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If you asked me, the greatest school in the whole wide world was, Laurelhurst grade school, located at the corner of NE 45th ST and 46th Ave NE in Seattle, Washington. It was magnificently captained by the principle, Mr. Freeze, and ably assisted by his secretary, Mrs. Swanson. The rooms and hall ways were kept spic and span by the schools hard working, Swedish janitor, Mr. Nelson, I dreamed of going there, from the moment that I first saw it. When you are small, time travels on little lead feet, and one hundred years later, when I was finally old enough to attend there, I was in the rings of heaven. I had arrived, life didn’t get any better that this.
I was living in eternal honeysuckles, nothing could ever bother me again, or so I thought. The rumor reached me some time in my second year, that as surely as there is a heaven at Laurelhurst, there was also a hell, and I was going to hell in four short years. I would be forced to endure the pains of eternal punishment at the hands of the worlds meanest, and toughest teacher, Miss Margaretha Pallace, terror of the sixth grade students. The teller of the tale, was none other than my older sister, Zannie, a then current student of Miss Pallace, and a total teachers pet. She kissed up to every teacher that she ever had. Yet she was being tormented beyond endurance by the demands placed on her by this dungeon keeper.
Now mind you, my sister was a brilliant student, her lowest grade all the way through school was an A- and that was in gym class. Zannie was never more painfully tested in her life than in Miss Pallace’s sixth grade class, and she delighted in reminding me that I was going to die when I followed her academic excellence there. A teacher that could make my straight “A” sister cry would kill an average boy like me for sure.
What ever joys that might have been between the second and sixth grades, evaporated, with the knowledge, that each new day brought me that much closer to the evil one, who ate small children, especially boys, for breakfast. She filled my nightmares. A chance encounter in the hall ways with her would leave me trembling with fear, or turned to stone, totally speechless and wanting to throw up.
I practiced my cloak of invisibility if she was any where near.. When it came to Miss Pallace, I became a total and complete coward. She scared me to death.
Then in the fifth grade, word spread like wild fire, that because of the baby boomers, and over crowding at Laurelhurst, our sixth grade class would be held at a newly constructed junior high school, named Nathan Eckstein. WHOA!! I was going to Nathan Eckstein!! Miss Pallace teaches at Laurelhurst!! Ha Ha!! I am free!!.. Suddenly the whole world lifted off my shoulders, birds sang, the sun came out, flowers bloomed, life was better than good it was wonderful. The rest of that school year skimmed by as did the summer that followed.
The school bus stopped at the far end of Eckstein, on that first day. I was dressed in my new plaid Pendleton shirt, new blue Levi jeans, and brand new, never scuffed logger boots. I carried my pee chee’s, binders, pens and pencils. My hair was combed and gelled in a vain attempt to hide my ever present cowlicks. I was so happy. They had the older children, show us around the school, a grand tour so to speak, to see where the lunch room was, principles office, the auditorium, and of course the bathrooms, it ended at the door of my sixth grade class, and my new sixth grade teacher, my heart was dancing, with excitement. I grabbed the door knob with all the enthusiasm of a callow youth, and flung open the door…… The fires of Hades blew past my eyes. Standing by a burning desk, stood the daughter of the devil himself…Miss Pallace. I almost fainted, for some unexplainable reason she owned the sixth grade and all who had to pass through it.
I was doomed.
She looked in to my very soul and said, “Good morning Mr. Luehrs, your sister was an excellent student, and I am expecting great things from you this year..” oh mercy, I was double doomed, she already knew who I was and had tied me to my sister. I was a dead boy. I was nothing like my sister. She was loved and admired by her teachers and peers, and I had anger management and maturity issues that rubbed them all the wrong way. On a good school day I didn’t get sent to the principles office. I majored in detention. I liked to chat, day dream, slug kids and draw pictures in class, and teachers never liked that. Miss Pallace would not be an exception.
