Thursday, June 25, 2009
Just a jug. Just a teacher's water vessel. Mind you, I have seen much in my day, though it is all drawing to an end: I will soon be retired, either smashed to sad smithereens in a cardboard box or consigned to a dimly lit cupboard of forgotten artifacts. The teacher for whom I served a purpose is due to hang up her teaching hat. She wore that proverbial hat for forty years. To tell the truth now- and I have little time, for they soon will come for me- the hat was an ill-fitting one.
The children- four decades of them- knew what I knew, and year after year I watched, helpless, as little ones crumbled under her brittle authority, as the spark in their eyes flickered and grew dull, as curiosity was extinguished. We all watched as she pulled and tugged endlessly on that hat, forcing it to suit, willing it to be right.
The hat was wrong. It impaired her judgement, caused her to bellow caustic words in a broken-glass voice to bewildered youngsters who perhaps wriggled a little too much in their seats or cast an eye to the leafy trees beyond the window. She never withheld the option to humiliate, preferring that resource to the softer tones she might have employed.
The hat was wrong. She framed one of the brightest boys as a severely challenged and skill-deficient fellow, assured his poor mother that all hope was lost until a professional second opinion propelled the child, to the teacher's chagrin, into a higher class. The teacher never quite recovered from the grievance, offended as she was by the decision and by the sight of the boy lighting up her television screen, a contestant on a national quiz show, several years later.
The hat was wrong. Her mantra was "She Who Holds The Chalk Holds The Power." I ought to know; I was closer to her than any soul, and I sat on the desk as the months turned into seasons and the seasons fled and children grew and escaped from her charge, and a new line of wide-eyed infants filled the vacant seats to learn through the medium of an icy glare that their teacher's relish for control superseded a regard for gentle enlightenment. Yes, I saw it: the merciless grip on the chalk, the barely-repressed glee with which she castigated and lectured and dished out discipline.
The hat was wrong. And this week, her very last with the teacher's hat, as she picks me up and fills her glass with water, I detect an altered air. Her hand trembles slightly; a sigh here and there. I wonder at those times if she comprehends what she has done to the generations of boys and girls who got away as soon as they could and took with them no traces of joy for books or words or learning or rules.
Did it dawn on her at last that frightening or embarrassing children into obedience, or ordering them to read books for punishment was no way to make them return, years later, to speak of inspiration at her retirement party?
The hat was wrong. She chose it, I suspect, for all the wrong reasons- power over knowledge, dominion over effectiveness. She gained the upper hand over the smaller people of the community but I wager it rings hollow today, for at the curtain fall of one's career the edges are blurred no longer, the picture becomes sharp as a razor, accentuated and unequivocal. The men and women who declined an invitation to the farewell party- or the local artist who could not bring himself, when asked, to fashion a painting in her honour- their absence will stand like punctuation marks, pronounced and tremendously telling.
The hat was wrong, and it is entirely too late now for the students that passed through the school and went on their way, altered forever by a teacher who held the chalk without knowing what it meant.
The school will fall silent soon, the rooms stifled and sunlit while Summer rages on outside, only the faint whisker-noise of an occasional mouse fragmenting the heavy silence and causing a chalk cloud to swell momentarily. The phantoms and shadows of the past make no sound but the air is thick with their presence: they haunt every room.
I will be sent away, and the teacher will not return when the green leaves fade and perish and swirl and draw children's attention from their books. For those youngsters it is not too late. With the brief time I have remaining on this desk, I urge them to pay equal amounts of attention to the turning leaves of the trees and of their books; and I beg them, wherever they go later on, whatever adventures they embark upon, to choose a hat that fits well, that brings them happiness, that enables them to better the society they inhabit.
All that matters is that the hat should fit. I too will resign my hat but I am satisfied. I did what I knew best. I performed the task I was made for- and I did it graciously. The hat must be right.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 9:50 AM