Back then schools conditioned children more severely. We couldn’t wander into the classrooms whenever we arrived. In sequential order, the different grade levels formed straight lines in the parking lot, outside the wide steps leading to a front door flanked by wooden columns. Snow, rain, scorching heat—it didn’t matter. You waited in line with your classmates for the bell which would ring 10 minutes before classroom instruction began. Then you filed, rushing yet orderly, up the steps, down the corridors to your grade hallway, where you hung your coat, shucked your boots if you wore them in bad weather, in the lockers outside the door.
Teachers didn’t greet you; they sat at their desks, roster book spread open, and checked each one of us off as we entered to sit, quietly, waiting to be told what to do. Precisely at 8am the bell would ring and the day began, usually with a worksheet, or a board lesson.
It was safe. We knew what to expect. Until fifth grade when I had the hated Miss LeFornier for a teacher, and two classmates who changed everything. One I feared. The other I ridiculed mercilessly.
No one wanted to get Miss LeFornier for their teacher. She had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian, quick to use the ruler. A tight-lipped, tight-bloused, woman with a severe, angular face topped by a tightly-curled bun of brown hair, she didn’t look at children so much as glare at them. Although she could not have been older than thirty, she gave the impression of someone much older. Everyone loathed her, except for me. I loved her. I was her pet.
She praised my work weekly, sometimes even patted my shoulder as she roamed the aisles to check our worksheets. On good days, I was the one she let take the erasers outside to clap them clean. On bad days, I got to stay inside and oil the blackboards with an old dishcloth. I gloried in being singled out, chosen. Few others ever received her commendations, especially not those who were troublemakers, or dumb kids. Kids like Eric and Anita. The two largest children in the entire school.
Eric looked sixteen, and may well have been, since there were no restrictions on how many times a child could be held back in those days. He wasn’t a fat boy, more like a large cask of energy pressing outward as if to burst. He’d already spent time in youth detention services—that part was true—and that, combined with his age and size, made him seem like a disturbed adult set down in the midst of children. No one knew how to play with him.
Luckily, we were spared. When the bell rang and our careful lines exploded down the school steps onto the cement playground which fronted B.B.Russell Elementary, Eric loped across the playground, the wide field beyond, and disappeared into the forbidden woods which formed a barrier between the school and the neighborhood of two-story Gambrel homes.
If any other children ventured near the woods the teachers, who usually gathered in loose circles near the steps, gossiping and smoking cigarettes, would scream out our names and call out “Get back here.” No one said anything when Eric disappeared into the trees. They probably hoped he wouldn’t return at the callback bell. Often he didn’t.
Rumors, most likely false, given the nature of memory and the imaginations of 11-year-olds, sparked the playground—Eric had sent our principal, Mr. Reed, to the hospital after beating him up; Eric had shot two store clerks to death in a robbery; Eric worked as a professional wrestler, the villainous Shadow, and that’s why he missed so much school. He was touring the wrestling circuit.
In the classroom, the days he came, Eric wasn’t a problem. He arrived—usually only twice a week—late, tossed his tardy note at Miss LeFornier, and trod heavy-footed to his back row desk, where he collapsed into the seat and pillowed his head with folded arms. A bear hibernating. At first everyone was quiet, then, as time progressed and he showed no signs of rustling, we continued our day as if Eric wasn’t there.
Anita may have been as large as Eric, but not in a way that saved her. A soft excrescence of flesh swelling out of the one pink, lacy dress she wore to school every day, she was so quiet and gentle and unthreatening everyone deliberately picked on her. We called her Tubby the Tuba, laughed at the ‘coke bottle’ lens of her slanted cat’s eye glasses, the crossed eyes magnified behind them.
Despite our ridicule in the corridors, during recess, at lunch—where no one would sit with her, play with her—she arrived at school each day determinedly happy. Maybe that’s why we never let up. We couldn’t figure out why. Because nearly every day we broke her down, often at recess, where we circled past like a flock of birds, pecking words of ridicule as she stood alone in the middle of the asphalt lot. When she’d had enough she’d hasten back inside the school building in that side to side roll of hers, as if her weight literally pained her.
