The third grade brought a whole new dimension into my life in the form of Ethelene Munroe. Ethelene had already retired as a Latin teacher after teaching some thirty-odd years in the high school and she only occasionally accepted substitute teaching jobs. She must have been at least seventy years old by the time she taught my class and she was more than a little senile. When the principal announced that she was coming, we waited for her arrival with a mixture of fear and excitement because her reputation at the high school had extensively preceded her.
Little did we know, but all the horror stories our older cousins and brothers and sisters had told us about Ethelene and how she conducted her classroom, weren't exaggerations, they were all true! We'd heard the story about the poor little French kid from Sheridan who'd been mangled by Ethelene when he'd failed to do as she commanded.
His parents had migrated over the Canadian border into our area of Aroostook County and his first language was French. French was always spoken at home so by the time he'd gotten to the eighth grade; he still didn't understand or speak much English. He stumbled into her class one day and slunk into a seat in the back of the room. Mrs. Munroe, cast a rheumy, brown eye on him and issued a guttural command that he didn't understand in his general direction.
She waited impatiently for the kid to stand up and tell her his name but he just sat where he was, hoping against hope that she would move on to some other sorry specimen.
Outraged by his lack of response and disrespect, she threw her attendance book onto the floor, shoved her chair away from the desk and strode down the isle to where he was still sitting and grabbed him by the ear. She tore part of his earlobe away from his head when she drug him out of his chair into a standing position. Then she hauled him over to the door and chucked him out into the hallway and slammed the door. Another time, when a high school kid had the nerve to mock her behind his book, she threw him right out a class room window! She didn't suffer fools gladly and she wasn't afraid to be challenged either!
Ethelene was a large woman with coarse features. She had heavy dark, connected eyebrows that overhung her bloodshot brown eyes and she wore her greasy, gray hair pulled straight back in an unkempt bun at the nape of her neck. Ethelene had the habit of taking a lead pencil out of her bun and used it to scratch her head whenever the impulse came over her. She weighed about two hundred plus pounds and she always dressed in black and no matter what she wore, there was always a streak of what appeared to be dried-on food running down the front of her dress or blouse. Her husband had been a small town realtor when they'd married and they were considered quite cultured and well-to-do by most people's standards, at least in our neck of the woods anyway.
Ethelene drove around town in a large, white Cadillac like she owned the place. If she wanted to get anything at the local A & P Grocery Store, she simply stopped her car anywhere she damn-well pleased and walked off to do her errands. She didn't care if it was in the middle of the street, behind someone else's car or right in front of the fire station. Where she decided to stop was where she left it. It got so that folks, upon seeing her car occupying an odd place, would simply jump in and repark it in a better spot and Ethelene was never the wiser. Folks all agreed that this was much easier than having to confront her about her piss poor driving.
She was always in the company of two large, white, Maine Coon Cats who, she didn't hesitate to tell all her students, were much smarter than they could ever be. It was probably the truth too, but we didn't like hearing it. It was rumored around town that these cats were trained to attack on command and no one ever wanted to go to her house for anything.
The morning that I most remember was one that will stay with me the rest of my days. Mrs. Bartlett, our regular beloved teacher, had called in sick and desperate for a substitute, the principal called his favorite teacher substitute, Ethelene Munroe.
Ethelene strode into our classroom like a general on a mission and on a mission she was. She was going to show us, one and all, just how stupid and uneducated we really were. With her lunch bag clutched in one large hand and a scruffy, cloth bag in the other, she cast a scornful glance around the room, her gaze scalding across each of us in one swift glance. We knew that one bag was for her lunch but we were never quite certain what she carried in the other.
She dropped the heavy bags onto the floor beneath her desk, kicked them aside with her foot and sat down. She didn't bother to introduce herself. We all knew only too well who she was by her well-deserved reputation. She just sat there in her creaking wooden chair for the longest time, letting her muddy, brown eyes roam over the entire classroom. It seemed as though she could tell by just looking at us, how smart we were and what we were going to accomplish in life.
She'd glance at the list of names on the paper on the desk in front of her and then upon recognizing our parent's names; she'd curl her lip and make random comments about our parentage to no one in particular. Things like, "Robinson, I knew your grandfather very well. I hope you're smarter than he was." or "Alcott, I always thought your mother had more sense than to marry your father." "Michaud, I hope you have the good sense to stay away from alcohol better than your grandfather did." Nice comments like that.
