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I wanted to stay home that day. So did my big sister. Our mother had other ideas. Minutes later, Carol and I were outside in the early morning darkness battling a mid-winter blizzard on our way to school.
Grumbling, we started across the front yard of our remote farm home. Driving snow stung our faces. The bitter cold forced its way deep inside our boots, mittens and parkas. Our next warm haven was a mile down the road: our one-room country school.
Just then, Marion Brown’s form came swirling out of the heavy snow, all snuggled up warmly in her shiny new horse drawn sleigh.
Maybe we should try catching a ride, I thought, although I was quite sure she wouldn’t allow the intrusion. After all, Mrs. Brown was our teacher and she had a well-earned reputation for being cranky. Instinctively, Carol and I decided to go for it anyway.
“Hold on, damn it,” I remember muttering under my breath as I ran, stumbling through a foot of snow toward the sleigh. I knew better than to shout those words out loud. Mrs. Brown relished disciplining kids who swore. Damn was a pretty strong swear among her prohibited verbiage.
“Come on!” I shouted over my shoulder at Carol. “Hurry up!”
I looked back. A hidden snowdrift in the darkness had tripped her up. I fought the urge to laugh at her lying face down in the snow, her head half buried. I’d learned that younger siblings are well advised to avoid laughing at those who are older.
“Wait!” I called out toward the sleigh.
I shouted as loud as I could this time hoping to be heard above the musical jangling of the harness and the howling blizzard. A spirited bay gelding trotted briskly past us harnesed to the shiny maroon sleigh, raising clouds of swirling snow in it’s wake.
As they swept by, I caught sight of our imperious teacher shaking the reins vigorously, leaving no doubt she wanted the frisky horse to trot even faster. That dashed any hope we might catch a ride.
Carol caught up with me and went racing ahead, determined to catch the sleigh and prove the faceplant had not compromised her self-assumed age superiority. I followed close in her wake. Almost within reach of the speeding sleigh, she stopped abruptly. Caught off guard, I charged headlong into her back, knocking both of us down.
“Forget it,” Carol said as she rolled over. A resigned look shared the glum expression on her snow covered face.
Again, I suppressed the urge to laugh. Instead, I glanced up.
Two fellow students were clinging to the back of the retreating sleigh, their feet on the runners. There’d be no room for Carol and me. And the open-top sleigh’s passenger compartment was fully occupied by Mrs. Brown’s ample personage, enveloped in a huge buffalo robe.
“Shit!” I said, watching the lucky neighbor kids disappear into the snowy pre-dawn darkness. “Shit!” I said again, more loudly this time, confident it was safe now to invoke my favorite curse word.
Thirty minutes later, Carol and I arrived at our school, a small green clapboard structure with white trim around the windows and on the corners. Shivering from the laborious one-mile trek in the fierce sub-zero blizzard, we hung our coats, hats, scarves and mittens on nails pounded into a board mounted on the wall inside the door.
We were looking forward to joining the other students around the big black and silver wood-burning stove that commanded the center of the room, the school’s only source of heat. Just as Carol and I got close enough to begin feeling the radiated warmth, Mrs. Brown announced:
“All right pupils. Get to your places. Hurry up now!”
The other 14 children spread out across the room. Students in the highest of the eight grades headed for desks nearer the front. Not incidentally, they were closer to the stove. Kids in the lower grades like me were relegated to the back of the classroom, next to the drafty wooden door that sprung open when hit by strong gusts of wind from time to time.
Shit! I thought as I headed for my desk. Double shit! I thought brazenly.
My feet and hands were freezing. But it was clear from her tone Mrs. Brown’s mood was not to be trifled with today.
She called the classroom to order. As usual, she promptly became preoccupied with the older kids, giving little attention to us younger students.
My friend Mike and I were the entire third grade in that single-room school. There were no first or second graders.
Mike and I had become close friends. It was a good thing – we were the only boys our age in that vast wilderness surrounding the cluster of small farms served by the school. Our fathers and other farmers had built it on a two-acre parcel of land donated by a centrally located farmer.
To be honest, Mike and I were relieved at not having to endure the withering oppression of her instructional ministrations. Besides, we enjoyed inventing games to keep us occupied. It didn’t occur to either of us at the time, or to Mrs. Brown evidently, that at this stage of our pedagogical journey we ought to have been acquiring basic proficiencies in the fundamentals of arithmetic and grammar. Truth be known, we were having far too much fun to concern ourselves with such visceral matters.
Our made-up games helped fill the time while awaiting recess, then while looking forward to lunch, then recess again, and then while counting the minutes until it was time to go home.
I will admit, Mike and I often forgot to keep our voices down. Today was one of those occasions. We were deeply into a competitive made-up game when Mrs. Brown’s voice boomed out:
“Just what do you two nerdowells think you’re doing? Both of you! Outside! Go get some firewood! Then, maybe we’ll have a little peace and quiet around here. Get out there! Right now!”
Shit! I thought. I glanced over at the wood box. It was almost full. I looked sideways at Mike. We both knew the real purpose of Mrs. Brown’s order: to punish us for distracting her. I was sure Mike was feeling as I did… I sure didn’t want to go back outside again. It was hard enough staying warm inside. Besides, my hands and feet were still cold from the long walk to school.
“Out!” Mrs. Brown shouted again, recognizing our reticence to leave the comparative comfort of the schoolroom. “Go get that firewood like I told you. Do it RIGHT NOW!”
Mike and I grumbled as we donned our coats and mittens. Outside, we were dismayed to find that two inches of snow had blown onto the woodpile in the few hours since school had started.
“The faster the better,” I shouted to Mike over the howling wind as he and I hurriedly cleared snow off one area of the woodpile. We loaded our arms quickly with as many pieces of chopped firewood as we could carry and headed back inside.
Stop!” Mrs. Brown shouted just as we were about to drop the firewood into the woodbox. “Stop right there!” She rushed over to Mike and me, both straining under huge armloads of firewood. She was puffing and visibly angry.
“Take that wood back outside and clean off the snow!” she shouted, waving a beefy hand dangling from the end of a puffy arm. “You’re making a mess! Out! Get out of here!”
I glanced at Mike. We knew the firewood was almost clear of snow. We’d worked hard to clean it. Mike and I had seen the mean glint in her eyes. Both of us understood Mrs. Brown’s intent was to extend our punishment. We were annoyed but knew better than to show it, much less say anything.
So back outside we went, grumbling even louder to each other. With bare hands we went to work scraping and banging, trying to eradicate from each piece of firewood the few specks of snow we’d not previously removed. However, as quickly as we cleared the snow, it would blow right back.
“I’ve an idea,” I shouted to Mike over the howling wind. “Let’s wrap the wood with our coats. That’ll keep the snow off.”
The plan worked. It did indeed keep the blowing snow off the firewood, but now we were out there in the raging blizzard in our shirtsleeves. Not surprising, by the time we returned inside both of us were shivering violently.
Mrs. Brown’s pudgy face loomed over us. An unruly crop of scraggly hairs on her chin and upper lip emphasized her triumphant scowl as she watched us dump the firewood into a woodbox now overfull. With that, she abruptly turned her back on us and stomped to the head of the room.
Trudging back to our desks, Mike and I, still miffed, sat and exchanged glances. We were so cold our shivering was more akin to shaking. My hands and feet were colder than I could remember. I could see that Mike was cold, too. Silently, we tucked our frigid hands firmly up into our warm armpits.
“Get out your pencils and scribblers!” Mrs. Brown barked at Mike and I from the front of the room. Her voice boomed out loud and impatient. She’d turned our way again, unleashing her intimidating demeanor upon us. I could see the other kids pretend to be busy, hoping to minimize the risk of ricocheted wrath.
