by Arthur Cavanaugh
The whole episode of Miss Awful began for the Clarks at their dinner table one Sunday afternoon. Young Roger Clark was explaining why he could go to Central Park with his father instead of staying home to finish his homework -- Miss Wilson, his teacher, wouldn’t be at school tomorrow, so who'd know the difference? “She has to take care of a crisis,” Roger explained. “It's in Omaha.”
“What is?” his older sister, Elizabeth, inquired. “For a kid in third grade, Roger, you talk dopey. You fail to make sense.”
Roger ignored the insult. His sister was a condition of life he had had to live with, like lions. Or snakes. Poisonous ones. Teetering, as always, on the tilted-back chair, feet wrapped around the legs, he continued, “Till Miss Wilson gets back we're having some other teacher. She flew to Omaha yesterday.” He pushed some peas on his plate and was silent a moment. “I hope her plane don’t crash,” he said.
Roger's mother patted his hand. A lively, outgoing youngster, as noisy and rambunctious as any eight-year-old, he had another side, tender and soft, which worried about people. Let the blind man who sold pencils outside the five-and-ten on Broadway be absent from his post, and Roger worried that catastrophe had overtaken him. When Mrs. Loomis, a neighbor of the Clarks in the Greenwich Village brownstone, had entered the hospital, Roger’s anxious queries had not ceased until she was discharged. And recently there was the cat which had nested in the downstairs doorway at night. Roger had carried down saucers of milk, clucking with concern. “Is the cat run away? Don’t it have a home?”
Virginia Clark assured her son, “You’ll have Miss Wilson safely back before you know it. It's nice that you care so.”
Roger beamed with relief. “Well, I like Miss Wilson, she's fun. Last week, for instance, when Tommy Miller got tired of staying in his seat and lay down on the floor--”
“He did what?” Roger's father was roused from his post-dinner torpor.
“Sure. Pretty soon the whole class was lying down. Know what Miss Wilson did?”
“If you'll notice, Mother,” Elizabeth interjected, “he hasn't touched a single pea.”
“She lay down on the floor, too,” Roger went on ecstatically. “She said we'd all have a rest, it was perfectly normal in the middle of the day. That's what I love about St. Geoff 's. It's fun.”
“Fun,” snorted his sister. “School isn't supposed to be a fun fest. It's supposed to be filling that empty noodle of yours.”
“Miss Wilson got down on the floor?” Mr. Clark repeated. He had met Roger's teacher on occasion; she had struck him as capable but excessively whimsical. She was a large woman to be getting down on floors, Mr. Clark thought. “What did the class do next?” he asked.
“Oh, we lay there a while, then got up and did a Mexican hat dance,'' Roger answered. “It was swell.”
“I'm sure not every day is as frolicsome,” Mrs. Clark countered, slightly anxious. She brought in dessert, a chocolate mousse. Roger's story sounded typical of St. Geoffrey's. Not that she was unhappy with his school. A small private institution, while it might be called overly permissive, it projected a warm, homey atmosphere which Mrs. Clark found appealing. It was church-affiliated, which she approved of, and heaven knows its location a few blocks away from the brownstone was convenient. True, Roger's scholastic progress wasn't notable -- his spelling, for example, remained atrocious. Friendly as St. Geoffrey's was, Mrs. Clark sometimes did wish . . .
Roger attacked dessert with a lot more zest than he had shown the peas. “So can I go to the park with you, Dad? I've only got spelling left, and who cares about that?” Before his mother could comment, he was up from the table and racing toward the coat closet. “Okay, Dad?”
“I didn't say you could go. I didn't even say I'd take you,” Mr. Clark objected. He happened, at that moment, to glance at his waistline and reflect that a brisk hike might do him some good. He pushed back his chair. “All right, but the minute we return, it's to your room to finish your spelling.”
“Ah, thanks, Dad. Can we go to the boat pond first?”
“We will not,” cried Elizabeth, elbowing into the closet. “We'll go to the Sheep Meadow first.”
Roger was too happy to argue. Pulling on his jacket, he remarked, “Gee, I wonder what the new teacher will be like. Ready for your coat, Dad?”
