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Reading the obituaries from back home, as I do every morning, the name caught my eyes first. I couldn’t believe it. No way was it her.
When my gaze shifted left to see her picture, I knew it was her. Helen Pike. Mrs Pike, when she was my teacher.
I thought, “She must have been 100 years old.” Clicking on her obituary, I soon found out that my reaction was a year off. She’d just turned 101. That means she was in her mid-fifties when I spent a year in her classroom. That made her seven years old than my mother.
Gazing at her picture, I immediately remembered her, especially her eyes. No longer was I sitting before my computer, a sixty-year-old thinking this teacher had already seemed ancient in the early ‘70s, but I was again an eight-grader—or was it seventh grade? And it was history, right, or was it a similar subject? Perhaps, a classmate will read this and confirm or correct my memory—and now I was sitting in the second row from the left, three seats from the front, in a room off the main hall on the south side of Nellie B. Chisholm or, as we called it, the NBC School, dreading the next moment as the rest of the class departed, but this student did not because Mrs. Pike, who had just handed back the most recent test, said, “Greg, please remain in your seat.”
I couldn’t imagine what she was going to say.
I knew exactly why she kept me behind.
Sitting sideways in the desk in front of me so that she could face me, she softly and calmly asked, “Did you study for the test?”
Of course, I hadn’t studied. Not very much, anyway. If the test had only been True & False and Multiple Choice, she might not have found me out. But, no, she had to include an essay question. I hated essay questions. They required real thinking.
Though I was an honor roll student my entire life, I mostly coasted on the smarts I received by way of my parents’ DNA. This time, the coast was not clear. I was out of gas.
I answered Mrs. Pike, replying so quietly that she had to have known I was lying. “Yes, I studied.”
“Did you read the entire chapter?” No, of course I had not read the entire chapter. “Yes,” I croaked lie number two.
The passage of four-and-a-half decades don’t allow me to recall the exact words of the rest of the conversation, but I sure remember that it went like this:
“I don’t think you read it. Your essay is a few sentences that say nothing at all. It is obvious to me that you didn’t apply yourself. You can do better. You’re a smart boy, but you have to do the work.”
And I was off, to catch up with my classmates.
I must have pondered this conversation for weeks. It upset me. I was a kid who never got into trouble with teachers. I had never been called out by one, except for something good . . . or something funny. Mr. Kemp, my sixth grade home room teacher, when seeing shortest-boy-in-the-class me carrying a tuba for marching band, in front of the entire class called me “Little Big Horn.”
My classmates giggled. I ate it up.
Even more, being netted by Mrs. Pike upset me because it meant that my coasting days were over. Soon, I would be in high school. Tests would only get harder; essay questions only more plentiful; teachers only more savvy.
This gotcha came during years that I was learning about lying. I was a prodigious prevaricator when I was little. Whatever the situation—especially when I did something like broke the latest you-name-it because I wasn’t using my head—I was quick to whip up a whopper, usually finding a way to pin my malfeasance on my youngest brother, Mark.
The middle school years were a reformation period for me. Also in eighth grade, I learned to stop picking fights. I was still short—all of 4’11” and then 5’1″ as a freshman, I wouldn’t sprout until I was a junior—and scrawny best described my physique. But I was a quick-tempered hothead. Close calls in baseball games and missed catches in football had me launching into “I was safe!” and “The ball hit the ground!” immediately followed by my launching myself into the other boy.
And then he would pummel me.
And I never learned that I never won a fight.
One lovely spring day in 1971, our gym class went out to play softball. Something took our teacher back to the NBC School. Did we have a gym cadet watching us? I don’t recall. In 1971, teachers might very well have left a couple of dozen thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys alone on a ball field.
The teacher, whose name escapes me, had barely left when there was a close play with which I did not agree. Too bad for me, it involved Dan Smith. Dan was a head taller than me and was pure muscle. No matter, my temper took over and I went after him.
With one punch, Dan put me down. With that one punch, I finally said to myself, “Greg, you’ve never won a fight. This punch hurt like crazy. You gotta stop picking fights. Get control of your temper.”
And I did. I never again picked another fight in a ball game or anywhere else.
And I stopped lying in order to get myself out of trouble. From then on, when I did the wrong thing I owned up to it.
Fight-picking. Lying. Coasting. Learning about these things either form us, or they don’t. I am thankful that I had enough parent-provided brains and God-given sense to have paid attention. Chill out. Stop fighting. Don’t be a coaster. You can’t fool people. Lying is no way to live.
Mrs. Pike knew exactly how to hook this fish.
Thank you, Mrs. Pike, for not letting me coast. I wish I could have told you how important you were to my growing up.