"Sticks and stones ...
but words will never hurt me"
Falser words were ne'er spoken in the dusty streets of an American town.
"Death and life are in the power of the tongue." Proverbs 18:21
Particularly within the cavern of the teacher's mouth. Meet Baba Yaga, the algebra teacher. Skinny, she ate children for breakfast to intimidate us. Teachers are bullies, we all know; legalized they inspire a proper fear of education. Considering the drop-out rate, she did pretty well.
According to midrash, God placed the tongue behind a double fortification--teeth and lips-- to prevent it from escaping too often and slaying people like a dragon. However, whenever she opened her mouth, flames leapt to singe the ears off the unwary student, staring at the red marks returned exams. Teeth she had like horses', but of iron, masticating fragile egos. Words thundered through sleep days later. Victims were aligned alphabetically, standing to address the teacher. No lounging with the back flattened out like a salamander on a warm rock. Oh no, none of that. Feet flat on floor, back straight with pelvis tilted a bit forward on the chair, provided the appearance of victims fully alert of the fate they shared before Baba Yaga started gnashing her teeth in contemplation of devourng the next vctim.
Lambs to the slaughter: bleating apologies for being normal, playing baseball or basketball, we bowed our heads to the knife.
Knees shaking beneath the pig-iron desks, we'd submitted our homework, witnessing the dissection of our mental deficiences-- more systematic than a post mortem in the coroner's office. Enviscerated, we bled, awaiting escape to the blowsy English teacher cooing over Auden with his inescapable rhymes.
Undeniably, Baba Yaga awaited the sadistic hour of torturing exams. Simple, we filed in, still believing that copying was indisputably wrong and cheating a mortal crime.
"Clear your desks. You may have a sheet of blank paper for scratch-paper."
The clock ticked approval.
She prowled, restlessly sweeping the room without broom and pestle.
"Five minutes." Feet shuffled, chairs scraped, students shifted positions, fretting last minute changes.
"Time." Sweeping them away, her skinny claws anticipated the pleasure of dripping blood-red ink over them.
"How'd ja do," Sally whispered. We departed the morgue in a gloomy hush.
"Dunno," I said. "Couldn't concentrate. Froze." Hands numb, I stared at the paper. I hate exams.
Sally nodded agreeably. "You'll do fine. You always do."
"Not sure, I didn't write the answers out."
"Oh well, it's not the end of the world, you know." She said casually as if I had her dad.
"Forget about it." She went off to Johnson's class to make crooked seams and cook beans. That's the way it is in school. Nothing relates. Teachers have it easy, repeating the same thing all day long. It's not like they've never seen it before. Baba Yaga probably had the answers memorized with a cribsheet. She took the scratch-paper, too. Her way of catching cheaters.
Fat chance. Mine was blank.
"Homework?" Baba Yaga never fluttered. Listlessly we responded, awaiting execution. Sliding the piles in a heap, she glowered.
"Some students never learn..."
"Oh-oh, here she comes again, the long whistle of a steam engine going through a tunnel..."
Students inched lower in their seats, awaiting the shrill blast.
The class pivoted.
"You disgrace this class." Sharply enunciated, the words slashed across the face. "A discredit to your family. Your sister is a National Scholarship Winner and you cheat."
Speechless, I froze. What was she talking about? My face burned. A stunned class stared in disbelief.
Stuttering, I tried to recover as she held up my paper.
"I didn't," I called louder, protesting my innocence. "I did the problems in my head."
She flapped it before the gawking students' faces. Perfect score: A.
Holding it aloft, she accused me again. In front of the enitre class, she tore it up.
With invisible wings the news crossed town and schools, my brother and sister knew before I arrived home. Aghast, nobody could believe it. With no evidence except the mental perversion that despised us all with baseless hatred.
Ripped apart because my father taught me to do algebraic equations in my head in third grade.
From that day, math became an anathema.
And so are street preachers who teach love by preaching hell.
And I lie even among the children of men whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword. Ps 57 :4