It was just as well that he gave the matter no more thought. In view of events to come, Roger was entitled to a few carefree hours. Monday morning at school started off with perfect normalcy. It began exactly like any other school morning. Elizabeth had long since departed for the girls' school she attended uptown when Mrs. Clark set out with Roger for the short walk to St. Geoff's. She didn’t trust him with the Fifth Avenue traffic yet. They reached the school corner and Roger skipped away eagerly from her. The sidewalk in front of school already boasted a large, jostling throng of children and his legs couldn't hurry Roger fast enough to join them. Indeed it was his reason for getting to school promptly: to have time to play before the 8:45 bell. Roger 's schoolbag was well equipped for play. As usual, he'd packed a supply of baseball cards for trading opportunities; a spool of string, in case anybody brought a kite; a water pistol for possible use in the lavatory; and a police whistle for sheer noise value. Down the Greenwich Village sidewalk he galloped, shouting the names of his third grade friends as he picked out faces from the throng. “Hiya, Tommy. Hey, hiya, Bruce. Hi, Steve, you bring your trading cards?”
By the time the 8:45 bell rang -- St. Geoff 's used a cowbell, one of the homey touches -- Roger had finished a game of tag, traded several baseball cards, and was launched in an exciting jump-the-hydrant contest. Miss Gillis, the school secretary, was in charge of the bell, and she had to clang it extensively before the student body took notice. Clomping up the front steps, they spilled into the downstairs hall, headed in various directions. Roger’s class swarmed up the stairs in rollicking spirits, Tommy Miller, Bruce Reeves, Joey Lambert, the girls forming an untidy rear flank behind them, shrill with laughter.
It wasn't until the front ranks reached the third-grade classroom that the first ominous note was struck.
“Hey, what's going on?” Jimmy Moore demanded, first to observe the changed appearance of the room. The other children crowded behind him in the doorway. Instead of a cozy semicircle --” As though we're seated round a glowing hearth,” Miss Wilson had described it --the desks and chairs had been rearranged in stiff, rigid rows. “Gee, look, the desks are in rows,” commented Midge Fuller, a plump little girl who stood blocking Roger's view. Midge was a child given to unnecessary statements. “It's raining today,” she would volunteer to her classmates, all of them in slickers. Or, “There’s the lunch bell, gang.” The point to Roger wasn't that the desks had been rearranged. The point was, why? As if in answer, he heard two hands clap behind him, as loud and menacing as thunder.
“What's this, what's this?” barked a stern, raspish voice. “You are not cattle milling in a pen. Enough foolish gaping! Come, come, form into lines.”
Heads turned in unison, mouths fell agape. The children of St. Geoffrey's third grade had never formed into lines of any sort, but this was not the cause of their shocked inertia. Each was staring, with a sensation similar to that of drowning, at the owner of the raspish voice. She was tall and straight as a ruler, and was garbed in an ancient tweed suit whose skirt dipped nearly to the ankles. She bore a potted plant in one arm and Miss Wilson's roll book in the other. Rimless spectacles glinted on her bony nose. Her hair was gray, like a witch's, skewered in a bun, and there was no question that she had witch's eyes. Roger had seen those same eyes leering from the pages of Hansel and Gretel -- identical, they were. He gulped at the terrible presence.
“Form lines, I said. Girls in one, boys in the other.” Poking, prodding, patrolling back and forth, the new teacher kneaded the grade into position and ruefully inspected the result. “Sloppiest I've ever beheld. March!” She clapped time with her hands and the stunned ranks trooped into the classroom. “One, two, three, one, two -- girls on the window side, boys on the wall. Stand at your desks. Remove your outer garments. You, little Miss, with the vacant stare. What’s your name?”
“Ja—Ja—” a voice squeaked.
“Speak up. I won't have mumblers.”
“Well, Jane Douglas, you will be coat monitor. Collect the garments a row at a time and hang them neatly in the cloakroom. Did you hear me, child. Stop staring.” Normally slow-moving, Jane Douglas became a whirl of activity, charging up and down the aisles, piling coats on her arms. The new teacher tugged at her tweed jacket. “Class be seated, hands folded on desks,” she barked, and there was immediate compliance. She next paraded to the windows and installed the potted plant on the sill. Her witch’s hands fussed with the green leaves, straightening, pruning. “Plants and children belong in classrooms,” she declared, spectacles sweeping over the rows. “Can someone suggest why?”
There was total silence, punctured by a deranged giggle, quickly suppressed.
“Very well, I will tell you. Plants and children are living organisms. Both will grow with proper care. Repeat, proper. Not indulgent fawning, or giving in to whims -- scrupulosity!” With another tug at the jacket, she strode, ruler straight, to the desk in the front of the room. “I am Miss Orville. 0-r-v-i-l-l-e,” she spelled. “You are to use my name in replying to all questions.”
