Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mr. Wasden

A natural nerd, I typically enjoyed and excelled at school...and most of my teachers loved me.  But I had a tendency to be quiet and shy.  Often the only black kid in my grade, I became acutely self-conscious after my mother suddenly cut my waist-length braids into an afro...from which my hair never really outgrew.

Making new friends was never easy for me -- a situation exacerbated by my family's frequent moves -- and I attended six different elementary schools alone.I was seven years old when I left Penrose Elementary for Pennsylvania, and we moved twice while there.  I'd finally found a niche amongst the sixth-grade brains and flautists of South Brandywine Junior High when my parents announced we were moving back to the Springs.  I was 11 when I said goodbye to my east-coast friends...and our mid-year move was especially hard on me.

The weekend before my first day at Audubon Elementary that sad January, my mother had taken me to the Americana Beauty College for a cheapie trim.   The girl who got stuck with me had no idea how to work with "ebony" hair, and botched and butchered it unevenly; a more self-sure stylist did what he could to repair the damage that she'd done...but the fact of the matter was that my hair was so short; I wept each time I glimpsed my reflection in the mirror.

Dreading Monday's inexorable arrival, I know that I never hated my clothes, my hair, my face, and myself more than I did when that bitter cold day finally dawned.  Waiting for the bus on the corner of Ranch Circle and Ranch Drive, I hid myself beneath the slightly matted faux-fur trimmed hood of my lame, pea-green winter coat. 

Arriving at our destination before the first bell, we passengers disembarked, and diffused onto the asphalt playground.  Standing alone, my mind chock full of thoughts, I was an island unto myself.  BAM from out of nowhere came an unexpected leather tether-ball hit to the head...my face and eyes stinging with startled surprise.  A boy came rushing up towards me.  "Sorry," he began, and then stopped; I saw the stupid expression on his face as his eyes took me in.  "Whoa," he said after a moment, before traipsing off casually, "I thought you were the new black dude."  

The bell rang and I felt the butterflies in my stomach turn to albatross.  We filed into the room; one desk sat empty, and I perceived that it was mine, in alphabetic order after A, B, and C.  As the teacher began to read off the attendance, I could not bring myself to take off my coat...clinging to its shaky shelter.  He stepped measuredly down the first row, calling out names one by one.  As he came up the second row, I shrank a bit in anticipation of my name being called, psyching myself up as the teacher approached from behind. 

With a woosh that felt like falling, Mr. Wasden yanked the hood from my head, and my heart stopped from shock; not skipping a beat, he blandly called out my name.  "Here," I said hoarsely, my face burning like fire under the cool stares of my new classmates as my teacher continued his metronome walk up and down the aisles.

Afterward, Mr. Wasden introduced me to the class, quipping that it appeared as though I'd gotten into a fight with a lawnmower and lost.  Ha. ha.

* * * * * * * *

At lunch, the clique invited me to take a seat, and I did...doing my best to summon up small, polite conversation in between bites of my sandwich.  I returned home that painful first day, my heart somewhat uplifted; but the one-time fluke was revealed to me the following day...my fickle friends from the day before mutely shaking their heads "no" at me when I attempted to sit down.  Two tall and overly-developed misfit girls hesitated briefly before inviting me to sit beside them, and I quietly joined them to make it a lonely trio.

Over the course of the next several months, I endured a daily variety of diverse slights and cruelties, all tolerated and tacitly encouraged by Mr. Wasden.  The day class clown Scott Mounce wore a multi-colored afro wig to school and spent the day speaking in a heavily-affected Ebonic drawl.  The day a boy named Steve mockingly pantomimed at the five stripes of my Sears-brand sneakers. The day a visiting art teacher chose me to sit as a model for the class to draw; he drew a lovely picture of me...the rest of the class, not so much. 

That one awful day we were shown our first sex education film strip; Mr. Wasden stopped at the frame with a cross-section illustration of the penis, and asked, "Can you think of any slang words that are used in place of the proper word 'penis?'" A flurry of hands belonging to pre-pubescent boys with the right answer rose to attention.  He acknowledged Scott Mounce first:  "Dick," said Scott proudly, beaming with amusement.  "Good," said Mr. Wasden encouragingly before acknowledging another:  "Prick," came the answer...and then "Cock," from a third.  I sank down in my seat, flushed with embarrassment...the scene replaying itself vividly at the frame showing the vagina cross-section.

