My first class of students was a tough crowd. There were seven of them, four boys, and three girls. All of them had come out of our school system; four of them had known only Carolyn Sawyer as a teacher. Now they had me.
A Carolyn Sawyer I am not. She is the picture of gentle, cheerful patience. She has spent her teaching career around young children. I had spent years around ornery professional and Southeastern Conference tennis players and coaches as a tennis official before certifying as a Deaconess. The approach and style in handling each class of people is markedly different. To say I was out of my element is like putting Tobasco Sauce where tomato juice is expected.
There was no question how much my students liked me, or me them. One loved me because “your legs feel like my granny’s.” (Remind myself to wear slacks from now on.) Another adored me because “your dress smells so wonderful.” (I’ll be sure to buy that softener again.) Still another couldn’t stay off my lap in chapel. (Jiminey! What gorgeous eyes she has.) One grabbed me and hugged me every time I came within two feet of his desk. (Three years later he still sneaks one in when the others aren’t looking.) If I dropped an eraser or marker, I had four boys at my feet grabbing it. (Amazingly, the girls were not so eager to be chivalrous.) However, they had quite a conundrum tossing about in their minds.
While they liked me, what they didn’t appreciate was that I was increasingly getting the way of their way of doing things. I knew some of them were trying to take me for a ride. A fish I am not. Common sense told me that much of what they were trying to tell me as “that’s the way we’ve always done it” was logical only to a seven-year-old trying to get away with something.
It was often comical to see the expressions on their faces when they realized that Mrs. Sawyer and Deaconess Carder actually talked to each other about what is or is not the right and proper way of doing things. A finer set of “Push-me-pull-yous” I’ve never encountered. Too, they were actually in league with each other! What one suggested as proper another would confirm with nary a batted eye. Often after I consulted Carolyn regarding their suggestions, she would give them one look with a tilt of her head and they would melt.
So by Wednesday of my second week of teaching Joseph finally asked the pertinent question.
“Do you even like kids?”
“Sure,” I answered. “Fried.”
The “witch game” played out for several weeks, even to the point of, “Watch out! Step out of line and you’ll have to come home with me. Those who go home with me never come back.”
This broke the ice as they gained insight into my sense of humor, which Matt eventually rightly called “quirky.”
Joseph wasn’t sure it was only a sense of humor. He thought there might be an element of truth lurking behind the notion I might be a witch. After all, I had a strange taste in food. I ate pimiento-cheese sandwiches. He reckoned that anyone who ate that stuff had to be abnormal.
Finally one day he strode into class, plomped in his desk, crossed his arms, and grinned confidently. “I know you ain’t a witch, and I can prove it.” The gauntlet had been tossed.
“OK,” I replied. I’ve faced Patrick McEnroe on a bad day, and stared down Andre Agassi on a good one. This pint-sized challenger was nothing. I could handle him. This was going to be good. “How do you know that I’m not a witch?”
“Well,” he said, “when witches dress up so they don’t look like witches, they always dress up like young, beautiful women. You aren’t. So you ain’t one.”
Made my day! That year for my birthday I brought a right proper witch’s snack for my crew, sardines and pickled okra. They had cupcakes for dessert. As per the practice of the school, each student sampled the sardines and pickled okra, even if only with the teensiest bite, before moving on to the cupcakes. Two found they even liked the sardines.