In the back of the room, Jimmy Moore whispered frantically to Roger. “What did she say her name is?”
Miss Orville rapped her desk. “Attention, please, no muttering in the back.” She cleared her voice and resumed. “Prior to my retirement I taught boys and girls for forty-six years,” she warned. “I am beyond trickery, so I advise you to try none. You are to be in my charge until the return of Miss Wilson, however long that may be.” She clasped her hands in front of her and trained her full scrutiny on the rows. “Since I have no knowledge of your individual abilities, perhaps a look at the weekend homework will shed some light. Miss Wilson left me a copy of the assignment. You have all completed it, I trust? Take out your notebooks, please. At once, at once, I say.”
Roger's head spun dizzily around. He gaped at the monstrous tweed figure in dismay. Book bags were being clicked open, notebooks drawn out -- what was he to do? He had gone to his room after the outing in the park yesterday, but, alas, it had not been to complete his assignment. He watches, horrified, as the tweed figure proceeded among the aisles and inspected notebooks. What had she said her name was? Awful -- was that it? Miss Awful! Biting his lip, he listened to her scathing comments.
“You call this chicken scrawl penmanship?” R-r-rip! A page was torn out and thrust at its owner. “Redo it at once, it assaults the intelligence.” Then, moving on, “What is this maze of ill-spelled words? Not a composition, I trust.”
“Ill-spelled words!” He was in for it for sure. The tweed figure was heading down his aisle. She was three desks away, no escaping it. Roger opened his book bag. It slid from his grasp and, with a crash, fell to the floor. Books, pencil case spilled out. Baseball cards, the water pistol, the police whistle, the spool of string . . .
“Ah,” crowed Miss Awful, instantly at his desk, scooping up the offending objects. “We have come to play, have we?” And she fixed her witch's gaze on him.
Long before the week's end, it was apparent to Virginia Clark that something was drastically wrong with her son's behavior. The go-lucky youngster had disappeared, as if down a well. Another creature had replaced him, nervous, harried, continuously glancing over his shoulder, in the manner of one being followed. Mrs. Clark’s first inkling of change occurred that same Monday. She had been chatting with the other mothers who congregated outside St. Geoffrey’s at three every afternoon to pick up their offspring. A casual assembly, the mothers were as relaxed and informal as the school itself, lounging against the picket fence, exchanging small talk and anecdotes.
“That darling cowbell,” laughed one of the groups at the familiar clang. “Did I tell you Anne's class is having a taffy pull on Friday? Where else, in the frantic city of New York . . .”
The third grade was the last class to exit from the building on Monday. Not only that, but Mrs. Clark noted that the children appeared strangely subdued. Some of them were actually reeling, all but dazed. As for Roger, eyes taut and pleading, he quickly pulled his mother down the block, signaling for silence. When enough distance had been gained, words erupted from him.
“No, we don't have a new teacher,” he flared wildly. “We got a witch for a new teacher. It's the truth. She's from Hansel and Gretel, the same horrible eyes -- and she steals toys. Yes,” he repeated in mixed outrage and hurt: “By accident, you happen to put some toys in your book bag, and she steals 'em. I'll fool her! I won't bring any more toys to school,” he howled. “Know what children are to her? Plants! She did, she called us plants. Miss Awful, that's her name.”
Such was Roger's distress that his mother offered to stop at the Schrafft's on Thirteenth Street and treat him to a soda. “Who's got time for sodas?” he bleated. “I have homework to do. Punishment homework. Ten words, ten times each. On account of the witch's spelling test.”
“Ten words, ten times each?” Mrs. Clark repeated. “How many words were on the test?”
“Ten,” moaned Roger. “Every one wrong. Come on, I've got to hurry home. I don't have time to waste.” Refusing to be consoled, he headed for the brownstone and the desk in his room.
On Tuesday, together with the other mothers, Mrs. Clark was astonished to see the third-grade march down the steps of St. Geoffrey's in military precision. Clop, clop, the children marched, looking neither to the left nor right, while behind them came a stiff-backed, iron-haired woman in a pepper-and-salt suit. “One, two, three, one, two, three,” she counted, then clapped her hands in dismissal. Turning, she surveyed the assemblage of goggle-eyed mothers. “May I inquire if the mother of Joseph Lambert is among you?” she asked.
“I'm Mrs. Lambert,” replied a voice meekly, whereupon Miss Orville paraded directly up to her. The rest of the mothers looked on, speechless.
