Posted by: Kate | June 18, 2008

A Third-Grade Horror Story

How old were you before you had a nightmare in place of a teacher? And while we’re at it, how long did it take you to realize that teachers could love their jobs?

I ask because I had an interesting chat with a coworker this morning, one of those cabbages-and-kings meandering sorts of discussions, and we got around to the topic of elementary school teachers.  She was a little shocked when I told her that I was in the fourth grade before I had a teacher who really loved her job and let us know it.  Mrs. Paolucci was interesting and fun without being goofy, and I looked forward to school each day.

Before then?  Not so much.

My kindergarten teacher is a vague memory for me; I think she was benevolent enough, and I still have the little red clay sheep Christmas ornament she gave me that year.  Mrs. Jackson died a few years later, before I was old enough to go back for a nostalgic visit.

First grade, I had Mrs. Kittle.  She was old school in the most literal sense of the phrase: she was elderly, and she was a strict disciplinarian without an abundance of warmth and charmth.  I remember that many of my classmates thought she was mean, but then many of my classmates were typical spastic first-graders who found themselves pinned to the desk by a stern glare a time or two.  I was mousy and a bookworm, a kid who devoured the SQR books for fun and never, ever ran in the hallways or cheated on a spelling test.  (Don’t mistake this for a profusion of virtue; I was just terrified of getting in trouble, which is particularly amusing because I never actually got in trouble and therefore had no idea what I was afraid of.)  She also died a few years later.

In second grade, there was Mrs. Lucak, possibly spelled wrong but phonetically correct.  She was another forgettable teacher, neither inspiring nor scary.  She always seemed sort of frazzled and overwhelmed – just exactly the way I would feel if plunked down in a room full of seven-year-olds and told to educate them, though presumably she had a measure of choice in her profession.  She died a few years later… I swear I had nothing to do with this disturbing trend.

Then there came third grade.  Mrs. Guzyk.  Maybe she’s the nicest woman on the planet; maybe she’s an incisive interpreter of the eight-year-old psyche and practiced on the cutting edge of the field.  She scared the crap out of me.  I remember her as always seeming angry, a cold, stern anger that would wilt my spine before ever entering the classroom.  She was loud, even strident, and intimidating, and strict.

Before the end of the first month, I was no longer raising my hand to answer every question and eagerly volunteering to erase the chalkboards.  Let’s be fair, here: if I was anything as intense and in-your-face as my daughter is, then I probably needed to be knocked down a few notches, and nobody likes a teacher’s pet.  But in her presence, I didn’t just slip from teacher’s pet to regular third-grader, I slumped into a cycle of anxiety and fear that had me faking illness to try to stay home from school.

And then came the ultimate betrayal, the day which cemented her place upon my carved-in-stone shit list for life.  One day, after lunch, I came back to my desk, only to be called to the front of the room.  And there, while the several-dozen beady little eyes of my classmates bored holes in the back of my skull, she accused me of writing on the bathroom walls.

I was appalled.  Remember my fear of getting in trouble?  Yeah, I wasn’t a graffiti artist in the making; I barely dared go to the bathroom during the school day in the first place, out of fear that I might miss some crucial direction in the classroom.  I walked home from school at that time, and my parents were used to a vaguely Kate-shaped blur as I rushed directly down the hall because I hadn’t gone to the bathroom all day.  And even if I had used the facilities, I wasn’t bringing writing utensils with me.

So, unjustly accused, and then denied any chance of defending myself.  She sent me to the principal’s office,to which I had to ask for directions and who had to ask my name twice because I’d never been there before.  I don’t remember if I received a detention or other punishment for it, and indeed I don’t remember much else from that school year.  Except openly fearing and despising Mrs. Guzyk, terrified of her capriciousness and never finding out why she believed I would do such a thing in the first place.

Third grade was not a good year.