Margaretha Pallace, was a tall willowy spinster lady of Greek extraction, with bluish white hair that always had two Chinese chop sticks adorning it somewhere. She had razor thin lips, and eyes that could cut you in half with a glance. Her glasses had no frames to speak of, just nose pieces and wire that ran to her ears. She always dressed in a frilly white blouse, with an ancient brooch fastened near her throat, and a black skirt, over which she wore a blue smock festooned with printed open petal red, white and yellow flowers. Her hands were chalk dry and cracked like desert clay. She walked with authority in sensible shoes. In her fashion she was noble and truly elegant. Nothing went unnoticed in her classroom, absolutely nothing. She ruled, with an iron fist, that even Attila the Hun would have envied. She rarely if ever smiled, and her routines never varied. At the bell we students were to be sitting at our desks, hands folded, knees together, shoulders squared, eyes straight ahead. At her direction, we would stand, face the flag, and recite the pledge of allegiance, sit back down, with notebooks out ready to start the day.
All I wanted to do was go home, each day had become worst than the day before, I was beyond struggling. She heaped on the class work, and piled on the home work and that was just in the very first week. I was drowning. My sister had been so right. I was in hell.
Miss Pallace booked no nonsense from me. None.. Her early punishments, were to have me stand at attention beside my desk, or sit at hers, or write on the black board, or miss a recess , it was all a piece of cake for a hardened cutup like me. But all that changed the day of the dart.
I manufactured darts in class by taking straight pins from the bulletin board, making cone shaped paper fleshettes, and binding the two together with cellophane tape. They were great fun and you could stick them any where. On the day of the dart, Miss Pallace briefly left the class room, and in a moment of total insanity, I threw a dart at the closing door. It stuck, and some boys cheered. So I let fly another dart ….just as the door opened…..it struck Miss Pallace right on the end of her nose, and sunk in… the world stopped turning on its axis, my heart stopped beating at the same time the breath of life was sucked out of me.. Miss Pallace never missed a step. She snatched me by my hair, straight up and out of my desk, and marched me down to the principles office, for my first encounter with the humorless, Mr. Bright. The dart still firmly attached to her nose when she explained the circumstances that lead to the two of us being in his presence. She stood silently beside me as I became personally involved with the business end of the principles paddle. I tightened my teeth and grimly accepted my punishment as I had so many times in the past. My life was over, she would hold this over me until gophers could fly, I was twelve miles beyond doomed.Miss Pallace and I returned to class. She never once asked, “how could you?”, or “what on earth were you thinking?”, in fact she never said anything about it at all… ever.. As far as she was concerned, it was over, finished, history, a no longer relevant event. It was as if it never happened. That was just the way she was.
The next week, I would once again try her patience to the limit, but this time it would change my life forever. I do not now recall, the grievous offence, that caused Miss Pallace to request my presence at her desk after school that day. It is lost in the distance of time, and trauma. But it was a request that could not be declined. It would mean that I would miss the school bus, and it was a very long walk home. I was not a happy camper.
At 3:10 PM, tight lipped and frowning I stood at the tyrants desk awaiting her punishment assignment.. Writing on the black board, cleaning the erasures, straightening desks, picking up the cloak room, or just sitting on my thumb for an hour.. I was tough I could take what ever she had for me to do.. She looked sternly at me over the top of her glasses, and handed me a book of poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. She opened it to a poem called “The Children’s Hour”, and told me that when I memorized that page and could recite with out error and discuss it with understanding I could go home.
The lower half of my body turned to jello, my eyes glazed over. POETRY!! Yuck! I hated poetry.. I couldn’t get passed the first line with out getting sooo very sleepy. So to stay awake I thumbed the book, checking out all of the illustrations, drummed my fingers, and yawned a lot. At 4:10 PM I cleared my throat and reminded Miss Pallace of the time.. Knowing that all teachers went home at 4:10 PM no matter what. I asked permission to leave.. She asked me to recite the poem.. Mercy I hadn’t even read the poem much less learn it but who cares its four o’clock. She moved her glasses down her nose and repeated her demand to recite the poem please.. I double stared back at her.. She had to be kidding, what was I thinking? Miss Pallace never kids. I told her that I could not. She suggested that I better get going on it if I wanted to go home that night. Oh my.. A challenge like that moved all my stubborn gears from slow to stop.. She was not going to get the best of me. I would never learn that stupid poem if she did keep me there all night. I made my lips skinny, squinted my eyes, and knit my brows and frowned all over the book.