“Mrs. Lambert, your son threatens to grow into a useless member of society,” stated Miss Orville in ringing tones that echoed down the street. “That is, unless you term watching television useful. Joseph has confessed that he views three hours per evening.”
“Only after his homework's finished,” Margery Lambert allowed.
“Madame, he does not finish his homework. He idles through it, scattering mistakes higgledy-piggledy. I suggest you give him closer supervision. Good day.” With a brief nod, Miss Orville proceeded down the street, and it was a full minute before the mothers had recovered enough to comment. Some voted in favor of immediate protest to Dr. Jameson, St. Geoffrey's headmaster, on the hiring of such a woman, even on a temporary basis. But since it was temporary, the mothers concluded it would have to be tolerated.
Nancy Reeves, Bruce's mother, kept staring at the retreating figure of Miss Orville, by now far down the block. “I know her from somewhere, I'm sure of it,” she insisted, shaking her head.
The next morning, Roger refused to leave for school. “My shoes aren’t shined,” he wailed. “Not what Miss Awful calls shined. Where's the polish? I can't leave till I do 'em over.”
“Roger, if only you'd thought of it last night,” sighed Mrs. Clark.
“You sound like her,” he cried. “That's what she'd say,” and it gave his mother something to puzzle over for the rest of the day. She was still thinking about it when she joined the group of mothers outside St. Geoffrey’s at three. She had to admit it was sort of impressive, the smart, martial air exhibited by the third grade as they trooped down the steps. There was to be additional ceremony today. The ranks waited on the sidewalk until Miss Orville passed back and forth in inspection. Stationing herself at the head of the columns, she boomed, “Good afternoon, boys and girls. Let us return with pens tomorrow.”
It was on Thursday that Nancy Reeves finally remembered where previously she had seen Miss Orville. Perhaps it was from the shock of having received a compliment from the latter.
“Mrs. Reeves, I rejoice to inform you of progress,” Miss Orville had addressed her, after the third grade had performed its military display for the afternoon. “On Monday, young Bruce's penmanship was comparable to a chicken's -- if a chicken could write. Today, I was pleased to award him an A.”
A tug at the tweed jacket, and the stiff-backed figure walked down the street. Nancy Reeves stared after her until Miss Orville merged into the flow of pedestrians and traffic. “I know who she is” Nancy suddenly remarked, turning to the other mothers. “I knew I’d seen her before. Those old ramshackle buildings near us on Hudson Street -- remember when they were torn down last year?” The other mothers formed a circle around her. “Miss Orville was one of the tenants,” Nancy Reeves went on. “She'd lived there for ages, and refused to budge until the landlord got a court order and deposited her on the sidewalk. I saw her there, sitting in a rocker on the sidewalk, surrounded by all this furniture and plants. Her picture was in the papers. Elderly retired schoolteacher . . . they found a furnished room for her on Jane Street, I think. Poor old thing, evicted like that . . . I remember she couldn't keep any of the plants . . .”
On the way home, after supplying a lurid account of the day's tortures -- “Miss Awful made Walter Meade stand in the corner for saying a bad word” --Roger asked his mother, “Eviction. What does that mean?”
“It's when somebody is forced by law to vacate an apartment. The landlord gets an eviction notice, and the person has to leave.”
“Kicked her out on the street. Is that what they did to the witch?”
“Don’t call her that, it's rude and impolite,” Mrs. Clark said, as they turned into the brownstone doorway. “I can see your father and I have been too easygoing where you're concerned.”
“Huh, we've got worse names for her,” Roger retorted. “Curse names, you should hear 'em. We're planning how to get even with Miss Awful, just you see.” He paused, as his mother opened the downstairs door with her key. “That's where the cat used to sleep, remember?” he said, pointing at a corner of the entryway. His face was grave and earnest. “I wonder where that cat went to. Hey, Mom,” he hurried to catch up. “Maybe it was evicted, too.”
Then it was Friday at St. Geoffrey's. Before lunch, Miss Orville told the class, “I am happy to inform you that Miss Wilson will be back on Monday.” She held up her hand for quiet. “This afternoon will be my final session with you. Not that discipline will relax, but I might read you a story. Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps. My boys and girls always enjoyed him so. Forty-six years of them . . . Joseph Lambert, you're not sitting up straight. You know I don't permit slouchers in my class.”
It was a mistake to have told the children that Miss Wilson would be back on Monday, that only a few hours of the terrible reign of Miss Awful were left to endure. Even before lunch recess, a certain spirit of challenge and defiance had infiltrated into the room. Postures were still erect, but not quite as erect. Tommy Miller dropped his pencil case on the floor and did not request permission to pick it up.
