Peoria was a long time ago for me, I may have mentioned previously that I spent my entire early childhood there before moving to Minnesota with my folks in 1966 when I was twelve years old. Most of my memories I see fondly through a golden haze of years...but there is one memory I have of a certain substitute teacher that was in charge of my third grade class that is so sharp and clear that it cuts through that haze like Norman Bates' butcher knife through a shower curtain.
Her name was Mrs. Williams, and Mrs. Williams was fucking crazy.
You know, I have absolutely no memory of the teacher that Mrs. Williams was sent to replace, or why she left in the first place. But I do remember the first day Mrs. Williams walked through the door and started giving all us kids the old hairy eyeball. I'm 58 years old now and God help me I still have nightmares about it every once in a great while. Back then, scary would have been the best I could have done to describe the appearance of Mrs. Williams. My vocabulary is a hell of a lot more comprehensive than it was fifty years ago, and I think I can do a much better job of it now.
Mrs. Williams was at least 60 years old and could be adequately described as a hulking pig-eyed brood sow, and how a dyed in the wool kid hater like her managed to maintain a career teaching grade schoolers is a complete mystery to me. When she was in a good mood she growled at us kids, and her teaching style was, I guess you could say unique (and probably would have landed her a spot on the national evening news facing a string of felony assault charges had she pulled this shit today).
In math class, she'd have us line up in front of her desk and ask each one of us a math question. If you answered correctly, she'd glower at you and tell you to go sit down. If your answer was incorrect, she'd knuckle punch you in the center of your chest—hard enough to leave a bruise (the bruise she left on me sealed her fate, as I don't think my folks would have believed me otherwise when I told them what was going down in Mrs. Williams' class).
Mrs. Williams was with us for about a week, and the chest punching thing was early in the week on one of her good days...shortly we all found out what would happen if you spoke out of turn or even failed to suppress a sneeze in her class.
That was when the fun really began.
The first kid to feel the full psychotic wrath of Mrs. Williams was a boy two rows over from me. He spoke out of turn. Ever see the movie Cujo or read the book? Okay, Picture an overweight St. Bernard tricked out in a way out of date (even for 1963) 1930's vintage print dress with end stage rabies trying to dig a hole through the windshield of a car trying to get at the people inside. It went a lot like that and I'm not exaggerating at all and God help me I wish I were.
Peoria had a limited budget for school equipment back then, and the desks we sat at were these old wooden ones with cast iron frames and actual ink wells drilled into the desk tops that would have been right at home in a late nineteenth century schoolroom. These things were heavy sturdy suckers...(they were built to last way, way back in the day I suppose). Mrs. Williams ran over to that poor kid and picked the entire desk with the kid in it off the floor and shook it in the air while screaming in the kid's face! We were third graders, only about eight years old and I'd never seen anything like that before in my life—then or since. The kid was too scared to cry. We all were.
My turn came the very next day. I sneezed.
Mrs. Williams was on me like a shot, and she jack-slapped me repeatedly in the face while screaming at me at the top of her lungs.
Later on that afternoon, I walked home to my house on Kenwood Avenue from Calvin Coolidge Grammar School (it's still there on Rohmann Avenue, I checked on Google maps, only it's a middle school now) and My Mom noticed right away that my face looked a little...discolored. She asked me what happened to my face, but I didn't want to talk about it...I was too scared. Later on, my dad came home from work and then they both took turns asking me what happened to my face, and little bit by little bit...the story came out. I even showed them the bruise on my chest from the knuckle punch.
My old man's face looked like Imhotep, as if it were carved out of rock and dry as the desert ages as the story came out...and the look on my mother's face was even more interesting. She had Graves Disease, a serious Thyroid condition that causes the tissues behind the eyes to swell and forces the eyes to protrude. She'd had a series of operations, one to remove most of her thyroid and left her having to take thyroid pills for the rest of her life, and another to reduce the pressure behind her eyes so she wouldn't go blind. That operation left her with eyes that had very dark rings around them and eyes that would protrude to a significant degree for the rest of her life...and this condition became quite pronounced whenever she was upset. Man, oh man did she look scary that afternoon...in addition to the scary eyes, you could see the veins sticking out on her neck and the muscles in her jaws flexing. There was a TV show on back then called the Outer Limits that I never missed...and there was an episode featuring Warren Oates called "The Mutant" about an astronaut that got his bad self caught out in a rain of radioactive isotopes and wound up with bulging eyeballs and killer mental powers that scared the hell out of me...and damned if my mom didn't look just like Warren Oats that afternoon. Mom gave me a hug and quietly told me to go up to my room 'cause she wanted to have a little talk with Dad.
Once I was up there, I heard muffled shouts and the sound of a rotary phone being dialed over and over again, followed by more muffled shouts. The next day, they kept me home from school with a neighbor to sit with me while Mom and Dad took a little drive to the school for a little talk with the principal. Just a little talk mind you. And judging from Mom's bulging eyes and all those veins and muscles sticking out on her face, that little talk must have been pretty fucking interesting. Oh, yes indeed. The day after that I was back in school, and Mrs. Williams had disappeared off the face of the earth and we had a brand new teacher. A nice one.
One of my favorite novels is Harper Lee's “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It always makes me think of Peoria from way back then for some reason. We even had our own version of Boo Radley, Jimmy Knots from across the street. He was a sweet, harmless twenty year old kid with moderate mental retardation who always had his face against my neighbor's window because a trick of the light made him think the “Man in the Moon” lived there. My neighbor or the cops would shoo Jimmy gently back home when they found him doing that (they all knew the story on Jimmy). “To Kill a Mockingbird” was a wonderful novel—but just in this one instance, Harper Lee, eat your heart out—I think I've got you beat.