Then came fourth grade.  In a new building, because the elementary schools went kindergarten through third grade and then fourth through sixth, and there was Mrs. Paolucci.  And she smiled, and danced, and sang silly songs to help us remember how to spell encyclopedia (I just learned that I still sing it in my head when I type it out).  And the powers that be recognized that the fact that I was reading at a high school level meant that perhaps I could withstand some extra challenges in my day, and I started to attend an extra class – is Project SPARK a national thing or just that school district? – and I started to actively enjoy school.

And it was all very interesting, this walk down Memory Lane, and made me wonder what other people’s experiences were like.  Are most elementary teachers a little old, a little tired, a little frazzled, or straight-up mean, or was I peculiarly blessed in that regard?  Maybe everybody else had cheerful, smiley teachers right from the start, and there was just an odd collection of burnout right in one little school in upstate New York.



  1. “[…] an odd collection of burnout right in one little school”: I think it’s highly possible that the workplace culture of that school contributed to the attitudes of your teachers.
    My kindergarten teacher, Ms. Shaw, had eyes so light blue they were almost white. She was a chilly, reserved woman who kept a stern discipline in her classroom. Which is why I was glad to get out of her class the next year, and why I was horrified and appalled when I barged into her toilet stall in the bathroom that next year, as well. Heh. I didn’t have another bad teacher – oh, yes, they are too bad teachers if they teach with fear – until seventh grade math, Ms. Barnes, the meanest woman in Portland, Oregon.

  2. I had an assortment, like you, the second day of first grade, a kid in the back, who apparently raised his hand, asked when we were going home.
    I, in the front said, yeah, when are we going home?
    A Penguin, or one suspiciously dressed like one, strode across and slapped me hard, for not raising my hand.

    There was no kindergarten to practice in, this was all new to me. For eight years these people, only one of whom I remember as a good teacher, it wasn’t her, had only faces showing and dressed the same. It was okay.

  3. i don’t remember any really horrible teachers. but even with the nice, decent teachers i did have. i hated school. i was smart and it came easy to me. the work part anyway. the social part not so much. i would make all kinds of excuses not to go to school. i would be late on purpose just so that it would have me in class a few minutes less each day. i would “forget” my shoes so my mom would have to turn around and go home. i would make us late so that i would miss the last bus and my mom would have to drive me across town. i think i may have even willed myself to have a bloody nose a time or 2. but maybe the worst thing was when i would beg my pajama clad mother to walk me to my classroom. she did it though, without complaint, even in her slippers and house dress.

  4. I have a very vague memory of my kindergarten teacher, but I loved my first grade teacher, Mrs. Schmidt. I didn’t like my second grade teacher, and moved in third grade and didn’t like the new teacher. Fourth grade was okay, as was fifth, and beginning in sixth grade we had different teachers for different classes.

    As a third and fourth grade teacher, I do get asked by my kids if like being a teacher. Not in a, “Since you’re so mean, do you really like this job?” but in a truly curious kind of way. I tell them that I love teaching, but I don’t love all of it all the time. I hate correcting assignments.

    I hope that I’m sometimes the mean teacher, sometimes the funny teacher, sometimes the nice teacher, and sometimes the weird teacher. I get hugs on a daily basis, so I can’t be too bad.

  5. I was very lucky and had a 1st grade teacher who was a dream – Mrs. Drumheller. I don’t remember my kindergarten because my mom remarried and I moved 1/2 way through the school year. (I’ve blocked out kindergarten for that very reason).

    I wonder if teachers get burned out so quickly due to all the politics of the school administration and having to deal with parents.

