Joseph Mansfield


Miss Anna Lee was of medium height, slender, black haired and dark skinned, and she was my second grade teacher.  And to a great extent my victim, as I was a particularly ill-behaved lad.  I’d say I averaged a bolo-paddle spanking about every other day.

One day I did something, I have now no idea what, and Miss Anna Lee came to me and asked, “Why did you do that?”

“Because I wanted to,” I heard myself answer.

What made me say that?  Don’t know.  It just came out.  I was shocked at myself.

But I was even more shocked at Miss Anna Lee.  A sort of jerk went through her whole body.  And she just looked at me a couple of seconds, and then walked away and went about her business.

Well, next time Miss Anna Lee asked why I did something, what could I say?  I felt I had to repeat that magic formula, “Because I wanted to.”

By the third time I gave that answer, I knew something was terribly wrong.  I couldn’t stop myself from saying my magic words.  Yet I knew perfectly well that Miss Anna Lee and I were locked into a deadly dance, a dance that could not possibly end well for me.  We continued to swirl around, with my mantra beginning to choke me every time I had to say it, but I had to say it.

The dance went on for about three weeks.  Then, after I had sung my refrain one last time, the music stopped.

Miss Anna Lee stood by me quietly a moment after I had given my answer.  Then she said, “Joe, I am going to give you a whipping.  It will be one you will never forget.  Get up and go into the cloak room.  This is going to be so bad I don’t even want the other children to see it. 

“And if you want to know why I’m doing this, it’s because I want to!

*     *     *


Obviously Miss Anna Lee was right in saying I would remember the whipping she was about to administer.  And administer she did.  She bent me over for a few whacks, then stood me up for a lecture, then went for a few more whacks—and this went on for several rounds.  I wonder if Miss Anna Lee is still living.  If so, I suspect she remembers that day as well as I do.

*     *     *


Miss Grace, first grade teacher, was short and wide, and I gave her at least as much trouble as I did Miss Anna Lee.  All her paddlings were just routine things.  There was never any showdown like the one I provoked with Miss Anna Lee.

There is something I do not understand about Miss Grace.  I could read and do simple arithmetic long before I entered first grade.  We had no kindergarten then; but my great-grandmother had taught me reading, using the Chattanooga Times as her primer.  I think I figured out arithmetic on my own while buying candy at the corner gas station.

In any case, from time to time Miss Grace would set me to tutoring a slow student in reading or ciphering.  And when she did, I would become completely absorbed in the task, and never give a moment’s trouble.  I was an effective tutor, too.

So the question is, why did Miss Grace not set me to tutoring every day?  I wondered about that then, and I wonder about it now.  Miss Grace passed away years ago, so I can never answer that question.

*     *     *


Upon arrival for my first day in the third grade my eyes met an astonishing sight.  At the front of the room stood a magnificent lady, tall, thin, straight as a soldier, with hair snow white and skin almost so, the hair being rolled into a classic schoolmarm’s bun on the crown of the head.  Edith Elliott!  The name reeked of elegance every bit as much as did the lady.

Miss Edith’s classroom manner matched her appearance.  She was reserved and formal and expected the same from her students.  She seldom laughed but I doubt she ever frowned.  She radiated a dignified happiness, a poise that was relaxed but admitted nothing frivolous.

I don’t remember many details of daily classroom routine under Miss Edith.  I do recall how she taught us to march like little soldiers when we left our classroom.  In a voice grave yet expectant, she would say, “Rise!”  Whereupon all the children, moving as one, or trying to anyway, would stand at attention beside their desks.  When all were straight and quiet, Miss Edith would say, “Pass!”  And the row nearest the door would move out into the corridor, followed by each successive row in turn, to march single file and in silence to wherever we were going.  Miss Edith would walk near the rear, where she could see what went on.  Thus the person who headed the march had to know where we were going and how to get there, and what protocol to use if we crossed ways with another column of marching students.

In our lunchroom we used meal tickets which were bought weekly and punched daily.  Each student was expected to sign his name to the ticket, no doubt so he could be called to account when he lost it.  One day I saw Miss Edith signing her ticket.  In beautiful, flowing, fairly masculine script, she wrote, “Edith Elliott”.  So far as I know she was the only teacher in the school who did not place a handle before her name.  The reason was obvious.  Miss Edith’s dignity was so complete that no title could add to it, nor the lack thereof take away.

For some years before my third grade year Miss Edith had taught in an outlying country school.  Of which she was, of course, also the principal.  After my year with her she retired.  So I had never seen her before that year, and only once after did I see her.  I met her at a rally, held in a bright sunny field, about twenty years later.  She looked exactly like she had before.  And she remembered me.  Without a moment’s hesitation or uncertainty, she walked over and called me by name.  We talked a while, I don’t remember about what.  But I am sure it was about something current, not about third grade.

As for spankings, I got very few of them that year.  For I knew the instant that I laid eyes on Miss Edith that the dignity of this lady demanded my best behavior.  Not because she would punish me.  But because I instinctively wanted to give her my best, to try to stretch myself to be the quality of person she was.  I failed, occasionally enough to call for a paddling.  But I internalized a lot of Miss Edith at the same time, and went on in subsequent years trying to be what I knew she would want me to be.

Had we talked about third grade, in that meeting years later, I might have said how much influence Miss Edith had on me.  But it is as well I did not.  I am sure she knew quite well what she had done, and that she was satisfied with it.

And you, reader, if you have favored me by reading this far, know now that her influence continues to have its effect in me even today.


© 2002 Joseph Mansfield