In elementary school, I was probably single-handedly responsible for bringing an abrupt end to more than a few teaching careers.
My kindergarten teacher took a two-week leave of absence after an encounter with my intelligence that left her questioning whether she had anything to teach me at all.
The class was working on pre-reading skills. She walked over to a poster tacked on the cork bulletin board. Pointing with her pencil to a row of illustrations on the poster: a table, a shoe, a turtle, and a bald man’s head, she asked, “Which of these items would you polish?” To me, the answer was obvious. I raised my hand.
“You could polish all of the above,” I replied, matter-of-factly.
The teacher shot me a look of exasperation. “Now, Teri,” she said in a measured cadence, “surely you must know that the table and the shoe are the only things you would polish.”
I smiled at her patiently. This lady, with her 2-inch-long, glossy red fingernails and lipstick to match, must have gotten her teaching credential out of a Cracker Jacks box.
“Actually, that’s not true,” I declared. “Last weekend, I wrote my turtle’s name–Jane–in hot pink nail polish on her shell. And my grandfather told me he polishes head with floor wax every night.” The man was completely bald and his head was shiny as a bowling ball. I imagined rubbing it fondly as I answered.
The teacher sank down into her chair and threw her pencil onto the desk, in a gesture of defeat.
I forced my white-haired first grade teacher, Mrs. Clark, into retirement with incessant questions. From the first week of school, I wasted no time getting myself into trouble. My daily academic schedule frequently culminated in detention after school, writing 10 times on the blackboard: I will not talk in the cafeteria line.
In those days–when dinosaurs roamed the earth–students were supposed to wait silently in line to get our lunches. Trays of Salisbury steak with pencil gravy (so-called by me because it tasted like the smell of pencil shavings), mushy brown spinach, Tater Tots™, and fruit cocktail from a fifty-gallon drum that existed long before the Cold War. We were told to eat quietly, and when we were finished, to carry our empty trays to the window, sit down, and put our heads on the table until we were dismissed.
Not me. I was all over the place, asking why couldn’t we go out to play after we ate, and how many pounds of pencil shavings did it take to make a pot of gravy, and was the spinach actually bird poop like Jimmy Lipschitz said? As long as I was awake, I was always moving. Or plotting somebody’s untimely demise.
In fourth grade, I hatched a diabolical scheme to prevent Mrs. Dructor–affectionately referred to as Mrs. Tractor by yours truly– from entering the classroom. My idea was to make the rotund woman too fat to fit through the classroom door. I convinced the other kids to bring in cupcakes, candy, cookies, and calorie-laden treats for her, under the guise of being nice. Despite its brilliance, my plan failed to materialize. Instead, I spent most of the year with my desk materialized next to hers.
One day, at the end of the class, there was a small triumph. My stomach had been wracked with pain since eating the nutritious school lunch. Nutritious, if you consider e. coli a source of protein. I walked up to Mrs. Dructor while she was grading papers. She often gave me zeroes, because although the answer was correct, I failed to use complete sentences.
“I don’t feel well.” She looked up at me. That was a complete sentence.
“Well, the bell just rang, so why don’t you just get on the bus and go home?” Unpersuaded, I lurched toward her and threw up in her trash can while she looked on in horror.
I don’t know why I delighted in torturing Mrs. Dructor. She was the teacher who first introduced me to the art of clay. She lavished praise on my sculpture of a horse’s head, and encouraged all of my classmates to do the same. Of course, no encouragement was necessary for the horse-worshipping girls. Years later, I remarked to my parents that with its glossy, mottled brown glaze, the horse’s head looked remarkably like a turd.
Artistic tendencies aside, I was a tomboy in grade school. The girl who spent most of recess hanging upside down from high atop the jungle gym. The girl who invented wearing shorts under her dress for obvious practical reasons. Yeah, that was me–historically significant in the world of early womanhood. With a right leg like a rocket launcher, and a wicked left leg possessing a secret weapon curveball kick, I was always first pick draft choice for kickball. And as the ruling dodge ball champion, I was so quick and so ornery the ball just kept its distance.
So, if you were a boy, you pretty much stayed clear of me–unless you were very, very foolish.
Perhaps you were imprudent like the neighbor kid, Mark Budreaux, who threatened to knock me off my royal perch on the fire hydrant. I pounced on him and thrashed within an inch of his life.
“And get off my property!” I hollered as he limped away. I had the satisfaction of knowing he’d never tell anyone that he was beaten up by a girl.
You may have been unwise in the manner of Dean Costis, who carried around a troll doll likeness of me that he held by its long, yellow hair and whacked repeatedly on his desk, stealing sideways glances to see if I was looking. My usual strategy was to stick out my tongue and flash him a scowl that would burn rubber and stink like it, too.
But in a defining moment of genius, I bought a troll doll with black hair that I cut short. I drew a Snidely Whiplash mustache on it with Magic Marker and stuck thumbtacks into every square inch of its body.
“Look Dean, it’s you!”
A similarly unfortunate fate was in store for Matt McCrocklin. This was how I earned my undisputed title as queen of the jungle gym, and how he lost his right front tooth. Hey, it was loose anyway. I just helped it along.
“In every woman, there is a Queen. Speak to the Queen and the Queen will answer.”
My parents used to comment sardonically that a particular nursery rhyme was written about me.
There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good,
She was very, very good.
But when she was bad
She was horrid.
Now, if you’re thinking that I didn’t have a feminine side, you’d be wrong. I was a closet romantic. When I wasn’t hollering, “Watch out for snapping turtles!” as he dropped off a makeshift rope swing into Buffalo Bayou, I’d hang out with Jackie Pew in a tree fort high up a shaggy old post oak tree. We’d spy on Richard Sutton and Sherry Hayes, snickering as they held hands and made googly eyes at each other under a swaying canopy of Spanish moss.
And I adored Fridays when, like every self-respecting Texan, we did square dancing. I’d wear my twirliest skirt– shorts underneath, of course, because you never knew if, in the enthusiastic execution of a do-si-do or an allemande left, your skirt might fly up, showing London or possibly even France. Standing quietly in the long line of twittering girls, I waited, my heart whirring wildly like wings of a small bird trapped inside my ribcage, for some senselessly brave boy to pick me as his partner.
Imagine my surprise when Shelby Buster looked at me and made an almost imperceptible beckoning motion with his right index finger, pointing at the floor by his side.
I looked behind me. I looked to my right. I looked to my left. No one else there. I pointed to myself and shrugged. He nodded solemnly and pointed again to the floor at his side. What else could I do? I walked obediently over to him, stood by his side, and waited for the needle to drop on the scratchy 45 rpm record playing Sagebrush Serenade.
I was so grateful I didn’t even stomp on his feet once.