  6. My first grade teacher got a lesson in pissed off mamma. Even though I already knew how to read and write by the time I got to first grade, my first grade teacher, Mrs. McCoy, forced me to write with my right hand, wouldn’t give me or the other bright lefty in my class a left-handed desk, and instead of giving us extra or more advanced work when we finished the assignments in 5 minutes, made us sit, quietly, hands folded on the desk – or else. We I both received a paddling in the hall from this woman once, too. When my mom got wind of what was going on, all hell broke loose. The woman tried to tell mom that there were no left hand desks. Mom knew that wasn’t true and marched herself to the wings of the cafeteria stage and personally dragged two left hand desks of a suitable size for first graders to the classroom. She then informed the teacher that if she wanted to keep me quiet, she should find a way to keep me challenged and busy. If she didn’t, then mom would find a way to kick her ass.

    Second grade rolled around and every day I would find an excuse to go to the nurse’s office around reading time. Not that I couldn’t do it, it’s just that I was reading on a much higher level than the other kids and was bored out of my everlovin’ mind. The teacher, Mrs. Moore, noticed the pattern of my daily illness at reading time and began bringing in more challenging reading material just for me. It was out of this classroom that the g-t program for the entire district grew, and all because my mom wouldn’t allow one teacher to force me into stagnation and another teacher was paying attention.

  7. Wow… I can’t even remember my teachers names. Go good memory Kate!!

  8. I didn’t hate school but I didn’t like it either. I was never in one long enough to make strong connections so it was a rather lonely place. I went to five primary schools in two countries and two states and was 16 before we settled in the one high school so most teachers were instantly forgettable although I liked Mr Beasley until he slapped me with a ruler because I became overly chatty during a painting class. He was my idol and I was crushed! I doubt he ever knew the effect that one act had upon me.

  9. I had a mix of good and bad. The best of the good was Mrs. Flannery, a genuinely nice woman who loved kids and made sure we knew it. And she had the prettiest handwriting! On the other end of the spectrum was the childless Mrs. Verdaris, whose pinched face and skinny, long-legged gait always reminded me of a crane with a broomstick up its ass, and whose disposition was such that I remember being surprised that anyone would marry such an evil person, and being sure that unborn souls fled in another direction so that none would have to be her kid.

    Why do people who don’t like kids go into teaching? In her case I think it’s because all the nipple-twister jobs were taken, and they didn’t let women become executioners. I just know there’d have been a smile under her hood.

  10. Fifth grade was it for me — the first year I had a genuinely bad teacher. The students knew it, and the parents knew it too. She even made up tactless nicknames for our PARENTS and used them in front of parents and students alike. Now that I think about her, I can’t for the life of me remember her name. I can remember the name of every other elem. school teacher, but not her. I can see hear as clearly as day, but nothing on the name … I guess I’ve blocked it out.

  11. I am phenomenally lucky in that I didn’t have a bad teacher for my whole tenure of elementary/middle school.

    Well, except for kindergarten where the teacher was an old hag named Mrs. Pajak who was certain I had learning disabilities because I never paid attention when she was teaching and I should go to a special school. (My parents insisted the school have me tested — it was a private Catholic school so they didn’t have a psychologist on staff so testing was not de rigeur for the school — and it turns out I was not only normal, I was downright gifted. The psychologist’s assessment was that I was just bored because I already knew everything the kindergarten teacher was trying to teach me, and then trying to dumb down for me even more because she thought I was slow.)

    I started in the public school district the next year, quelle suprise.

    My first grade teacher was an exuberant bubbly woman whose name I cannot remember at the moment, but she was awesome.

    Second grade I was in a combined classroom — twice as many kids and two teachers, and both were kind and fun and eager to enrich our lives.

    Third grade was a similar setup, and again the teachers were awesome.

    Fourth grade was Mr. Randazzo, who was ahead of his time by insisting we have a computer in our classroom, in 1986. He was a softspoken, kind, wonderful man.

    Fifth grade was Mrs. Herscher and while she wasn’t a fabulous teacher, she was pretty cool.

    Sixth grade was Mr. Conley who was just excited to be a teacher and exuberant and wonderful.

    Then seventh grade started with one-teacher-per-subject.

    I do wonder — if we know the same song for Encyclopedia? Mine breaks like this — ENCYC – LO – PEDIA.

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