“Ahhh, so what,” he mumbled, when Miss Orville remonstrated with him.
“What did you say?” she demanded, drawing herself up.
“I said, so what,” Tommy Miller answered, returning her stare without distress.
Roger thought that was neat of Tommy, talking fresh like that. He surprised, too, because Miss Awful didn't yell at Tommy or anything. A funny look came into her eyes, he noticed, and she just went on with the geography lesson. And when Tommy dropped his pencil case again, and picked it up without asking, she said nothing. Roger wasn't so certain that Tommy should have dropped the pencil case a second time. The lunch bell rang, then, and he piled out of the classroom with the others, not bothering to wait for permission.
At lunch in the basement cafeteria, the third grade talked of nothing except how to get even with Miss Awful. The recommendations showed daring and imagination.
“We could beat her up,” Joey Lambert suggested. “We could wait at the corner till she goes by, and throw rocks at her.”
“We’d get arrested” Walter Meade pointed out.
“Better idea” said Bruce Reeves. “We could go upstairs to the classroom before she gets back, and tie a string in front of the door. She’d trip and break her neck.
“She’s old,” Roger Clark protested. “We can’t hurt her like that. She’s too old.”
It was one of the girls actually, who thought of the plant. “That dopey old plant she’s always fussing over,” piped Midge Fuller. “We could rip off all the dopey leaves. That’d show her.”
Roger pushed back his chair and stood up from the table. “We don’t want to do that,” he said, not understanding why he objected. It was a feeling inside, he couldn’t explain… “Aw, let’s forget about it,” he said. “Let’s call it quits.”
“The plant, the plant,” Midge Fuller squealed, clapping her hands.
Postures were a good deal worse when the third grade reconvened after lunch. “Well, you’ve put in an industrious week, I daresay…” Miss Orville commented. She opened the frayed volume of Treasure Island which she had brought from home and turned the pages carefully to Chapter One. “I assume the class is familiar with the tale of young Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, and the other wonderful characters.”
“No, I ain't,” said Tommy Miller.
''Ain't. What word is that?”
“It's the word ain't,” answered Tommy.
''Ain't, ain't,'' somebody jeered.
Miss Orville lowered the frayed volume. “No, children, you mustn't do this,” she said with force. “To attend school is a privilege you must not mock. Can you guess how many thousands of children in the world are denied the gift of schooling?” Her lips quavered. “It is a priceless gift. You cannot permit yourselves to squander a moment of it.” She rose from her desk and looked down at the rows of boys and girls. “It isn't enough any longer to accept a gift and make no return for it, not with the world in the shape it's in,” she said, spectacles trembling on her bony nose. “The world isn't a playbox,” she said. “If I have been severe with you this past week, it was for your benefit. The world needs good citizens. If I have helped one of you to grow a fraction of an inch, if just one of you--”
She stopped speaking. Her voice faltered, the words dammed up. She was staring at the plant on the windowsill, which she had not noticed before. The stalks twisted up bare and naked, where the leaves had been torn off. “You see,” Miss Orville said after a moment, going slowly to the windowsill. “You see what I am talking about? To be truly educated is to be civilized. Here, you may observe the opposite.” Her fingers reached out to the bare stalks. “Violence and destruction . . .” She turned and faced the class, and behind the spectacles her eyes were dim and faded. “Whoever is responsible, I beg of you only to be sorry,” she said. When she returned to her desk, her back was straighter than ever, but it seemed to take her longer to cover the distance.
At the close of class that afternoon, there was no forming of lines. Miss Orville merely dismissed the boys and girls and did not leave her desk. The children ran out, some in regret, some silent, others cheerful and scampering. Only Roger Clark stayed behind.
He stood at the windows, plucking at the naked plant on the sill. Miss Orville was emptying the desk of her possessions, books, pads, a folder of maps. “These are yours, I believe,” she said to Roger. In her hands were the water pistol, the baseball cards, the spool of string. “Here, take them,” she said.
Roger went to the desk. He stuffed the toys in his coat pocket without paying attention to them. He stood at the desk, rubbing his hand up and down his coat.
“Yes?” Miss Orville asked.
Roger stood back, hands at his side, and lifted his head erectly. “Flower,” he spelled. “F- l-o-w-e-r.” He squared his shoulders and looked at Miss Orville's brimming eyes. “Castle,” Roger spelled. “C-a-s-t-l-e.”
Then he walked from the room.
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