Other than an occasional “Stop that” from one of the teachers, they never said anything to us. It was as if the staff of the school found it okay to ridicule Anita, too.
So most afternoons, as we finished our math work sheets, labored over correcting grammatical errors in our workbook exercises, or engaged in an occasional arts and craft project, Anita would huddle close to her papers, hands corralling them, as if she were hoarding some secret. She kept her stare down until just before the bell, when she perked up, excited by the knowledge her mother would be outside with her beloved boxer Toby.
We all loved dogs. Everyone who had tormented her would follow Anita up the winding path away from the school to the street that led to our homes in the projects, or the working class neighborhood beyond. We’d watch as Anita bent to Toby, let him lick her face, and, one by one, we’d stoop down, too, to pet and scratch him, let his rough, slobbery tongue lick our mouths and eyes. Anita giggled and so did we. Sometimes we’d even parcel out a few words to her, as if a cruel taunt had never passed our lips. Her mother smiled, commented about the abundance of Anita’s friends, and we’d wave our fingers in goodbye, smile, as if the torture wasn’t going to start up again the next day.
I have no idea why I joined in on the attacks on Anita. Otherwise, I was a model student. Polite and respectful to the teachers and my classmates. All perfect grades on my papers. My second greatest joy was to have one of my perfect tests returned with a simple star sticker on the top—a shiny gold, silver, or, my favorite, gold-flecked green. My greatest thrill, though, came during the weekly meetings Miss LeFornier held to go over our writing.
She would snap her fingers and point at us, one at a time, calling us to her desk, where she’d have us sit in a chair beside her, facing her, back to the classroom, while she spoke about our stories. It was exciting to me for several reasons. First, Miriam Martin and I always had the best two stories in the class. Our reward was a star sticker peeled and pressed firmly onto our foreheads. Occasionally someone else might receive a sticker, but Miriam and I were the only two who received them every week.
What was also exciting, although I have never told this to anyone, was what happened with Miss LeFornier’s breasts when she counseled me.
Crazy as it sounds, back then I didn’t know a lot about breasts. I didn’t even know that was their name. Skippy from the projects said they were called boobies, but when I looked that word up in the dictionary I found a drawing of a bird. In the chair at Miss LeFornier’s desk, I ducked my eyes down, pretending to stare at my paper, yet I was at that age and I couldn’t stop myself from glancing up at them.
I know it’s a cliché, and I know how it makes me look, but the truth is, as much as feeling her press a star to my forehead, I loved looking at the way she fit her blouses. She wore cloth blouses that buttoned all the way up to simple lace collars. Although the blouses themselves weren’t tight, her breasts pushed at the fabric, stretching the material tight. When she leaned forward to talk to me, they rested on the desktop. This both fascinated and repulsed me. I began to fear they might somehow have a life of their own, beyond being a part of Miss LeFornier. I began to imagine they were large, featureless creatures, like the gigantic worms I’d read about in some Science Fiction novel, and I was terrified in the way you are terrified watching a horror movie, waiting for the monster to leap out.
It’s not really that I wanted to see them. I just wanted to know what they were. No one else in the class had them, and although other teachers did, Miss LeFornier’s were as outsized in their group as Eric and Anita were in my class. It was a fascination with size. I didn’t know why she had them. What they could do. It was something I didn’t know.
But they never leapt out, and what might have been a disappointment for me was always assuaged when she pressed the star to my forehead with her cool thumb as if she were a priest pressing burnt reeds to my forehead on Ash Wednesday.
The day everything changed, I sat back, smiled, turned to the classroom beaming, the star a sticky jewel for all to see. It was my favorite, the green glittery kind. Someone whistled softly. A boy uttered “Whoa”. I remember it was a week before Spring break, and the windows were open to let in a cool breeze.