As I recall, Mr. Wasden had at least four children...and he described the miscarriage his wife suffered during her fifth pregnancy as something to this effect:  "My wife thought she had to take a BM, and sat down on the toilet; when she stood up, she looked down to see a dead baby floating in the water."  Came the shocked and hushed question from a curious classmate..."What did she do with it?"  Mr. Wasden answered matter-of-factly:  "She flushed it down."  Scarred for life by the visual he had etched on my mind, it was some time before I discerned that "BM" was short for "bowel movement"...a term I'd never before heard but was loathe to have him define.

* * * * * * * *

Mr. Wasden was a teacher who liked keeping pets, upon whom he would lavish affection; I was not one.  I remember watching him walk at recess, flocked by a small gaggle of blonde and giggling girls led by one Diane Grant.  I'll always remember the stupid feathered flip of her yellow hair, and her big fishy blue eyes as they criss-crossed the expanse of brown gravel together, she leaning into his side with a quiet conspiratory confidence. 

I hated them all for who they were, and hated myself more for who I could never be.

After the hell of lunch and recess came math in the afternoon.  Mr. Wasden was a terrible teacher in general, but especially lousy at teaching the math-lousy me.  He seemed especially fond of calling a handful of students at a time to the chalkboard, and having them solve math problems in a sort of race in front of the class. 

I guess it's relatively common to dream you're standing in front of a group, and then suddenly realize you're clad only in your underwear; well, my participation in this exercise was the dreadful waking equivalent of that particular bad dream.  Closing my eyes, I would hold my breath and wish myself invisible, hoping he'd overlook me; very often he would (especially if I had my hand raised with the right answer), but not always....and not on this day.

He called my name along with several others, and I reluctantly made my way to the head of the class, standing next to the effortlessly fluffy Sherrie Cippoletti.  Chalk held nervously in hand, I wrote down the problem as he read it, hoping I might actually solve it.

But I couldn't.  One by one, those around me solved their problems and returned to their seats, until I was the only one left standing.  I felt each pair of eyes keenly in the thickening silence, punctuated occasionally with sighs of boredom and yawns of impatience.  Usually, Mr. Wasden dispatched with me quickly, but not on this day...granting me instead a generous allotment of time; the seconds ticked by loudly in my mind, and a cold sweat broke out on my brow as I stood there, too stumped and stupid to even pretend to work the problem.

Finally, Mr. Wasden harumphed.  "Sherrie, show this dummy how it's done," he barked; then, addressing me, he said "And when she's finished, I want you to go sit in the hallway and think about it."  My cheeks blazed -- I wasn't blushing , though...black people can't blush, my classmates had pointed out to me time and again.  Tears stung my eyes as I watched Sherrie solve the problem one, two, three; a lump in my throat and my vison a blur, I tripped over my own feet in my haste to retreat to the hallway and escape the bullets of all those eyes full of mocking.

I sat down in the hallway crossed-legged -- "Indian-style" -- and covered my face with my hands, weeping with anger and shame.  The intensity of the moment did not subside, however, and I felt a wild hair sprout between the cheeks of my sorely chapped ass.  For the first time in my life, the good and studious girl that I had always been said "fuck you" to Mr. Wasden and my classmates and that school; my feet moving two steps before my brain, I was alreaedy crossing under the threshold of the exit sign when I decided to leave. 

I hid under some shrubbery near the place where the buses would park at the end of the day, and waited for the final bell to ring.  I estimate that I waited for at least two hours; during that time, I saw Mr. Wasden and several other staff members wamder to and fro, looking for me.  I sat quietly, at once terrified and emboldened by my sudden disobedience.  When the final bell rang, I crawled out from under the bush and got on my bus unobserved by the driver, who wasn't there -- possibly having a BM break in the teacher's lounge.  I made my way to the back of the bus and hid myself on the floor behind the heater...hoping for the best, and bracing for the worst. 