Finally, she looked in my direction and roared, "Stevens, stand up!" I arose and stood there mute, with my heart pounding in my throat, waiting to hear what nice things she was going to say about me or my parents. She examined me with a yellow-tinged critical eye from head to toe and then she announced to the class at large that "Little girls with blond hair should know better than to wear white!" My classmates snickered at her comments and thinking that she had moved on, I quickly sat down. She looked up to find me sitting and she bellowed in my direction once again, "Get up Stevens, get up and read!" When I finished reading the paragraph from the English book in front of me, she stared at me for a long moment and said, "Well, well, well, there is a gem in this old sack of rocks after all." I didn't know what that meant but my reading sure saved me. After that, whenever she was asked to sub, she always called on me to read to her.
She next cast a jaundiced eye on Timmy Levesque and she commanded him to stand up. Well, Timmy wasn't very tall. His whole family didn't stand over five feet but, she didn't notice that fact or if she did, she didn't even care. She thought that he was only half-standing or that he was slouching or that he hadn't stood-up at all, so she yelled at him again in her grating voice, "Stand up! I said, stand up!"
Timmy merely looked back at her and very meekly replied, "I am!"
Feeling that somehow she had been challenged, Ethelene's sweaty face became suffused with anger and her eyes bulged out of her head. She shoved her chair aside violently and it fell back against the chalkboard with a loud crash. She scrabbled into a standing position and grabbed the huge Webster's Dictionary from the row of books on the desk in front of her, drew it back over her head and heaved it directly at Timmy. He ducked just in time and it sailed by his head and hit the back wall with a loud thud, leaving a good sized dent in the wall. If it had connected, it surely would have decapitated poor little Timmy. The class held its breath to see what carnage she was going to cause next.
Ethelene placed her hands on her ample hips and demanded that Timmy come up to where she was standing. As the poor little kid rounded the corner of her desk, her right hand snaked out and she grabbed him by her favorite appendage, the right ear and she used it to propel him forward. With a vicious twist to his ear, she forced him to kneel down in front of her and with a swift kick in Timmy's small backside, pushed him forward under her desk. Then she retrieved her wayward chair, plumped herself down in it, cast a jaundiced eye once again in our direction and commenced berating the rest of our class.
The front of her desk had an oval opening and we could see poor Timmy imprisoned between Ethelene's knees and her lunch bag. With a satisfied look on her face that her latest prisoner couldn't cause any further distractions, Ethelene announced that we would now proceed with our reading lesson.
As time and the day wore on, Timmy became restless and began exploring his surroundings. It didn't take too long before he spied Ethelene's lunch bag and he gingerly opened it and began examining its contents. He reached inside and withdrew a banana which he held out the front hole of the desk for everyone to see. Then, to everyone's delight, Timmy proceeded to eat it! He rummaged around in the bag a little more and he came up with her sandwich. He ate that too! Timmy ate everything she had brought for her lunch! Finally, there was nothing left for him to eat and he pushed the lunch bag away.
Then Timmy spied the other, larger bag. Being careful not to make a sound, he pulled it over in front of him and looked inside. Then he reached into the bag and withdrew a piece of flesh-colored material. When he's finally deciphered what it was that he was holding, he laughed quietly and held it out the front of the desk for all of us to see. It was a huge pair of ladies cotton bloomers! Knowing full well what would happen to us if we laughed out loud, Timmy pulled the old pair of bloomers over his head and we all hid our red faces behind our books and pretended to study our reading. Finally, Timmy tired of this game and with a full belly, leaned against the side of the desk and fell asleep. Every now and then, he'd give a little snore, emit a loud burp and sleep on.
After what seemed like an eternity, the lunch bell rang and we were dismissed with the warning that in the afternoon classes, if anyone dared to defy her, they would meet the same fate as had befallen Timmy. She nudged Timmy awake with a swift kick of her foot into the small of his back and pulled him by the nape of his neck out from under her desk. Just for good measure, she cuffed him once or twice across the back of his small head, then she yelled into his ear for him to go home and tell his parents how he'd misbehaved that morning.
She gave him a strong shove in the general direction of the door and that was all the impetus that he needed. Timmy shot out of that room and down the hall to the front stairs. He couldn't wait to tell everyone how he had outsmarted Ethelene. Need-less-to-say, he didn't return to school for the rest of that week and by the time he did return, she had moved on to bigger challenges.
Ethelene's reputation for violence in the classroom did more to purge the Ashland School system of lazy students than all of World War II and the Korean conflict put together. She is long gone now but, never, never forgotten!
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
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