Chapter 5: Smiling into My Future, continued
I entered second grade with more than a little trepidation. I’d heard about the second-grade teacher, Mrs. Tackacs. There were all kinds of rumors about her. I was told she was really mean. Someone claimed she had stepped on a boy’s leg on purpose because he had it out in the aisle. Had I heard of the mean and cruel teacher called Mrs. Trunchbull from Roahl Dahl’s book Matilda at the time, I would have thought I was getting her for a teacher, and that would have been an apt comparison.
On the first day of school, Mrs. Tackacs dictated the rules in her class as we sat at our desks. I don’t remember all the rules, but we indeed had to keep our legs out of the aisle, or else she would step on them. I tucked my feet under my desk as I looked at Mrs. Tackacs’s enormous size. I knew I didn’t want her stepping on my legs.
Mrs. Tackacs’s list of what not to do was very long. She even told us we were not allowed to write in cursive. I loved writing in cursive, so I thought I would do it when she wasn’t watching. What happened next made me change my mind. When Mrs. Tackacs was done with her list of what not to do, she said, “And for those who do not obey!” She got up from her desk, stomped over to the counter, grabbed the handle of a large paper cutter… “I will stick their heads under here and…” WHOMP! She brought down the handle of that green paper cutter with one move of her gigantic arm. In my imagination, I saw a head rolling off the counter, its eyes bulging and tongue hanging out. I was too scared to move. I looked at the other children without moving my head. Tommy was sitting across from me. His mouth was in the shape of an O and his eyes were wide open. He looked as shocked as I felt. My breath came in gasps, and I had the urge to run from the room.
For the rest of the day I kept looking at the paper cutter. When I got home that afternoon, I cried when I told Mem what Mrs. Tackacs did, and I said I was afraid to go back to school. Mem assured me that Mrs. Tackacs would not actually do what she said she would. I wasn’t so sure.
My fear of Mrs. Tackacs didn’t lessen during the time I was in second grade. I often had the urge to write in cursive, but I didn’t dare. So I did it at home instead. I took letters Mem received in the mail and copied the writing in between the lines.
Then one day, I really had the urge to write my spelling words instead of printing them. My pencil seemed to have a life of its own as I wrote out the words.
The next day, Mrs. Tackacs said my name loudly and startled me. I looked up. She was holding up my spelling paper. “Is this your paper?” she demanded. I nodded.
“Come and get it,” she said, “And no more writing! You know the rules in this class are to print! You can do your fancy writing next year!” I walked up to her desk and took my paper from her hand. Without looking at her face, I turned toward my desk and looked at the floor on my way back.
One morning at breakfast, the topic of school picture-taking came up. Mem said to us, “Now if they make you take the class picture, that’s okay.” I perked right up. It felt to me as though Mem had just given us permission.
Later that day, when it was time for our class to go down to the gym to have pictures taken, Mrs. Tackacs said, “Saloma, since you are not allowed to have your picture taken, you can just stay in the classroom.”
I did not like the idea of staying in the classroom all by myself. I popped up out of my seat and said, “Oh, but my mother said I could take the class picture!”
Mrs. Tackacs didn’t pay any attention to me. She was busy getting the boys lined up to go to the gym. I stood in line with the girls and then walked down the hallway to the gym. Several people were directing one child at a time to sit up on a high stool to smile into the camera. A bright light shone through a white screen onto the person whose picture was being taken. My heart started beating fast when it was almost my turn. I wondered if I would get in trouble for doing this. I decided I didn’t care — that it was worth it to feel just like the other children for once.
When it was my turn, I climbed up onto the high stool and smiled into the lights and camera. I didn’t even mind the bright flashes. As I climbed down from the stool, I wondered what Mem would say when she saw my picture.
Many years later, when my husband and I were in Ohio, we visited my little school and asked if they had photos from the years I was attending. They said that there might be something with my school records in Burton. That’s where I found a little tiny photo in the corner of my school records. I asked to borrow it and had a professional photographer enlarge the photo and make several copies. It is the only childhood photo I have of me by myself.
One of the things that strikes me still is that I look happy in that photo. I don’t remember ever being that happy as a child. Perhaps when I smiled into the camera, I knew, at least on some level, that I was smiling into my future.
Conclusion of Chapter 5.