When we moved up to the junior high for seventh grade, I was assigned to a homeroom that was some kind of catch-all. While all my friends and the high achievers were in other homerooms, mine consisted of everyone repeating seventh grade, all the hard-core discipline cases, several precociously mature girls, and boys who appeared to have some kind of mental illness.
Our teacher, Miss Baxter, seemed ancient. She was very stout and walked with a limp. The rumor was that one winter she’d broken her ankle on school property and couldn’t be forced to retire.
She divided the boys from the girls. No other teacher did this in 1955. Maybe it was prudent, since the boys on our side of the room kept saying what they wanted to do to the girls on the other side. Miss Baxter’s moral vigilance extended to sending any girl to the restroom to wash off her lipstick if she came to school wanting, in Miss Baxter’s words, “to look like a clown.”
Because of my place in the alphabet, my seat was at the back of the room, next to Buddy, a big kid who had stayed back at least once. He had a slicked-back d.a. haircut and the moves of a movie juvenile delinquent. He intimidated me, a studious non-fighter, so I acted as though I appreciated everything he told me. I was, in fact, in awe of his indifference to all that anyone tried to impose on him, especially Miss Baxter.
She wasn’t just our homeroom teacher. We had her for English five times a week—diagramming sentences and other useless exercises—plus four times a week of Literature, which was antiseptic 19th century writers. Knowing that Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Whittier had lived, like us, in towns near Boston didn’t make them interesting.
Also Spelling twice a week—and something called Vocational Guidance, which gave Miss Baxter additional opportunities to lecture us on how hopeless young people were, especially the sorry lot imposed on her. She didn’t say it openly, but we were the children and grandchildren of immigrants and therefore should have been trying extra hard to behave like civilized creatures, instead of the delinquents and degenerates we were in the process of becoming.
After hearing this message—explicit or implied, day after day, class after class—and wanting to fit in, even with the crowd I’d been tossed into, I struggled to be a bad character. I let my hair grow long enough to Vaseline into a d.a. and had my parents buy me a leather jacket. I wrote obscene rhymes for Buddy, including his name as protagonist opposite one of our classmates on the other side of the room.
Each minute with Miss Baxter was boring to the point of insanity—45-minute periods of sensory deprivation, waiting for the advance of the old clock on the wall, with its minute hand that clicked as a minute passed. Memorization, repetition, copying notes from the blackboard, and sometimes the reading aloud of works we were told were good literature, droned aloud by my struggling classmates.
My family didn’t make waves, so no one complained to the principal’s office that I was in the wrong class. Every lunchtime, meeting my old friends from the other homerooms reminded me that the hell I was burning in was just for me.
Speaking of burning . . . . As winter settled in, the angle of the sun was low enough to shine through the big windows directly behind Buddy and me. Although it was 15 degrees outside, Buddy and I were hit by a force like a blast furnace aimed at our backs.
As the minutes of excruciating recitals from Tressler‘s English Grammar ground on, we felt as though we were—literally—baking. Finally I raised my hand and asked if I could lower the window shades. Miss Baxter gave a demented grin. “People pay good money to go to Florida to get warm,” she said. “Stop complaining.”
We continued to bake till the bell rang and we could escape to Mr. Whitman’s math class. But we’d be back to the same seats for Spelling in less than an hour.
Mikey, who had barely passed sixth grade, was my only friend in the class. After school one day, complaining to each other about the torments of Miss Baxter, we decided our only recourse was to hold a voodoo ceremony.
At Mikey’s house we sculpted a figure out of clay. We used cotton from the bathroom for her white hair, and Mikey found a flowered rag to wrap around her, like the flowered old-lady dress she wore every day.
We knew very little about voodoo. We dimmed the lights and drowned her in a pan of water. Then we stuck his mother’s pins all over her body. At the end, we pulled off her head.
This was exciting because we were susceptible to thoughts of magic and divine intervention. Everyone around us invoked God for everything that happened. Maybe we could cause magic to enter our lives—evil magic, of course, but Miss Baxter’s presence in our lives was evil that we didn’t deserve.
After a few days, since Miss Baxter wasn’t suffering or dead, we knew our voodoo wasn’t working.
Later that winter, one day when Buddy couldn’t stand being in school a minute longer, he went to the nurse’s office and said he didn’t feel well. She did what she always did, whatever the complaint, and stuck a thermometer under his tongue. Remember? You could taste the rubbing alcohol it soaked in.
While the nurse went back to her paperwork, Buddy was inspired to put the end of the thermometer on a hot radiator. She was suspicious when she pulled the thermometer from his mouth and it read a hundred and six.
So she sent him to the principal. Buddy decided he had some ammunition, something about Miss Baxter that would get her in trouble instead of him. As his witness, I was called to the office.
This had happened a few days before. Buddy came to school with two fingers in a splint and tape covering half his hand. Miss Baxter was clumping her way up the aisle. We had to sit silently while she checked to see if we had our homework on our desks. She enjoyed giving zeros to those who didn’t, which was almost everyone.
When she saw Buddy’s bandaged hand, she quipped, “So the law caught up with you.” Then she recorded his zero and clumped her way down his row.
Buddy told the principal that Miss Baxter’s remark was: “So the Lawd caught up with you.” In the Boston area the vowel sound in “law” is the same as the vowel in “Lawd.”
It seemed to me that this would constitute a major crime. In a community where most people went to church every Sunday, even a public-school teacher with a legal dispensation from retirement wouldn’t be allowed to talk that way. Almost everyone was Catholic now instead of Puritan, but 300 years before, 15 miles away, didn’t they hang witches for this kind of thing?
The principal asked me if Miss Baxter had said: “So the Lawd caught up with you.”
I was faced with the biggest decision of my 12 years. Buddy was at risk, and he was pretty scary. Furthermore, getting Miss Baxter in trouble might free us of her for the rest of the school year. On the other hand, I’d heard Old Witch Baxter clearly, and I knew she hadn’t taken the Lawd’s name in vain.
Bearing false witness was one of those moral wrongs that could lead to some kind of damnation. Calling on supernatural intervention in a voodoo ceremony didn’t seem to work, but we heard a lot about God keeping an eye on our misdeeds. Would I confirm Buddy’s version and get Miss Baxter in well-deserved trouble? Or would I do what was supposed to be the morally correct thing and tell the truth, which would get me on Buddy’s wrong side?
Every time I’ve thought about that day, I’ve regretted my decision.