When I was in the first grade I had a rather severe teacher named Mrs. Flaherty. She was a good teacher, though, and I enjoyed writing in my workbooks and reading stories and doing art.
Mrs. Flaherty had a mass of wavy dark hair, cut short, as was the style in 1960. She wore knee-length dresses, cinched in, and I admired her slender waist and the graceful, adult way that she walked and talked.
Someday, I’ll be a grown-up, I thought, and I’ll wear pretty dresses and my hair will be styled just like Mrs. Flaherty’s.
I was a quiet child—way too quiet— but studious, smart, obedient. But one day, Mrs. Flaherty told us all not to talk. Since I was a quiet child, and my mouth was always closed anyways, this was not a problem for me. But the girl next to me was not a quiet child, and she continued to chat at me. Finally, I whispered, “You’re not supposed to talk.”
And Mrs. Flaherty caught me—not her—talking.
She said, “All right, I said not to talk.” I knew even at the age of six that she meant to make an example of me. “Go out into the hall and sit there until I say you can come back,” she said in her severe way.
I sat, frozen, unable to protest. Going out into the hall was humiliating. It meant, “You’re a bad kid.” But I wasn’t a bad kid. I was just a frightened, withdrawn, pathologically shy six year old. Surely when Mrs. Flaherty saw how truly upset I was she’d relent and forgive me. But, no. She repeated, “Go out into the hall.”
I couldn’t move. Nothing like this had ever happened to me at school. My mouth went dry.
Mrs. Flaherty came and stood over me, folding her long elegant arms across her chest, her glance telling me forgiveness was not going to happen. When I still couldn’t make my legs move, she said in her grown-up, scary way, “Do you want me to carry you?”
The rest of the class sat as frozen as I was, watching with horrified eyes, probably relieved they weren’t the object of Mrs. Flaherty’s humiliation.
Finally, I stood, trembling with humiliation and the injustice of it all, and crept to the door that led to the inner hallway of the school.
(I’m the cute little girl on the right with my big sisters, Lee and Lori.)
I didn’t forget that incident. Neither have I forgotten the incident which occurred two months later when I accidentally stepped on Mrs. Flaherty’s foot in my happy haste to exit the school-room door at the end of the day.
She hauled me back into the room and accused me of having stepped on her foot on purpose. At the age of six, most kids haven’t learned to take such revenge. I know this because I’ve worked with kids my whole life, and six year olds don’t think that far. They’re very much in the moment.
Anyway, after a stern lecture, and bringing me to tears, she let me go.
I think it’s sad that a good teacher isn’t remembered for her success, but her failure. Since she was clearly aware that I was a good child and a good student, and very, very shy, she could have extended grace. But no, it was more important to make an example of me.
Mrs. Flaherty did not realize, or care, how such interactions affect a child. For a terribly shy child, this kind of treatment only served to make me withdraw even more. She let her personal need to establish her authority and control sweep away all feelings of compassion or understanding for an unsmiling, withdrawn child.
In the sixth grade, I was blessed to have the exact opposite teacher. Mrs. Steele studied her pupils and worked each day to bring out the best in them. She cared when adults failed to listen to kids. But she never pampered us or praised us simply for existing. She discovered that I was talented in art and praised me for my works, even commissioning me to paint murals for the school. When she saw that I was athletic, she encouraged me to take some bold steps in joining the track team and competing in the intramural contests. I’ve never forgotten her kindness, her smoky deep voice, and her justice.
Kids need justice. Not just endless mercy or undue harshness. When adults are biased or unfair, kids never forget. Some grow up to champion the underdog. Others form a hard crust around their hearts.
Those childhood experiences stayed with me as I worked with special ed kids, or taught music classes, or theater. Find the key to each child’s heart and gently open so you can pour kindness and instruction into them.
I’m a writer now, and I’ve been thinking about why I write. Why do other people write? I have a theory about this. I believe that writing is a way of redressing some kind of injustice. Think about it: how many good stories are about the underdog and his journey to rise about his status? We’ve all experienced injustice of some sort. And sometimes, the most powerful of those happened when we were young and just beginning to learn that the world is not fair.
I’ve got a new novel releasing on May 10. It’s the third installment of my Hunting Haven trilogy, and it, too, is about injustice. I hope you’ll give it a try. It’s called, Haven’s Fire. And yes, there is a real fire in the story. It’ll be available through Amazon as both an ebook and a paperback.