Saturday, September 22, 2007

The strawberry and Miss Chives

Shame is such a powerful thing. In "The Kite Runner", the protagonist commits some very shameful acts as a child. These acts, while we can forgive them due to his age, influence nearly all of his choices well into adulthood. It was hard to read it because I found myself "wishing" he had been good as a boy, instead of bad.

It made me think of my own life, my childhood, and what shameful things I did then that I would never do now. A memory from fifth grade kept popping into my head. I don't believe I've ever told anyone, ever, about this event. But I still smart with shame when I think about it. (Which isn't often, as our self defense mechanism enjoys burying these memories under layers and layers of happier times.)

It was the beginning of spring. Our teacher, Miss Chives, was a very large, affable woman, with long dark hair and an imposing stance. In truth, I was a little scared of her, as she could turn her smile into a sword at the strangest of moments. She once gave me a silver star for my homework assignment and then took away my recess because I didn't say thank you for the star. She showed us that she could do that if she wanted, sour the best of moments, and this was a nice tool for keeping us kids off balance and under control.

One weekend, I asked my mom if I could bring Miss Chives a Happy Spring gift. And while we were out shopping, we picked up a little strawberry plant, with one nearly ripe strawberry hanging from one of its stems. On Monday morning, I arrived in class with my 12 fellow 10 year olds and placed the little potted strawberry plant on her desk. Some kids brought apples, but I (giant ego I) had brought a plant bearing fruit. When Miss Chives entered the room, she immediately brightened upon seeing the plant. "What a marvelous gift! And with one little strawberry, how adorable. And who do I thank for such an unexpected yet delightful gift to start the spring?" I'm pretty sure my head filled every square inch of that room as I crooned, "I did. I did."

"Thank you Ricky," she said as she took the plant and placed it on the bookshelf behind her. Then she immediately went into teacher mode, and I suddenly felt robbed. That's it? It was almost as if she was disappointed that it was me bearing the gift. And I had resisted plucking that strawberry all weekend, and she doesn't even appreciate it! Perhaps I had learned one of her souring the moment stunts, but I was mad. And I sat through the morning lesson eying the strawberry dangling from the plant behind her. By recess, I had decided she didn't deserve that strawberry. She was probably going to eat it as soon as we left the room, after all she is fat.

At morning recess, I snuck back into the room when no one was there, plucked that strawberry and ate it. That was probably when I learned that eating your rage with spiteful acts doesn't taste good.The strawberry slid down my throat, and I felt it, like the poison it was, settling down into my stomach.

When recess was over, we all settled back into our seats, and Karen raised her hand and asked Miss Chives, "What happened to the strawberry?" Miss Chives turned around to see the plant, only green now, no splash of red anywhere. And she flew into a rage. "WHO DID THIS! WHO ATE THIS STRAWBERRY? WE ARE NOT LEAVING THIS ROOM UNTIL WE KNOW WHO ATE THIS STRAWBERRY! WHO! WHO? I'M GOING TO FIND OUT!" This went on for minutes. At lunchtime, we were all forced to stay in the room to eat our lunch and then put our heads down on our desk. She taught the rest of that day with an air of bitterness and disgust. What vile creatures we were. At the end of the day, she announced that there would be no recesses until the person who did this fessed up. Everyone but Ricky that is. He doesn't deserve to be punished.

Looking back, I think she knew. My face must have smarted redder than that strawberry when she said that. But I was as shameful a creature there ever was. For the rest of that week, I played at recess while my classmates had to stay in the class with their heads down on the desks. Recess that week was one of the grimmest experiences I can remember. If there's one glimmer of redemption there, it's the fact I was consumed by terrible guilt, a guilt sadly never acted on. On Friday, she took the plant home with her, and on the following Monday, everything was as if nothing had happened. She never mentioned it again. It took me 32 years, but I have finally confessed.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

God.

What a humiliating bitch. Of course I adore you for confessing. I love the way you wrote it too.

em

Ed said...

Miss Chives should be glad you didn't do what I would have done. I would have watered the plant and berry with my Pee and let her eat it.
You were only a 5th grader after all. Don't give it a second thought. I give you permission to forgive yourself of all blame. You're a great guy and I am so proud to know you.

Cooper said...

Humiliation and shame are such debilitating emotions. They paralyse you. She made it basically impossible for you to confess. My own most shameful act as a kid also haunts me occasionally. I still squirm when I think of it.

I hope this didn't poison a lifetime of eating strawberries?

RJ March said...

It's funny (sort of-- ort of not) how those teachers wield their powers, like taking away recess after giving you a silver star. It's a little sick, really. I had a teacher who, when I accidentally stepped on her shoe, made me get down and wipe it off. I saw her the next year and was so frantic not to be seen by her that I started running down the hall when my lunch box opened and my thermos fell out. I can still hear the sickening, swirling crush of broken glass and juice. (Mrs. Whatever you name was-- you're a fucking bitch.)

BYG said...

My second grade teacher sounded a lot like Miss Chives except that it turned out the woman was actually a raving loon. She used to randomly shout out kids' names and tell them they weren't getting recess for a week...no reason why, she was just nuts. She used to lock kids in a small cage in the back of the room if she deemed that they had misbehaved...no one found this strange back then. But eventually some parents found out their kid had been put in the cage and she lost her job or was asked to leave. Miss Chives sounds eerily familiar.

Chunks said...

This made me cry. You were just a boy. Forgive yourself.

