I used my brothers’ new crayons and wrote every letter I knew on our bare wood stairs. My mother screamed when she found it and blamed my older brothers. She did not accuse me because I wasn't in school yet. My brothers denied involvement, pointed out clues and named their suspect. “Sharon did this.” The “S” was perfect but the E was backward with six lines. Both of them were too smart to write the letter “E” like that. And too smart to write on steps. I refused to confess until Mother said God knew who did it and He didn't like liars.
My punishment was scrubbing if off. Wax had seeped into the soft wood fibers so there was a trace left. My parents pointed it out to my relatives when they came for a visit. They scolded but smiled. “You should know better. How did you learn letters?” I shrugged because I didn’t want to get in more trouble. One of my father’s thick books was hidden under my bed. It was filled with letters and I knew these letters became words. I stared until my eyes stung, but couldn’t read them and was afraid I never would. I might be as dumb as my brothers said I was.
I went to kindergarten but it was a wasted year. I already knew everything the teacher did.
The next year my first grade teacher, Mrs. Crim, stood and waited until the only sound in the room was the clock ticking. She waited for it to click ten times. “First graders, this year you will read. It is my job to teach you and your job to learn.” Those words made her my favorite person in the world. I thought I would love her forever.
She gave us tests and placed us in groups. I was a "Bluebird". We read about Dick, Jane, Sally, Puff and Spot. They liked to "see" and "go" and "look" and "stop". I loved reading about them because I was reading. It didn’t matter they were dumb and boring.
By spring Dick and Jane and Sally were running, jumping, riding and sitting. And by then it was clear the "Bluebirds" were the smart kids. I was afraid Mrs. Crim made a mistake with me and I’d be put back with the "Red birds" like Danny. She warned it could happen to any of us.
One morning the bulletin board by my desk was covered with brown paper. There was red peeking out the top corner and blue sticking out the bottom. I raised my hand. Mrs. Crim glanced over my handwriting paper and frowned. “This is right. Is there something you don't understand?"
I pointed to the bulletin board. “What's under there?”
“It is something we’ll do this afternoon.”
“Is it a game? Do we guess what it is?”
“No, it isn’t a game.”
“There are things sticking out.” I got up to point them out and since I was close, I sniffed, but smelled only stiff paper.
“Sit down and get back to work.”
“But Mrs. Crim, I’m done.”
“Then write another page.”
It was hard to work on letters I already knew, when there was there was a secret something a few feet away. I thought about children falling into rivers, bony fingered witches with poisoned apples, monsters with flaming eyeballs…
After lunch I asked if it was time, but Mrs. Crim said, “Later.” We drew lines to match shapes. Then we colored apples red and leaves green and the tree brown. This time I stayed within the lines. Mrs. Crim announced afternoon recess.
“Teacher? Will we find out what’s under the paper when we get back?” She didn’t answer.When we got to the playground I reminded her we were running out of time.
She crossed her arms and frowned. "Go play."
I asked other kids what they thought it was. The girl who Mrs. Crim liked best thought it was the pictures she had drawn for her. A boy who Mrs. Crim didn't like, thought it was a new window. Someone guessed “Candy” and then everyone did.
After recess Mrs. Crim stood at the front of the room. We sat straight up, hands folded on the desk, eyes on her, counting clock ticks. I squeezed my legs together and held my breath.
“Stand up, push in your seats and come to the bulletin board.”
Chairs and shoes scrapped the floor. Kids fought for position.
“Class, spread out so everyone can see.”
Tall ones moved to the back without being told. She waited until everyone claimed their spot then made changes. Danny could not stand next to Michael. Walter always had to stand next to Mrs. Crim. I changed spots with Marcia who couldn’t see through me.
“Mrs. Crim? Should we close our eyes?” Her back was to me, but she recognized the voice. “That isn’t necessary, Sharon.”
She ripped off the paper and there was a collective gasp and a few groans. No candy. It was decorated with bright tissue paper flowers and lined with crepe paper waves. In the center was an eight letter word. Twice as many letters as any of the words I knew. “I want everyone to try to read this word. “Bluebirds”, when you figure it out keep quiet. Give the other students a chance.”
My stomach hurt when she expected great things from the Bluebirds. I looked at the word again and glanced at the other Bluebirds. Everyone's lips were were still moving. No one knew this. I sounded it out every way I could think of. Nothing worked. And then suddenly it did.
It jumped out of my mouth before I could stop it, but I was relieved. I was smart. I really was smart.
I do not remember the reactions of other students. I remember Mrs. Crim's mouth. Her bottom teeth were crooked and spit drops flew in every direction. I stared at the wart above her right eye to keep from crying.
Mrs. Crim was sick. And she was tired. Sick and tired of my questions. Sick and tired of my disruptions. Sick and tired of me not following her rules and making the other kids laugh. She did not want to hear another word from me again. "Not one word".
That is what I remember. I know she said more because my legs shook from standing so long. I would have apologized when she was done, but by then had taken a silent vow to never speak to her again.
I spent the rest of the year in self monitored silence. I no longer asked questions or volunteered answers to hers. If she asked me a question, I nodded, shook my head, or shrugged. I held my pee and poop during class, and the day that didn't work, took off for home during recess and pretended to be sick. That wasn't hard because I felt sick every day for the rest of the year.
I had a daydream that never came true.
Mrs. Crim asks me to stay after school to talk. She looks sad. She says the class is too quiet now. She wants me to ask questions again. She wants me to make the kids laugh with my silly stories."Sharon, I miss you." Then I tell her how sorry I am and cry. She hands me her embroidered handkerchief and smiles and all is forgiven. I love her and school again.
At the end of the year Mrs. Crim smiled as I left and said, “Have a good summer!” but she said that to everyone. I looked at her wart, which looked bigger and uglier. With my mouth set in a firm line, I nodded, then ran.
Our family went to the library every week. I brought stacks of books home and read every one. I liked rainy days so I could stay inside to read, and was caught at night with a flashlight under the sheets. My parents told people at church. "Sharon reads all the time." They laughed and smiled when they said it and I hoped that meant I didn't need school any more. But when summer ended they said I had to go back. My oldest brother told me I had to go to school for ten more years. I thought he was lying.
I don't know if Mrs. Crim is alive. My mother sent clippings when my teachers died, but Mom isn't around to do that now. If I ever see Mrs. Crim again, I’d thank her for teaching me to read, and tell about her unintentional lessons. That year I learned I was smart. I learned the discipline of silence and discovered a magical world inside me. And while she was not the first or last adult to try to break my spirit, she was the one who made me understand I had to protect it.
Fifty-three years later, I use everything Mrs. Crim taught.
This a revision of an essay originally titled "Mrs. Crim's Unintentional Gifts" that was posted here at Open Salon. This version was posted recently at Our Salon: