When I was a little girl it was important to be nice. Captain Kangaroo told me the magic words: “Abracadabra, Please and Thank you.” If I forgot, Mom or Dad reminded me, “Now what are the magic words?”
Deanna had Mrs. Markley, she was just like a grandma, so nice. For some reason Mrs. Markley was out of school when I got to Kindergarten, I never figured out why; I thought maybe she died, ’cause teachers lived in the school, so if she wasn’t there, she must have died. But the next year, Mrs. Markley was back; all the rest of the kids in my family had Mrs. Markley. Maybe she just went on a long vacation the year I was in Kindergarten.
The new teacher, Mrs. Brown was not nice. She was nothing like a grandma. Mrs. Brown was mean.
Mrs. Brown told me I had to drink white milk, no chocolate milk, even if that’s what Mom wrote down for me to order. “We don’t need to bother Mr. Rex with all these special orders.” Mrs. Brown told the class. Mr Rex always smiled when he delivered the milk. He was in charge of the whole school, he had a chain hooked to his belt with keys to every door in the entire school, and he was super-nice. Mr. Rex was the janitor.
Mrs. Brown had big “bowls” that hung way down below her waist; when she bent over they brushed on the table, and she kept a wrinkly hankie tucked in her belt. I think she used the same hankie all week. Her face was all pinched and grumpy like her hair got pulled back in her bun too tight so she was starting to get a headache, and she smelled like cottage cheese and boiled eggs.
One day in late fall, she passed out brown construction paper with a picture of a maple leaf on it.
“You can color your leaf any color you want, because fall leaves are colorful.” she told us.
I colored mine yellow, like the hickory tree in the field behind my house; Mom put hickory nuts in her oatmeal cookies along with chocolate chips. I hate raisins in cookies. That seems like a dirty trick on kids who think they’re getting chocolate, and instead bite into an sickling-sweet, darned raisin.
Dale colored his leaf green. Mrs. Brown picked up Dale’s leaf and held it up for everyone to see. I thought she was gonna tell us how beautiful it was, ’cause everything he did was the best; I loved Dale. He was the only boy in Kindergarten I never got to kiss.
“Children.” she said.
Mrs. Brown always called us ‘children’, I don’t think she knew our real names. “Look at this leaf.” She pulled her eyebrows down low and together, so they touched each other. That was not a nice face to pull. I knew that. That’s a sour apple-face.
“No fall leaves are green.”
Mrs. Brown shouted so loud that Dale looked like he wanted to cry, except he knew that big boys don’t cry, and he wanted everyone to know he was a big boy. It’s okay for big girls to cry. No one told me that, but I saw Mom cry lots of times, sometimes she even cried what she called happy tears, like when Dad gave her something nice on Mother’s Day when she thought he forgot, or when me and Bonita already made her mad by picking lilacs and breaking some of the branches down, and she tried hard to act happy. I knew big girls cry for all kinds of reasons, but not big boys, they never cry. If big boys feel like crying they just swallow hard, till the feeling goes away. Dale was swallowing so hard pretty soon he was going to have a stomach ache.
I piped right up, ’cause I had a really good memory. “You said we could color them any color we wanted. Remember?” Mrs. Brown just needed a little help, I was sure of it.
I probably don’t need to tell you that my helping made things a whole lot worse.
That night after supper, I told Dad that Mrs. Brown was mean. He sat me on his lap and listened to the whole story. One really good thing about my Dad, he was a super listener. He listened to every bit: about the milk, about coloring the leaves, about Dale swallowing hard, and about me reminding Mrs. Brown. I left out the part about how I loved Dale, but he might have known anyway. Sometimes he knew stuff, the way Mom did, although his powers were a bit weaker.
“Maybe she just had a bad day.’ he offered.
“If that’s it, she has an awful lot of bad day. Like every day.”
I looked up into his blue eyes; they were calm and clear, like he was figuring out an arithmetic problem in his head.
“Well, tomorrow, I want you to go right up to Mrs. Brown, put on your best smile and say, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Brown. How are you today?’ I bet that will get her day off to a good start, and things will go a whole lot better.”
I must have looked doubtful, ’cause then he said, “You’ve got the best smile I ever saw. That smile will charm the socks right off Mrs. Brown.”
I still had my doubts, and I wasn’t that interested in seeing Mrs. Brown’s feet, but the idea of her socks flying off was pretty funny, so I started to laugh. Besides that, Dad knew a lot, like how to tell arrowheads from rocks and how to tie a hook on a fishing line, so I trusted him.
The next day, I marched right up to Mrs. Brown, and said just like Dad told me: “Good morning Mrs. Brown. How are you today?”
She smiled right down at me and said. “Now, don’t dawdle, go hang your wrap in the cloak room.”
Wrap was old-lady talk for coat, and cloak room meant closet. Sometimes old people talk a funny language. I was thinking about asking her, like Mom asked me, “What are the magic words?” but I wanted that smile to stay right where it was, so I stayed quiet.
A couple of weeks later, Mrs. Brown was gone, and we had a new teacher, who must have been nice, because I would have remembered another mean one.
I found out years later, that the principal asked Mrs. Brown to “step down’ and she did. I heard she suffered from depression, which in those days, went undiagnosed for most people. Mrs. Brown left a lasting impression on me. So did Dad. He taught me how much power even a little girl has. He gave me tools to control my environment, and taught me how to get along with others. He had faith in me.
Of course I’m not always nice; it’s good to know I have a (w)itch in my tool belt when I really need her, but I prefer to be nice. I feel a lot better about myself and I end up feeling better about whatever meanie I come up against. And I try to keep in mind, that the meanie might be dealing with problems that are far beyond my comprehension.