Devo and I had a teacher in Grade 7 that was a bit of a tyrant. She used to break egg timers and yardsticks daily. Of course, her husband was having an affair. Teachers are people too. Some of them are insane though. LOL!

Jen said...

I was always a super-sensitive kid who felt guilty about the littlest things, even things I hadn't done--good work Catholic schooling! I think though that it's important to remember that only by experiencing having done something wrong and the ramifications that you avoid similar things when you are older and know better. I'm sure we can all think of adults who do stupid petty things to others like in your story--except they're adults. You were what, 10? You're over it. They're not.

I had a tyranical teacher in Gr. 4 who played favourites and refused to change the seating based on personality. As a result I was at the back with some boys who used to pick on me, when I retaliated I got punished, they got "boys will be boys". She used to assign dictionary pages for students to write out for extra homework as punishment. My mum got fed up with me having 3 and 4 hours of homework as a result and wrote her a letter. The teacher was amused and read the letter out in the staff room (mum volenteered alot and another teacher told her about it) with a "Now Mrs. C thinks she can tell me how to teach" comment. Apparently there was an uncomfortable silence that the principal finally broke by saying "It's against school board policy to assign unproductive work as punishment. Come to my office" Mum didn't tell me until high school that she'd sent one of my teachers to the principal's office! Sweet!

Sorry that was so long.

art said...

Bad Ricky! BAD!

Just kidding. We've all done things we're not proud of. The best we can hope for is to learn from our mistakes. You did. Did Miss Chives?

GayProf said...

Clearly you were wicked and evil as a child.

Eating the strawberry seems like it could be a good metaphor...

Devo said...

What a great story, so well told. It is amazing to me what sorts of things teachers used to get away with back when we were kids. It doesn't fly as easily these days, although it still does from time to time. We all have stories such as this from our childhood, and this was so compelling the way you tell it.

Laverne said...

Hmm.. as a teacher, hard for me to hear how hated some of us are.

She sounds difficult, but what amazes me is how you could let your whole class be punished for something you did. For the rest of the week! I tell you, that took willpower on your part not to give in.

And you finally fessed up. Wow. I'm imagining that was hard for you. We love you anyway.

dawn said...

You're probably going to burn in hell for that one.

I think we all have a "I didn't stand up and admit it was me" story from our youth. It's funny how we remember those moments, the ones where we knew it was wrong, but long before we'd developed the courage to stand up when it mattered.

Enemy of the Republic said...

As usual, you kick ass and speak things as they are. When I teach the Iliad, I talk about the Greeks being more motivated by honor within community--they became more guilt based because the social forces deliniated the rules so clearly. Now we are shame based--they asked: what's the difference? I answered: all of you in this room are ashamed of something--would you dare tell me or anyone else? NO, they yelled. I rest my case.

The trick with shame is that we don't often do things that are "bad", but disgust others which is their problem. I don't defend the protagonist in The Kite Runner, but think of how many kids got toilet trained in a shame based way.

Sorry I am rambling. But this one spoke to me. Shame is a terrible enemy to sound mental health. Sure there is right and wrong, but that brings on a reasonable notion of guilt. I hope I make sense.

Lemuel said...

You go back and tell little Ricky that he has no reason for guilt. Miss Chives was manipulative and controlling.

David said...

Not sure where I stand on this one, not that it matters. Ms. Chives would have terrified me, but it also would never occur to me to retaliate if I decided someone didn't deserve something.

As always, I find the way your mind works fascinating and challenging.

Anonymous said...

i always hated the "put your heads down" thing and like all the other things i hate i just refused to do it! (unless i get paid to do them which makes me feel a little better about comprimising my scruples, such as they are)
Anyway I got sent to the principal's office many times, refusing to pledge allegiance, refusing to put my head down, etc.
When they called my mom she would always proudly say. "that's my daughter for you! I wonder if lazy teachers still pull that junk today.

donna

Anonymous said...

Shades of Mrs Pearce. 5th grade, somebody farted in class. She tried to sniff the culpert out but ended up pacing up and down the row that smelled the worst shouting "who's sick, which one of you is sick?"
Like as if anyones going to confess. Geeze.

dbv said...

that's frickin' hysterical!!!

dbv said...

oh, and the kite runner just made me weep, it was so touching!!

Jason said...

She needs to be reigned in.

Patricia said...

it's so interesting how strongly we all experienced emotions such as guilt and shame and remorse as a child. i remember being so completely stressed out by things as a child that, at the time, seemed so terribly important. now, when i look back, i feel sadness for "her" in terms of how intense it all was.

Lyvvie said...

I'm kind of proud of you. Shame the rest of the class had to get punished, but after all this time, I bet they'd forgive you. If they don't then they're arseholes who deserved head down for a week.

Tell me: What do you think of strawberries today?

P.Brownsey said...

What is really appalling about this incident is the use of the mass punishment: *everyone* is to be punished if the culprit doesn't own up.

In my own schooldays I used to rage about how often I was subjected to mass punishments for things I hadn't done. I even once went to the sachool library and looked up "Law" in Encyclopaedia Britannica, convinced it would say there was a law against mass punishments. I am glad to say that fifty years on I have not mellowed into wistful tolerant acceptance of this awful behaviour by schoolteachers.

Paul Brownsey

Steven said...

Thank God I'm a Catholic that feels no guilt.

I'm sure that strawberry would've tasted sooo good.