I stood, paused so everyone could note my accomplishment, proud of being at the center of everyone’s attention, when Eric called out, “Hey Miss L, don’t I get a star for what I’m good at?”
The classroom hushed with confusion and fear; every breath held. What was he good at? What did it mean he was speaking up? And why now, when I had a star to show everyone?
Anticipation wove into the fear. Miss LeFornier never got angry, but she always seemed angry. She was quick to halt any misbehavior before it started with a severe look and, if necessary, a firm grip on the culprit’s earlobe. It was as if we were synchronized, the way all our wide-eyed faces turned from Eric to her, waiting to see what she would do. What happened was shocking.
Her face crumbled like a building in slow motion; the stern facade, tight-lipped mouth, rigid stare held briefly as her face reddened, then began to tremor. “How could you?” she said to Eric. How could you what? I thought. Her eyes skittered to her desktop, as if seeking grounding; her hands shook, and she removed them to her lap.
At the rear of the room, Eric leaned back in his seat and smiled.
Briefly, Miss LeFornier regained her strength. She looked up at me, snapped, “Benjamin, take your seat this minute.” I felt a sudden welling in my eyes and I rushed to spin down into my chair. She stepped forward, tipped her chin upwards, and commanded, “Everyone turn to page forty-nine in your math workbooks.” But no one moved. She stared at us—she’d never had to repeat herself before. She started to speak, stopped, then smoothed her skirt. We watched her stride to the doorway, where she paused, half-turned, and without quite looking at him said, “Eric, can I speak to you outside?” Her chin trembled. Her eyes looked away, out the windows. “Please. For me.”
“Maybe,” Eric said, tipping back on the legs of his chair. Then he laughed. He stood and in a controlled manner, making sure he wouldn’t hit anyone, he tipped his chair on its side, watched it rattle briefly then halt. He smiled around the room. Someone started to whimper. I held my breath.
Miss LeFornier stepped into the hallway without saying a word.
Thrusting his hands in his pockets, Eric sauntered towards the front of the room, nodding all the time. He paused at the threshhold, turned to smile at the classroom again, then stepped through the doorway into a dark green slice of corridor.
The silence in the classroom was broken by Anita starting to cry.
“Shut up Fatty,” someone said. This time no one laughed. We all turned to her, like demented children planning a sacrifice in the cornfield, and one by one hissed out ‘Fatty’ and ‘Tubby’ and “Shut up”.. Anita bit on the fleshy part of her thumb and sank lower in her seat.
From the hallway we heard Miss LeFornier say, “Oh Eric,” her voice not like a teacher’s, but like someone you’d hear in a movie. We couldn’t make out the words Eric said—except for the swear words—but his tone was alternately angry and hurt. Miss LeFornier spoke back in a way we’d never heard her speak before, never thought possible. She was pleading.
Suddenly their conversation hushed. I leaned forward, hands gripping the front edge of my desk, as if being a few inches closer might enable me to hear.
Anita called out, “Miss LeFornier.”
“Don’t be so fat,” I hissed over my shoulder. A soft ooo ran through the room, followed by a few snickers. I felt bad for what I’d said and told her, but I didn’t apologize.
Miss LeFornier re-entered the room. She tried to stride, posture straight, but her legs seemed to give out and she stumbled halfway to her desk. She rushed the last few feet, grabbed the side for safety, and eased herself around to sit. Once in her chair, her shoulders slumped in relief.
She looked diminished, like a child playing at teacher. No bigger than any of us.
Eric sauntered back in, nodding, snapping his head backwards to flick the thick blond lock of hair out of his eyes. He grabbed the student chair, rattled and banged it sideways to the row of desks, then straddled it backwards. Bending forward, he laid his arms across the desktop, pushed his face within a foot of Miss LeFornier’s.
She pulled back, attempted to present an image of calm, but her fingers stumbled to remove a gold star from the sticker sheet. Her hand shook as she reached the star to Eric’s forehead. He grabbed her wrist and her sharp intake of breath made a slitting sound. His hand encircled her forearm like a paw. He pulled it forward, pressing her thumb to a spot just above his nose, then he sniffed her wrist once and released her. He nodded at the other sticker sheet and pointed with one finger.
