There was a lovely relaxed hum of activity in the class. It was the kind of sound that once in a while allowed a teacher to take a mental step back from what she was doing, and actually say to herself, “Hey, this is good.”
Keith and Ivy were bent over small slips of paper. Keith, a member of the J.V. football squad, was big, broad, bright, respected, and lovingly called Dumbo by his peers. He also had beautiful tapered fingers. Ivy, a school secretary’s daughter, was demure and fastidious. They were at work now, folding colored paper according to instructions on an origami packet. He was hunched over, she was pertly concentrating. Beautiful cranes were spread before them.
Several other young teens were bent over sheaves of paper from which they were culling questions for a student-created exam. So busy had they all been that another young teen, Shemia, looked up at me as I circulated through the different groups and asked. “Uhhh, Ms. Murphy, who was that little guy that was just here?”
I hadn’t noticed any arrival. Her description of him informed me that the department chair, Mr. “Demeretricio” (as he had been nicknamed) had dropped in for a mini observation. Perhaps he was in pursuit of his daily fix of pettiness.
On another day another group was seated at a cluster of desks in the rear of the room. They were leafing though some National Geographic magazines in preparation for a report that they were working on together. There was a lovely relaxed hum of activity in the class.
Such a comforting sound.
And then it was shattered by a spontaneous cry. “Ooooooooh, Ms. Murphy!” I spun and sped in the direction of the outburst, as the youngster added, “You should see what they wrote about you here.” There was clear dismay in her voice.
Spotting the National Geographic in her hand, my smugness disintegrated. Perhaps there were naked tribal dancers with my name scribbled across some bare bosom or backside. Or perhaps some predatory animal with a hapless victim in its jaws had been given my name. Or perhaps, or perhaps, or perhaps . . . the flood of images spilled through my mind in the seconds it took to arrive at the group.
The wide-eyed young teen held the book up for me. Another student averted his eyes, gently shook his head, and pushed his chair back, a bit nervous and clearly and compassionately uncomfortable. The other two kids just sat mute. Their posture, their character, and their reaction — so clearly stunned — told me that they were not the culprits in what I was about to discover.
To my horror, the glossy pages glared with jungle greenery and I could spot the primates. The orangutans that I had feared seemed ready to leap out at me. In a lower left corner, however, was a picture of a thatched hut, and seated in its shade was a very, very skinny and very, very aged, very, very wizened, sun-wrinkled khaki-clad woman hunched over a portable typewriter. A ballpoint arrow to the margin identified her as me!
And I laughed out loud. It really was funny, it was far from what I had feared, and it would be very easy to forgive the wag that had desecrated that magazine.
The entire class, however, had focused in anticipation on the scene. Those kids were indeed wonderful in such a variety of ways. I had previously praised them for the respect that they showed for school property. The desks were rarely doodled on and the books were equally rarely marred. Of course there were lapses. I told them that this lapse was forgivable. In fact I moved around the room from group to group with the magazine in hand and showed them “my” picture.
What made this wee parcel of experience remain with me was the pained look on the faces of so many kids. Some seemed hurt for my feelings; some laughed tentatively as I shared the picture with them all.
In a way, I believe that a dress rehearsal for my reaction had occurred scores of years earlier. In a Catholic school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, there was another incident of waggish disfigurement of school property. Sister “Minor Tropical Depression” ferociously drew the line between vandalism and creative expression. She had spotted the desecration the instant she had re-entered the fifth grade classroom. The print of the Declaration of Independence was askew, and the mischief-spawned mists swirling around the reddened faces of the kids were also a giveaway. Had it not been for that, Sister might never have noticed that picture and the penciled-in neighborhood names that now were added to the original signatures.
Her greatest wrath was directed at the girl who had hula-ed her way into her classmates’ hearts the year before during an aborted show-and-tell. Hers was the name in ink, the very first ballpoint pen that they all had seen during that week’s show-and-tell. Some playful spirit had moved her and then them to add their names to those of their nation’s forefathers. Sister’s storm seemed such an overreaction, and whatever lesson she may have taught that day was tucked away.
What fun it was to see the names of Murphy and Tony and Brady and Diaz scrawled beside those of Jefferson and Franklin and Hancock. Today I am indeed the aged, very, very wizened, sun-wrinkled woman — with added wrinkles thanks to laughter. I think Sister should have laughed.
Gert Murphy is the author of a memoir about her 30-plus years of teaching, of which this story is a part. Several other excerpts have been previously published by The Star.