Discipline, piano and French lessons, navy blue uniforms, and mass once a week. That’s the lot in life for good little Catholic girls. At least that’s what my mom was hoping when she enrolled me in Catholic school as a fragile tiny Kindergartener. What was she thinking? I mean, it wasn’t like I was a hardened criminal or anything. I was only five years old for goodness sakes and a terrified five-year-old at that.
That’s why I don’t ever remember having a real friend until fifth grade. That’s when my life as a juvenile delinquent really started. My two best friends Sarah and Brigid became my two cohorts in crime. We called ourselves “the three musketeers.” We were inseparable—sleepovers, playground, and classroom.
One of our worst infractions that year was bubblegum. We devoured it in mass quantities. I remember all of our dentists were able to retire in style for all the cavities they filled that year times three.
When the school year started, we really thought we had it made. Our teachers were two fragile, blue-haired elderly ladies. Mrs. Martin and her coke-bottle glasses stood just barely taller than us (and we were the three shortest in the class). She was our homeroom teacher and she ruled the laboratory where she concocted science experiments with those uncertain near-sighted eyes. Scary.
The other teacher was an Amazon—Miss Atwood. She towered over us, toting an enormous black pocketbook that never left her side. Wielding it like a weapon, she strutted into the classroom ready for mathematics every day. The woman must have been six feet tall. Scary. Scary.
It became a challenge to chew wads of bubblegum under Ms. Atwood’s watchful eye. Despite her blue hair, or maybe because of it, the woman was positively clairvoyant. She could spot a muscle twitch a mile away.
“Brigid, come up here.” With her palm outstretched, Brigid’s obligatory “spit that chewin’ gum in my hand,” speech would ensue.
I always thought she picked on Brigid. Sarah and I rarely got caught with gum.
Miss Atwood’s incessant nose blowing through the winter created quite a show for us. We’d watch her dig deep into that “Mary Poppins” handbag to retrieve dainty handkerchiefs, wondering what other treasures she had hidden inside. Then we would listen to her train whistle blowing’ expulsion. Looking up from her performance, she’d find us staring at her, and a slight smirk would play upon her crinkled lips.
The highlight of the year, though, came in the early spring as our class struggled with fractions. Miss Atwood’s patience was at an end. Our hijinx jarred her brain, I’m sure and, after all, the woman was in her seventies.
Suddenly, she was moving toward Brigid’s desk, her black orthopedic shoes clack-clacked on the hardwood floor. She meant business and Brigid knew it. “Come on up here, girl, we’re gonna show everyone how to invert fractions.”
Brigid popped up and Miss Atwood grabbed her arm, moving her to the front of the room, next to her desk. She turned Brigid around facing the classroom right in front of her. Then, to our utter surprise, Miss Atwood picked Brigid up off the ground and turned her upside down. “See, this is how you invert fractions.”
Brigid’s powder blue school uniform rushed over her head, revealing (well, you get the picture), and her fair Irish skin flushed with corpuscles surging to her brain. The freckles literally popped to life all over her.
Our classroom erupted in giggles and I’m sure the whole school wondered what mischief the fifth graders were up to again. That image left a lasting impression on all of us. I can tell you this; I’ll never forget how to invert fractions. Now, that was a teacher.
Years later, in my mid-twenties I skimmed the obituaries to find Miss Atwood had died at the incredible age of 109. That woman sure had endurance. She survived “the three musketeers,” didn’t she?
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