Unforgettable People — Mrs. Stevenson
We like to remember people with admirable qualities, who treated others with thoughtfulness. But we also remember those who demonstrated the opposite of goodness. Sad to say, Mrs. Stevenson was one who fell in that category.
I was six years old at the beginning of my first grade year and Mrs. Stevenson was my teacher. She was a short woman, her hair dyed red, rather like Lucille Ball. On the first day, she smiled at us kids as we came into her classroom. But that smile skewed sideways. If I’d been a few years older, I might have realized her sideways smile was code for, “I look nice, but I’m meaner than a snake on a black truck.” It didn’t take long for us kids to find that out.
When things didn’t go just right, Mrs. Stevenson could yell louder than a fire siren. If a kid talked out of turn, she could give the Evil Eye worse than a mountain lion on the prowl. By the end of the first week, we were all afraid of her. Mrs. Stevenson was the stuff of nighttime terrors.
One little girl — I think her name was Denise — struggled mightily to write lowercase g’s facing to the left. Mrs. Stevenson gave her a paper with g at the top. The instructions were to write row after row of g’s until she had it correct. Denise worked hard and then took her paper to Mrs. Stevenson, seated at her desk. Poor Denise had missed the mark yet again and that teacher flew into a rage. “Look at this! They’re still backwards! What a stupid girl you are!”
All of us kids gasped. Some averted their eyes and acted as if nothing terrible was happening. Others watched the entire episode. I was one of those. Mrs. Stevenson yanked Denise by her hair, dragging her back to her small desk. Then the woman turned over the offensive paper covered in backwards g’s and told Denise to do the work all over again. “And don’t you cry! It’s your own fault!”
This type of scenario was a regular occurrence in Mrs. Stevenson’s class. She pulled one little boy to his desk by his ear because he couldn’t legibly write his name. Another girl had trouble with addition. Mrs. Stevenson gripped her by the collar.
A girl named Kathy asked to go to the restroom. Mrs. Stevenson barked, “You can’t go now. We’re in the middle of a lesson.” Kathy slid low, but raised her hand only a minute or so later. Again, Mrs. Stevenson said no. “You’ll just have to wait.”
It’s never a good idea to tell that to a six-year-old. Naturally, Kathy couldn’t wait and she made a big puddle on the floor. Mrs. Stevenson was furious. She sent that girl to wander the school hallways and find the janitor. Even worse, Kathy spent the rest of the day in soggy, smelly clothes.
Did I ever go home and tell my mother about these incidents? Absolutely not. I assume no other kid told, either. I think we just expected school was like that. You had to endure and there was no crying in our milk over it.
Day after day and month after month, Mrs. Stevenson yelled at us, called kids names, and generally made life miserable. Who knows how, but we persevered.
One day in April, Mrs. Stevenson gave her sideways smile and said, “I’m starting a reading contest. You children practice stories at home and each afternoon, I’ll leave time for you to read to the class.” She held up a poster board. “Here’s a chart with everyone’s name. When you read, you’ll get a star. Whoever reads the most by the last week of school, will be the winner. There will be first, second, and third prize!”
I was a good reader, so this contest had my attention. Prizes! What would they be? A fancy necklace? A set of books? A box of candy? The possibilities were endless!
But not so fast. . . I should have known, like everything with Mrs. Stevenson, the outcome wouldn’t be straightforward. The way it worked, she set aside just the last fifteen minutes of each day for the contest. That was time enough for two kids to read, if they had short books. If a kid had a long book, one and that was it. Another problem, who was the person to choose readers? Mrs. Stevenson, of course, and she regularly picked her favorites, Sheryl, smartest in the class, and Carla, not as smart but well-behaved and Sheryl’s friend. That left the rest of us peon’s scratching for a chance to read. If we’d been older, we would have said, “Forget it. The contest is rigged.” After a couple weeks of this nonsense, most of the kids simply gave up. I kept trying and the stars next to my name were adding up.
The last week of school, Mrs. Stevenson announced the contest winners. No surprise, Sheryl nabbed 1st place, Carla was 2nd, but I had enough stars to get 3rd! So what were the prizes we’d been vying for?
Mrs. Stevenson proclaimed, “The prize is a cookout this Saturday! You three girls will come to my house! Mr. Stevenson will grill hamburgers and after dinner, I’ll take you to get ice cream cones!”
I don’t know how Sheryl and Carla felt about it, but I could have hidden in a closet until frogs sang. I told my mother that I really, really didn’t want to go. She made me. And why not? From September to June, she’d exchanged pleasantries with Mrs. Stevenson and thought her to be a fine teacher.
I don’t recall that cookout as being a smashing success. Mr. Stevenson cooked the burgers on a grill and didn’t have much to say to three little girls. We sat in the back yard at a picnic table and along with the burgers, there were potato chips and baked beans from a can. My memory is that we girls ate mostly in silence. Then came the trip to the ice cream store in Mrs. Stevenson’s car. We had our choice of chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry, one scoop in a cone. That was pretty good and we girls were cheerier, though maybe we were just thinking it was almost time to go home.
One-by-one, she dropped us off and had a short chat with our mothers. We were encouraged to say happily, “Thank you very much, Mrs. Stevenson.” School was out for the summer and I was done with first grade. Hurray!
To protect the guilty and innocent alike, all names in this story were changed from the factual. Sadly, the rest is true. Unfortunately, people can be memorable for the wrong reasons. I sometimes wonder how many little kids Mrs. Stevenson turned off from school, just as their education was beginning.