At 5:10 PM , I announced the time and asked if I could go home, to which she repeated her demands that I recite the children’s hour… my head was swimming, I could not believe this.. It was almost dinner time .. I had to go home and told her so. Miss Pallace never missed a beat and told me that she would call my parents to advise them that I would be late. Now I was really in trouble, the minute you brought my father in to all this I was a dead man.. He would kill me. In near panic I inquired if she wanted to go home, and she did but not until I memorized that stupid poem. I told her that I was not like my sister and it was not fair to expect the same things from me that she got from her. Miss Pallace exploded!! She used her tight tense voice to hammer me down.. She expected my sister to give the very best effort that she could, and demanded the very same effort from me, and she could not understand why I would not even attempt to do my very best just out of self respect. She was really angry… Then she ordered me to return to my memorization hell.
Now you could beat me all you want and I would never shed a tear, but this stupid poetry finally got me, I was tired and frustrated and angry, and I bawled like a baby. Miss Pallace said nothing, she handed me a box of tissues and went back to grading papers. I gave up. I tried to memorize it and failed, she would have me start over, she would not let me fake it. By nine o’clock that evening I could finally parrot back enough of the poem to satisfy her evil heart. Then she asked me to tell her in my own words, what the poet was saying..
My father had waited outside of Nathan Eckstein for over two hours when I was at last granted my freedom.. He was most displeased and proceeded to drive me straight to our home and garage which substituted for our wood shed and illustrated his great disappointment with regards to my academic miss adventure on my back side, followed by a cold supper and an early bed time. My life had reached a very low ebb.
The next day, the boys on the play ground gathered around me, they had heard that old Pallace had kept me after school until midnight, setting a new world record for hours spent after school in one night. Some big kids had seen me in her room long after dark from the basketball court. I thanked God that they hadn’t seen me crying. I explained that I was paroled at about nine that night not midnight but it was still a record setting event, and that she had made me learn poetry.. This caused a number of the boys to scoff at me in disbelief.. In fact the term liar was applied to me which of course produced the squaring off for bloody knuckle noses.. When some one in the crowd yelled out that, if I did learn a poem that I should be able to recite it.. Oh mercy.. Then they started chanting. So I reluctantly gave in and with a quavering voice I began my very first public poetry recital.
The words stumbled forth butchering the rhythm of Longfellow’s work. The boys stepped back in amazement, and awe! I had suffered the cruelest of fates at the hands of Pallace, that any boy could ever endure. And for a brief moment in time I was a hero.. One to be looked up too and admired.. To be praised .. And then the bell rang ending recess and my adventure was forgotten by all ..accept me.
I tried very hard to be good after that, but it wasn’t to be, and before you knew it, those heart chilling words knifed across the room… “I will see you at my desk, after school, Mr. Luehrs”… I skipped anger and went straight into panic mode. I grabbed the black book of poems and spent the rest of the day secretly memorizing the remainder of the Children’s Hour, so that I would not spend another night with that old witch.
3:10 came and I was prepared. I walked right up to her desk, and flawlessly recited the entire poem and gave my interpretation of what Longfellow was trying to convey to us, and I said good afternoon and started to leave. “That was nice Mr. Luehrs, but that was not the poem that I had for you to learn tonight…” oh man! Not again.. Let me eat soap, please, don’t do this to me again… I told her that wasn’t fair, that I had spent all afternoon memorizing this stupid poem, and she advised me that she was aware of that, and it was a poor use of my time, because I missed the information that I would need on the test tomorrow.. I was doomed.. I was born to be doomed… and she gave me a different Longfellow poem to commit to memory.. This time I didn’t hesitate, I knew she was not kidding I had to learn this rhyme or die… so I charged in to it… devouring it, line by line.. And by five o’clock I could recite it to her satisfaction and exit with out my father being any the wiser..
The next day, once again I held court on the play yard and regaled my peers with the torturous tome I was forced to mentally ingest the night before. I was a hero, in their eyes.. And I loved it.. I was hooked… each time I screwed up .. I learned a new poem. At first it was all Longfellow’s poems like Paul Revere, The Village Smithy, Wreck of the Hesperus, and Hiawatha. Then we moved on to Robert Service and the Shooting of Dan McGrew, The Law of Yukon and so many more, I learned Carl Sandberg and Frost, every night became a grand adventure, highlighted by beautiful words that painted magnificent pictures. By now my school yard chums were bored with my literary exploits and no long listened to me, but I didn’t care, the rhymes swirled like waves in the depths of my mind, and carried me to lands I could only dream of. I was unaware of the ultimatum that awaited me one Monday morning.