She peeled off a silver star and pressed that to his forehead. Then he flicked a finger at the green sheet, turned to look directly at me, and said, “Two.”
Closing his eyes, he tipped his face up to hers as if awaiting a kiss. She finished the job, took a deep breath, and said, “Well.”
Eric, still sitting, rattled his chair around until he faced the class. He spread his arms wide, this big, round-faced boy with 4 stars stuck to his forehead. “Are you going to fucking clap or what?” He beat his hands together, trying to get us started, but succeeded only in scaring us deeper into our caves.
He turned to Miss LeFornier. Seated at her desk she started to applaud. She stared at Eric and kept on clapping even as she tottered to her feet. “Class,” she said, voice sounding like a web of cracked glass. She tried to say more but her voice caught. Turning so she faced Eric all the time, she walked backwards out of the classroom, still clapping, until two feet from the door she turned and ran. Her thick heels clacked down the corridor, rhythm to the erratic gasps of her sobbing.
Eric stood and tossed the chair aside. It banged against the front wall and noisily clattered to the floor. He sat in her seat, crossed his feet on her desk, laced his hands behind his head. Large circles of perspiration darkened the armpits of his blue work shirt. “You can all go home,” he said. “Class dismissed.” He laughed. “Go!”
No one moved. Except for Anita, who struggled to her feet. “You’re not the teacher,” she said.
Eric slammed his forearms on the desktop. “What the fuck did you say?”
Incongruously, Anita smiled. “You said a bad word. That’s not nice.”
I think we all cringed, waiting to see what Eric would do.
“Here’s another.” He leaned back in the chair. “Tubby.”
Anita, still smiling, circled her fingers on her desktop. Keeping her face down, she said, “So are you. You’re tubby too.”
This time Eric sprang to his feet. “Are you giving me the shit?”
Anita looked right at him, smiling as if she were about to give him good news. “You’re just like me,” she said. “Nobody likes you either.”
That was the first time I saw someone actually shake with rage. Eric stood there, fists clenched, for several seconds before he swung his hands backwards to bang the blackboard. Then he bent forward and shoved the teacher’s desk towards my seat in the front row. He took a step around her desk, looking right at me. I pressed back in my seat and Eric leaned as if about to step closer. But at that point Mr. Reed, our principal, a lurching man in a blue jacket, entered, followed by the two male sixth grade teachers, young men in their thirties. Both in good shape; both looking determined and apprehensive. “Enough,” Mr. Reed said. “You’re out of here.”
Like Miss LeFornier had, Eric appeared to shrink. His lip blubbered out and he started crying. Slowly, head down, he walked out of the room ahead of the three men. Mr. Reed paused to say something to us, but I remember none of it. I couldn’t stop thinking, Eric, he’s a kid too.
Two days later they found Anita’s dog Toby in the woods. A third grader walking home came upon the boxer. He’d been hung by a piece of rope from the limb of an oak tree and filled full of BBs. Someone said 150 shots, but, who would know? Did the number really matter? Anita must’ve moved. She never again came to class to finish her last year in elementary school.
Miss LeFornier never came back to school. It’s a common story today, but in those times the scandal was shocking. We didn’t exactly know what happened until the next Fall, after we had started junior high and heard rumors from the older students. I didn’t believe it at first until I saw the newspaper article that November; her photo on the front page beneath a headline announcing her prison sentence. I didn’t get a chance to read very much—my mother took the newspaper from my hands and I never saw it again. But everyone at school the following day was talking about it. Several guys said it happened with them, too. I didn’t believe them.
And Eric? Oddly, I hoped he was with Anita somewhere. Those two oversized children finding ways to comfort each other. I wanted them together for another reason, too. So I could have Miss LeFornier all to myself. So I could look at her, feel her cold thumb press my forehead, watch her smile, hope one day she’d say to me, “My how you’ve grown into a fine, big man.”