(Arnold told me once: “Solomon, whatever you do, don’t upset the womenfolk.”)
Mrs. Smith is not her real name. I mean, the “Mrs.” part is right. But her real last name is Saytakhmetov. She married some guy named Yegor with that last name. She was my sixth grade teacher. The school authorities probably had a big meeting and decided we were all too stupid to be able to pronounce her last name, so to make it easier for us they concluded that we should call her Mrs. Smith. They were right.
Mrs. Smith: “Solomon, would you like to give us your answer to Question Number Seven?”
Me: “No. But thanks for asking.”
I should probably concentrate on listening to Arnold more often.
Mrs. Smith is tall, thin and she has fiery red hair and scalding blue eyes. She always wears long dresses that almost drag on the floor. Many times I wondered how she was able to keep from tripping, especially all the times when she was escorting me to the principal’s office.
To say that Mrs. Smith and I didn’t get along would be an understatement. I’m not going to say it was her fault, even though most of it was. I tried, but I was the Victim of Unfortunate Circumstances beginning at eleven-and-a-half years old.
The First Calamity occurred almost as soon as the sixth grade session began. Had I known that was going to be the norm instead of a freak occurrence, I would have done a Tom Sawyer and floated aimlessly down the Mississippi River.
Our school building was one of those ancient things, constructed with brick and old wood. The window sills were made of oak and they were huge. You could land a plane on them. September of 1964 was hot and there were tons of flies who must have believed they’d get to the Promised Land by dying on the window sills. No matter how often Old Mister Gray, the janitor, cleaned the sills, flies kept dying there. (Mister Gray’s last name was something else, also, but we had to refer to him as Mister Gray. I guess the Moon Lake School Board really thought they had a bunch of idiots on their hands).
Cora Lee Brantley was one of those kids who got sick really easily at the slightest provocation. Just seeing a dead gopher on the playground once caused her to choke and gag. But she had never thrown up. I changed that, though.
Some students took the hot lunch in the cafeteria and some of us–like me–brought our lunches and stayed in the classroom to devour the delicacies our mothers had packed for us. I always used the same old brown paper bag to carry my lunch. The one I was using this particular day was the one I’d used during the entire fifth grade. By this time it was rather worn and very wrinkly. Marion had packed an egg sandwich, two cookies that were way too small, an apple, and a box of raisins.
Cora Lee was sitting across the room from me. My seat was next to the Fly Cemetary. I palmed some raisins and said, “Hey, Cora Lee, look, I’m eating flies.” Then I pretended to pick up a dead fly, tossing a raisin in the air and catching it in my mouth. After only the second one I saw that Cora Lee was beginning to gag. Then she retched a little. Then a little more. Then she spewed out her bologna sandwich and probably parts of her breakfast.
I learned that some people are VIP’s-Visually Induced Pukers. They’re the folks that vomit upon seeing others doing the same. I learned that Billy Watson is a VIP. So is Linda Crawford. And Mike O’ Reilly. Oh yeah, so is Cathy Gibson. It was one right after the other, like Vomit Dominos. I just stood there with a handful of raisins. Then I decided I’d better destroy the evidence so I crammed the remaining sweet morsels into my mouth. I was also quick-witted enough to go to the waste basket next to Mrs. Smith’s desk and toss in the raisin box. I had just returned to my desk when Mrs. Smith returned from the cafeteria.
I also learned that day that Mrs. Smith is a VIP.
As soon as she observed her puke covered classroom she ran to her waste basket and quickly got rid of her recently devoured lunch.
I learned that the Lunch Room Offering for that day was salmon loaf covered in creamed peas, a nice tossed salad, buttered boiled potatoes with just a whisper of parsley, and for dessert a slice of either cherry pie or cherry crunch. It was a little difficult to discern exactly which.
Right away Little Eddie McNeely yelled, “It was Solomon, Mrs. Smith! He was eating dead flies!” I learned that Little Eddie McNeely was a tattle-tale who would rat out his own mother if it made him look good.
Mrs. Smith quickly walked over to me, grabbed me by my left elbow, and hustled me out of the classroom. I knew away right where we were going: Mrs. Lawson’s Office. Mrs. Lawson was the Moon Lake Grade School principal.
Mrs. Smith was walking very fast, dragging me next to her. “You don’t have to pull me,” I said. “I think I know the way.”
Mrs. Lawson and I were well acquainted with each other.
“Just shut up Young Man!” said Mrs. Smith. That’s right, the Young Man thing again. It’s never good.
I was going to inform her that she still had some of her lunch on her chin, but if she believed Silence was in order at that moment, I wasn’t going to argue with her.
Mrs. Smith deposited me on a bench in the hallway outside the Interrogation Room known fondly as the Principal’s Office. Some of the old ladies in the office saw me sitting on the hot seat and looked at me and just shook their heads.
Mrs. Smith came back to fetch me and we entered Mrs. Lawson’s office. Mrs. Smith took up a position behind Mrs. Lawson, just to her right. Her arms were folded in front of her. I noticed her chin was now clean. Good Ol’ Mrs. Lawson must have told her to clean up.
Mrs. Lawson is one hundred and fifty years old if she’s a day. Her face is brown and wrinkly, not unlike my lunch bag. I was sitting in a cold metal chair in front of Mrs. Lawson. She always put her elbows on her desk with her hands folded in front of her mouth. She tries to hide the fact that her false teeth keep dropping out of her mouth when she talks; especially when she yells. I get that a lot.
Mrs. Lawson: “Well, what do you have to say for yourself, Young Man?”
What kind of a question is that?