“You are going to practice your penmanship. That’ll keep you two busy for a while. Now get at it!”
WHAT? I thought. My fingers felt more like icicles than digits belonging to my hands. I could barely close my fingers, much less write neatly. At that moment, penmanship was not among my higher priorities.
Mike and I grabbed our pencils. As usual, the leads on both were broken. We pulled out our pocketknives. In our remote farming community, every boy carried one, proudly. Of all the telling symbols in our region, folding knives were seen to differentiate little boys from ‘big’ boys, that is, ‘real’ boys on their way to becoming ‘real’ men. Both of us went to work sharpening our pencils.
Mike and I looked up, startled by the sharp noise of a chalkboard brush crashing into the wall behind us. I looked at Mike. We glanced around the room, assuming one of the big boys was trying to bully us again when Mrs. Brown wasn’t looking. It was a common event but usually they did it outside at recess or during lunch.
We looked around again. Mrs. Brown was glaring back at us. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised that she’d thrown the brush!
“Over the woodbox!” she shouted. “Sharpen those pencils over the woodbox! Where do you good-for-nothings think you are, in a barnyard? Get over there!”
I caught sight of a few other kids chuckling at us, their faces hidden behind opened scribblers and textbooks.
With the sharpening mission accomplished, Mike and I returned to our desks and opened our scribblers.
We tried to concentrate on copying the perfectly formed letters that Mrs. Brown had inscribed earlier in the year on four large blackboards, really green boards. Across the tops, capital letters both in script and printing, and numbers from zero to nine, embraced three perfectly straight parallel lines. Lower-case letters nestled beside each capital, fitting exactly between the lower two lines.
That’s when it happened.
I was concentrating hard. Most likely this is why I felt it before realizing what had occurred. Something had flashed past my eyes, and smacked my hand hard. The blow sent my pencil flying. My hand hurt intensely, even though it was still numb from the cold.
Then I smelled the acrid odor of Mrs. Brown’s sweat-diluted perfume swirling around us. There she was, standing right behind me. I turned slightly and looked up. Her eyes flashed with anger; her mouth was twisted in a snarl. In her right hand she clutched an 18-inch ruler, her favorite disciplinary instrument for students she deemed errant. One edge of the ruler held a thin metal insert. I glanced down at my throbbing left hand. A drop of blood was oozing from a narrow cut on the knuckle where my index finger joined my hand.
“I warned you before about using THAT hand!” she shouted, a spray of spittle erupting from her pursed lips. I felt the mist settle down upon my face and hair.
“Listen to me!” she continued loudly. “How many times do I have to tell you? Only retards use their left hand! Do you hear me? Don’t you understand? They’re mentally defective, that’s why they write with their left hand. Aberrant behavior, that’s what it is! Are you some kind of ignorant deranged freak? Well, are you?”
I understood that no answer was required. Regardless, I shook my bowed head side-to-side acknowledging her questions. I was overcome with shame for what I’d done instinctively… used my left hand. I fought back tears, as much from humiliation as from the pain.
“Pick up your pencil!” Mrs. Brown ordered. “With your RIGHT hand! Do it NOW! You will use that hand and only that hand from now on. Do you understand? I don’t allow retarded freaks in my school. DO… YOU… HEAR… ME?”
I nodded my head, this time slowly moving it up and down. I could feel my face burning with embarrassment.
“Right?” Mrs. Brown shouted at me. She stomped her foot repeatedly on the rough wood floor. “Right?”
I was sitting at my desk. My eyes were level with her abundant girth. Each time she stomped her foot, I could see her ample belly jiggle under her massive dress like a litter of kittens romping around in a potato sack. Such a picture in my mind’s eye at any other time would have left me struggling unsuccessfully to keep from bursting out laughing. Not this time.
I nodded my head once more, a bit faster, feeling my face flush red-hot again with the shame of having instinctively used my previously forbidden left hand.