Other children began to board the bus, and for once they didn't question me loudly and for show; no one gave away my presence, not even when Mr. Wasden got on the bus and walked halfway down the aisle looking for me.  Finally, he gave up and got off of the bus; the driver, now returned, started up the engine, and then we were making our way out of there and heading toward home.  A few of the riders had witnessed my classroom humilation and stealthy rebellion; they regarded me soberly...as though I were some kind of bad ass.  I got off at my stop without a glance at the driver, and walked home to my house and my mother.

* * * * * * * *

Of course Mr. Wasden had alerted her that I'd gone AWOL, and she demanded an explanation.  I told her what had happened, and as usual, she found a way to blame me -- for my own good, of course.  My mom and I met with Mr. Wasden before the start of school the next day to discuss the incident.  Her heavy Dutch accent and her trust in authority figures often led her to be hoodwinked, and on that morning she was.  I spoke up quietly...but with only her doubtful support behind me, Mr. Wasden easily discounted our concerns and countered them with exaggerated stories of my bad behavior, feeble effort, and of all the things I'd done and would do to deserve his maltreatment of me. 

My parents grounded me for a week, and I promised that I'd do better...but a silent turning of the tables had occurred on that day; Mr. Wasden and I both knew that a line had been crossed and there was no going back. 

About a month later, for the sixth grade goodbye prank, we all trudged up the small hill and stood looking down at the school.  The ringleaders started to sing, with the rest of the group joining in:

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teacher leave those kids alone
HEY TEACHER, leave those kids alone
All in all we're all just another brick in the wall.

It was 1979 -- my mother didn't really let me listen to KILO, and I was pretty unfamiliar with the song...but as I mouthed along, I was struck by the words. 

School let out for summer vacation, and I walked away from Audubon with a heart that was heavier in some ways, and lighter in others.  I never saw Mr. Wasden again -- and gladly so.

* * * * * * * *

I tell you this story now because it still bothers and still hurts me; for many years, passing by the Audubon building was like an unwanted encounter with the terrifying Ghost of School Days Past. 

Bullying is wrong...and can take on a variety of guises.  A target can be ganged up on and beaten without leaving a single mark to show for it.  Wounds of the soul and of the heart are often slow to heal, and the scar left behind can be thick and ugly.  Sad but true:  sometimes it's those in a position of trust who are the leaders of the pack.

I don't know what caused Ms. Herbst at Bates Elementary to recently go all Wasden on that child...but I hope that if she reads this, she might now understand better how the memory of her might linger much longer than she'd like...and that the ghost of the Rubber Band Boy could come back to haunt her unexpectedly and very publicly decades later as she's basking in the luxury of her District pension.  Maybe that's how the nuns at St. Mary's handled things when Ms. Herbst was in pigtails...but this is a secular, liberal public school we're talking about, and teachers are expected to spare the rod.  And especially during a fire drill?  I mean, come on...this is a sure sign of passive agressive sadism if ever I saw one.  If she has even a modicum of respectibility as an educator about her, she'll step down off of her high horse, accept responsibility for behaving irrationally, and offer an open apology to this child, his family and his school mates for the bizarre and unmerited disciplinary measures she unleashed on this third grade student. 

If you've not already done so, I encourage you to listen the District's interview with the child; the link can be found in the comments section of my post All tied up at Bates.  Kudos to the whomever had the wherewithal to record and upload that unpleasant conversation.

Shame on the Gazette for not even reporting this story.

Should they wish to discuss this matter with me further, let it be known that I welcome contact from any member of the Clifton Morgan family with open arms. 

Thank you God for allowing my inner sixth-grader to finally wash this painful memory from her 'fro.

Coming up next, I'll discuss the hypocrisy of the the District's complicit relationship with the El Paso County Department of Human Services, and how everyday parents would literally lose custody of their child(ren) for much less than the unsafe, humiliating and harsh meaures Ms. Herbst inflicted upon this poor youngster.

Don't give up, young one...brighter days and better teachers await you.

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