Me: “It was an accident.”
Mrs. Lawson: “Were you eating flies?”
Me: “Of course not. They were raisins.”
Then I realized I’d eaten the evidence that could acquit me and the box was in Mrs. Smith’s waste basket, bathing in salmon loaf and creamed peas.
My penance for causing the Regurgitation Rally was to write on Mrs. Smith’s blackboard, “I will not make people puke again” fifty times. And I was to do this every recess for the next week.
When the Principal Experience ended, Mrs. Smith dragged me back to the classroom. By the time we returned Old Mr. Gray had placed a piece of tape across the doorway and wouldn’t allow anyone in the Crime Scene until he was finished cleaning up. I peeked in and saw him, donned in overalls, big rubber boots, mask, and huge gloves; like he was mopping up a radioactive spill. He was using a snow shovel and scooping up the mess and dumping it into a big garbage can. I guess you can’t be a VIP and a janitor. I imagine at the interview for the janitor position the interviewers have a few people puke and see if the applicant tosses their cookies. If so, they give them a job mowing the lawn or something.
The remainder of the class day was spent outside in the shade of a big oak tree, a fact that I never received one tiny bit of thanks for. I was in sixth grade with a bunch of ungrateful urchins. But I learned a lot that day.
Several months later, as the school year was drawing to a glorious termination, I was home after school and Arnold had just arrived from the paper mill. He picked up a Popular Mechanicis magazine so I was watching him read. He moves his lips when he reads and I try to see if I know what he’s reading. That skill may come in useful someday. Marion walked up with her fists on her hips and fire in her eyes. “What have you got to say for yourself, Young Man?” Everyone knew who she was talking to.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but it was probably an accident,” I said.
“I got a call from Mrs. Lawson, your principal.” As if I didn’t know who Mrs. Lawson was. Hell, I saw her more than I saw Marion. I knew Mrs. Lawson had not called to congratulate Marion for having such a bright student as her son. But for the life of me I didn’t have any idea what I had done.
Then Marion said, “She said you started a fire in Mrs. Smith’s class.”
Oh yeah, that.
“It was an accident.”
It really was. Again, it was partly Mrs. Smith’s fault. I mean, who gives matches to a bunch of goofy sixth graders? She didn’t know what else to do with us during an art class so she had us make candles from beeswax. Rather juvenile, but at least we got to play with matches in class. I had constructed a very nice yellow candle, one I was going to give to Arnold since yellow is his favorite color. Jimmy Stafford, Karl Morris and I were standing in the back of the room with our candles lit. Stafford nudged me and said, “Hey, let’s pretend our candles are flaming swords.” Then he knocked my candle with his and mine felI into a waste basket next to me. Normally, the candle would have extinguished before doing any damage. But not this one.
Flames immediately leapt from the basket. “Fire!” yelled Little Eddie McNeely. Mrs. Smith ran into the hallway and grabbed a fire extinguisher and came in and doused the flames. “It was Solomon,” squealed Little Eddie McNeely. “He dropped his candle in the waste basket.”
I still need to strangle Eddie McNeely at least twice for ratting me out.
Mrs. Smith and I repeated our “Dance to the Principal’s Office.” She tossed me on the bench again. Now I noticed a sign made out of red construction paper that was placed above the seat outside Mrs. Lawson’s office which read: Reserved for Solomon Quick.
I was beckoned into her office again and Mrs. Smith took up her regular position behind Mrs. Lawson with her arms folded in front of her under her bosom. She was breathing quite heavily. This caused her chest to heave up and down. I’d never really noticed Mrs. Smith’s breasts up until that time. It looked like Boob Trampoline. I was rather transfixed by the event. So much so I wasn’t listening to Mrs. Lawson until she said, “Well, do you, Young Man?”
I couldn’t really tell her that I wasn’t listening to her because I was hypnotized by Mrs. Smith’s undulating breasts. So I had to guess what the question was. I guessed that she had asked me if I felt sorry for what I did. “Oh, yes. Very much so,” I replied with a smile.
Well, I’d guessed wrong. The question had been, “Do you intend to burn down the entire school?”
Mrs. Smith’s hands went down to her sides as she gasped and Mrs. Lawson’s hands slapped her desk as she pushed herself backwards in her chair, her teeth dropping out onto her lap.
I knew then that my punishment was going to be more severe than simply writing on a blackboard. I had to apologize to Mrs. Smith and also to the rest of the class. I was also going to spend the next two weeks after school performing various chores around the school. Arnold was going to have to drive to the school after work to pick me up since I would be missing my bus home. It was five miles out of his way.
My apology to the class: “Dear Students of Mrs. Smith’s sixth grade class: I apologize for accidentally dropping my candle into a waste basket, causing a small fire which some believe put your lives in danger.” Here I rolled my eyes for effect. “However, had I not made such a perfect candle it would have extinguished before ever hitting the waste basket. The construction of which I believe I should have afforded me a grade of A instead of the F I received.” I saw a few students nodding their heads in approval. I continued: “I think we should thank Mrs. Smith for her quick actions in putting out the fire. I also think we should all be trained in fire prevention and we should learn how to use fire extinguishers. Now, all those in favor of us practicing with fire extinguishers during recess, raise your hands.”
Mrs. Smith ordered me to sit down after that. But for the remaining four weeks of the school year, at least once a week a student would ask if we could spray fire extinguishers around outside.
Arnold: “I told you, don’t upset the womenfolk.”
I was very happy when the sixth grade year ended. I thought all my problems were behind me.
Then Marion and Arnold informed me there was something called, “Summer Camp.”