“Say it out loud!” she shouted.
More spittle sprayed down upon me.
“Stand up and say it!”
I stood slowly.
“Yes, Mrs. Brown,” I said.
My voice was timid and subdued with fear and embarrassment.
“Louder!” she shouted at me. “Turn around. Look at everyone! Say it! Say it louder!”
Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what came over me at that moment. But without thinking, I refused to face the other students. I turned toward her instead, and shouted at the top of my lungs:
“YES, MRS. BROWN!”
All I remember was that my eyes were focused intently on hers. Mike told me later he saw my blue eyes radiating anger and defiance like he’d never seen before.
With amazing speed, Mrs. Brown’s pudgy right hand caught me on the left side of my head, knocking me to the floor. I remember staying down, unable to hear now over the loud ringing in my left ear, fighting to keep from crying. I lost that struggle. I hid my wet face in my hands so she wouldn’t see my tears.
Mrs. Brown waddled back to the front of the room, stomping her feet as she went. Nearby desks shook and rattled in her wake.
I crawled back up to my desk, wiping my wet face on the forearms of my plaid shirtsleeves. The other kids were ominously quiet. Some glanced furtively back at me, shock in their eyes. Mike reached over and touched my left arm gently, reassuringly… a true friend.
Near the end of the day, having completed what little schoolwork we were assigned, Mike asked Mrs. Brown if he and I could go home early.
Mrs. Brown looked out the windows on the east wall. The storm had begun to ease. She agreed, leaving no doubt about her relief to be rid of a pair she considered more trouble than we were worth.
On the way home, after making a brief stop, Mike and I burst out laughing as we debated, and pondered:
She did just that. Each set of parents obligingly interrogated their school-aged offspring and checked through their homes, barns, garages and other outbuildings. Our schoolmates knew we were the prime suspects. Mike and I understood that being discovered would mean spankings at home as well as some unspeakable retribution by Mrs. Brown in front of the entire classroom. We swore a vow of silence. Our fellow students honored our secret without words ever being exchanged. Many also had endured the consequences of Mrs. Brown’s volatile personality.
For a few days, Mrs. Brown was forced to replace the missing rein with a length of decrepit old rope. This amused all of the kids. Behind her back they pantomimed the challenges we imagined she’d experienced driving the spirited horse with one rein.
Outside during recess, beyond the range of Mrs. Brown’s hawk-like eyesight and awesome hearing, the more thespian among us tried to outdo each other’s imitations of her. They waddled around in a fake daze, a faux rein held aloft in one raised hand while another student portrayed an unruly horse verging out of control. The performances inspired much hilarity among our fellow students. Mike and I were among the more enthusiastic members of the audience.
Early the following week Mrs. Brown’s husband discovered the missing rein. It had mysteriously reappeared under a horse blanket tucked under the seat of that maroon sleigh he’d given her for Christmas. Mr. Brown suggested his wife might have misplaced the rein. She indignantly denied any such notion.
The rein thieves never confessed and were never caught, although both Mike and I later admitted our transgression to our parents. We explained the precipitating circumstances, thereby receiving only verbal admonitions, each administered by fathers struggling to maintain straight faces but unable to conceal the gleams in their eyes.
Thereafter, Mrs. Brown’s behavior toward us changed. She began treating her pair of third graders with an unaccustomed measure of restraint combined with a subtle deference that Mike and I found enormously satisfying.
1. “Rein of Error” is one of two short stories I was honored to have chosen for inclusion in LIMITLESS, a fund-raising anthology containing stories donated by 29 authors from around the world. Proceeds from the sales of LIMITLESS are being sent to the AMAR Foundation to help displaced families resettle in the war-torn Middle East. Patron of the Foundation is Prince Charles.
2. The story “Rein of Error” is fiction but was inspired by true events that occurred in the mid-1900s. Some of the language was in common use then and is employed here to reflect those times. Such language today is considered offensive.