My first grade teacher was Miss Hoover, a pretty young lady who served graham crackers and milk and begged for silence. My second grade teacher was Mrs. Sparks, a no-nonsense high-breasted woman who was not particularly electric. She wore printed cotton dresses and looked through eyeglasses that had Coke bottle lenses. She could have been my grandmother’s sister. She was sane and diligently, if not enthusiastically, went about the boring daily business of math and spelling.
Miss Miller was a round, low-breasted woman who always wore a black cotton dress, perhaps the same one every day. Her black hair was pinched into a tight, little a bun. Like Mrs. Sparks and unlike Miss Hoover, Miss Miller never smiled. She kept a yardstick or pointer in her right hand and a Bible in her left. She used them both. She was a dark presence. Armed and dangerous.
Now I’ve talked with Catholic kids and heard story after story about those ferocious nuns. Sorry, they couldn’t have lasted 30 seconds in the ring with Miss Miller. Sure the standard crack on the knuckles. Yes, the ear was not only there for listening, it was also a handle by which Miss Miller could extract you from the classroom. That’s just the physical stuff. There was a lot more to Miss Miller than the mere threat of, or actual, physical violence.
Every morning, after the pledge of allegiance and a prayer as long as a three-act play in the original Greek, she would read us something from the black book, usually something harsh and bitter showing the vengeful side of God’s nature. I’ll admit that’s when I began to develop a dim view of the Creator. That and what he did to Moses put me off. Of course I said nothing at the time. She had a Stalinesque hold on the third-graders. The smart-aleck seeds of my personality had not yet bloomed. The unfortunate thing is that most folks can read my face.
The Bible reading was followed by a moral tale. One of those stories told to us 64 years ago survives to this day, albeit in tattered form. I was eight at the time. Seems as if a frail little boy committed a sin, stealing perhaps. He was caught and found guilty. He was to be paddled (another weapon in Miss Miller’s arsenal). “But he was so small and so weak,” Miss Miller said. “Surely there must be a better alternative.” She looked around the classroom. No one spoke. “All was lost, it seemed,” continued Miss Miller, “until one boy, a big, strapping child, raised his hand and volunteered to take the beating.” Miss Miller may have actually smiled, having conveyed what in her mind was an important moral lesson.
I think the reason I remember this story is that it never made sense to me. I’ve been trying to figure this out since I was eight. There seemed to be, even then, a simpler solution.
At 3:15 — the end of the day in Miss Miller’s third grade class, she would stand at the door as we all filed through and left for home.
That afternoon, as usual and being the polite child my parents taught me to be, I said to her: “Goodbye, Miss Miller, see you tomorrow.”
Without blinking, she replied, “If there is a tomorrow.”