitting and shouting at children was not appropriate? But I sensed something was off.
So, on one dull winter’s day, Mrs. Cranky presided over her class from her desk. She’d taught us our arithmetic lesson which seemed to make her particularly angry.
As we finished our work, simple sums where neatness was prized over correctness, we lined up at the desk, our work to be marked by Mrs. Cranky.
I finished my sums and joined the queue which by this stage stretched from the desk to the door. Now I was not the most observant pupil and as work was too easy, I tended to daydream. My mind wandered out the window and floated to the clouds as I waited.
A mathematics exercise book flew past me. My mind returned to my body in the classroom. I looked from the book, pages strewn on the floor, and then at the teacher’s desk.
‘This is rubbish!’ Mrs. Cranky screeched and tossed another book across the room.
As I watched that book land in the aisle, one more book whizzed past me.
‘Go pick it up!’ Mrs. Cranky said.
My classmate scuttled over to the book on the floor, picked it up and slunk back to her seat.
Mrs. Cranky was on a roll. ‘Rubbish!’ she cried, and I ducked yet another book-missile.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked the boy in front of me.
The boy shrugged.
Mrs. Cranky glared at me and said, ‘Go to the back of the line, Lee-Anne!’
I took my place at the end of the line. I checked my work. Yes, one plus one is two. Yes, all my sums neat and correct in my estimation.
A book landed at my feet. I went to pick it up.
‘Don’t you dare, Lee-Anne!’
I straightened up and watched another poor pupil pick up his book, bite his trembling lip and shuffle to his desk.
This is not right, I thought. As I waited my turn, I imagined my counterattack if the teacher cast my sterling efforts across the room. It seemed to me I’d wasted half a lesson standing in line and watching the Maths books fly.
My turn. Surely Mrs. Cranky would see my superior efforts and not throw my book.
She did throw my book. And with much demented screaming and ranting that my work was the worst she’d seen in all her years of teaching. Considering how old she looked, boy, that must be bad.
Her implications that I must be the worst student in the history of the world sank in. What? How dare she! No, that can’t be right. I won’t let her get away with that. She had crossed the line.
I paced over to my wreck of a Maths book, plucked it up and then flung it back at Mrs. Cranky.
O-oh, bad move. Very bad move.
I’d stuck my neck out, executed justice for me and my classmates, but had not considered the consequences.
Mrs. Cranky’s face flushed red. Her eyes bulged from her bony sockets. She bared her teeth.
My situation was not looking good.
I fled. First, I scampered down the nearest aisle to the back of the class. Mrs. Cranky armed with a twelve-inch ruler clattered behind me. She screamed and raged. ‘Why you little…!’
I ran along the back of the class. Mrs. Cranky followed. She swatted the ruler at me. Missed!
I weaved through the maze of desks and chairs. I searched for refuge from the teacher’s rage and ruler.
I dove under a desk. But the boy with red hair swung his feet.
Mrs. Cranky gained on me. She growled. She waved the ruler at me.
I fell to my hands and knees and scrambled under another desk. More legs, more kicking at me. I crawled along the floor. Mrs. Cranky chased me into a corner.
I had nowhere to go.
Mrs. Cranky cut the ruler into my tender thighs. ‘There, that’ll teach you for throwing the book at me,’ she said.
Education, I decided was not so much for gaining knowledge as to learn to submit to the control of authority. The system taught me that to be successful and get good grades I must behave, be quiet, don’t upset the norm or challenge the people who had power over me. So, I learnt to be a “good” student, and when I grew up, a “good” citizen, minding my own business out of fear of that wrath, that punishment, if I question or challenge the status quo.
However, recently, as I’ve matured and seen injustice and oppression, sometimes suffered by those close to me, I have been challenged and I wonder: Have I allowed evil to prosper because I’m too afraid to speak up?
This is why I write. My words can be used to promote God, His love and goodness. They can also be used to speak out against deception and injustice. Part of me is still afraid of retribution, that figurative “twelve-inch-ruler” ready to strike because symbolically I’m “throwing the book back at the teacher”.
In the good book, the Bible, 1 Peter 3:17 says: ‘It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer doing good than doing evil.’
True, as a Grade 1 student, it was not the wisest choice to make and “throw the book back at the teacher”, but as an adult, it is my hope and intention to “throw the book”, that is, my words into the world and community for good; right the wrongs, stick up for the oppressed, defend the victims of bullying and make waves to change attitudes and thus generate God’s character and values of justice, truth, responsibility and love.
© Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2016; updated 2023
Feature Painting: Sunrise over Brachina Gorge (c) Lee-Anne Marie Kling 2014
(Brachina Gorge is in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Brachina Gorge is known for the abundance of fossils that can be found there. Probably won’t find the likes of Mrs. Cranky, there though.)
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