Miss Pallace drew me aside and said quietly.. “You know, Kirk, that you do not have to be a trouble maker to learn poetry.. In fact if you don’t begin to behave in class I will cease to give you poems to learn.”.. my eyes widened .. And I felt tears well up .. My throat began to close.. She was crushing me to death… her domination over me was complete.. I was a broken boy. Miss Pallace, went on to say that if I was good, she would continue to feed me poems and give me an opportunity to recite and discuss them in private, so that none of the other students would know that I had become a poetry geek.. Such knowledge on the school yard in those days would have guaranteed a beating or two and a constant stream of bullying. It was one thing to be forced to learn poetry and quite another to volunteer to learn it …I accepted her offer and from then on she would slip me a poem or two and make arrangement for me to meet her after class, and recite and discuss it under her stern and critical eye. She was my only audience and while I hated and despised her, she served as a pretended crowd that would some day sit at my feet..
One day she pulled me out of class, backed me up against the wall and putting her face with in inches of mine demanded that I recite the poem I had for her that day… and quickly don’t think.. Recite..
I rattled it off flawlessly and she whisk me back into the class room. I never did know what that was about.
Near the end of the school year, during an afternoon of recital. I asked her why she had chosen to punish me with poetry.. She smiled at me for the first an only time in my life, and said, “My dear boy, I wasn’t punishing you, if I wanted to punish you, I would have had you memorize Browning.” It would take me years to understand what she meant.
I did alright in the sixth grade, far better than I had in my first five years in school, not as good as my sister, but a solid “B” average, while not praised at our house, was at least acceptable there. I had never worked harder for grades in my life, and never wanted to again. Miss Pallace, returned to Laurelhurst, the following year, and Nathan Eckstein returned to being a junior high school. I never saw Miss Pallace again. I have no idea what she thought of me, I don’t even know if she liked me, she would of thought it inappropriate to share her feelings with a student on such matters. It would take me years to appreciate all that she had taught me. Her lessons have lasted my life time. She taught me to love poetry, how to memorize under pressure and at leisure, she taught me to love words and their meanings, she taught me to learn during chaos, and to think on my feet. She taught me how to teach myself and to express what I had learned, no other class room would challenge me as hers did. She gave me the intellectual skills and tools to survive not only school but in life. On the last day of school she said to me, “I thought that you would have done a little bit better, Mr. Luehrs, but you did come a very long ways..” high praise coming from her.. And a curse.. The thought that I could have done a little bit better in her eyes, would haunt me for ever..
Miss Pallace was not a teacher, she was an educator. She never taught me a thing, she educated me. She was the toughest educator in the whole world, she demanded more out of me than any coach on the football field, and her drills were twice as hard. I hated her at the time, and couldn’t wait until I would be free of her forever, not realizing that she would be with me all the days of my life.
Sitting in my old office chair, and looking back across the river of years that separate me from my youth, I have few regrets, but one stands out from all the rest. I never thanked her. Not once. She was old back then and I have learned that she past away while a resident at the Ida Culver Home for retired teachers. She was in her eighty’s and I imagine that by now she is kicking back some where, in heaven teaching literature and poetry to the angels, I am not sure where she stood with God, she never said, but probably pretty good. The spinster school marms of her day, the straight laced starchy kind, were regulars at local churches and were known to bow their heads and pray. She had to be a saint to put up with a child like me, a savage boy, who’d rather play than to learn a lesson from a book. So I will thank her now for everyone to see, and tell her that I love her, for all those many hours, spent rhyming after school, when I was such a willful boy, and being such a fool.
If you have had a teacher touch your soul, go now, don’t wait, and tell them what they mean to you, hurry now don’t hesitate, or you end up being old like me, who’s thank you comes too late.
God Bless you Margaretha Pallace, where ever you are, thanks for every thing
I love you
© Copyright 2008 Kirk Luehrs