avatarTom Owens: How I REALLY Feel!


She Put the POP in ‘Pop Quiz’

My First Grade Teacher Talked in Riddles to Autistic Me

Learning a painful lesson

First grade had many strange rituals for me. Lining up at the teacher’s desk to get your graded paper? Everybody hears how you messed up! Andy Eick, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

I never told anyone.

But I could have been the reason my elementary school teacher got fired.

The new school year began with hope. In the first grade, everything was new. No more half-day school. Regular desks even!

These new surroundings seemed a little exciting, a lot scary.

You see, I was an undiagnosed autistic child with a serving of ADHD on the side.

I ached to be like every other kid. But I didn’t know how.

I’ll call my teacher Mrs. N for the purpose of this tale. She wore the traditional polyester skirts with matching jackets. Her hair was piled atop her head in typical 1960s fashion.

This teacher fashioned herself as a good ol’ boy without pants. She was full of folksy sayings, chatty cliches, and other baffling euphemisms.

What Kind of English Did My Teacher Speak?

I couldn’t believe so many kids understood her. Then again, I was from a family of two parents and a little brother. We lived too far away to soak up the free-wheeling conversation of zany relatives. I took words and their speakers quite literally.

Social cues were just as bad. I remember now that Mrs. N winked at individual kids after telling a joke or whipping out more words with double meanings. All I could guess was that the teacher was getting tickled by her fancy eyelashes.

I was old enough to pretend well. I faked understanding this teacher by sneaking glances at what other students were doing. I knew not to copy off someone’s paper. But I could follow the crowd when the class was told to prepare for a new activity.

Future First Lady Lady Bird Johnson, in front of the White House in 1960. My teacher favored the same hairstyle. Robert Knudsen, White House Press Office (WHPO), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“I’m going to write some words on the board, partners.” Mrs. N. was trying to talk like a cowboy? When other students snickered, I smiled and nodded. “We’ll copy these words, say them, and learn them!”

The teacher pretended to be like Sergeant Carter character from the Gomer Pyle TV show. When his troops were supposed to repeat orders aloud, the Sarge would cup his hand to his ear and sing out, “I can’t hear you!”

I had studied TV sitcoms more than spelling words, so I understood Mrs. N wanting us to say each word LOUDLY. She looked surprised and pleased at all the youth shouting.

After a short pep talk, we were told to put our spelling word list in our desk. Time for other busywork.

The next day, the teacher pretended to be excited. “Hey, class, let’s see who knows their spelling words. I’ll say the words, and you copy them down. Let’s see how you do.”

She danced around telling us the truth. This was the first-ever pop quiz. However, she didn’t announce the rules of this surprise test.

I thought this was my time to shine. I reached into my desk and pulled out my study words. If I spelled the words wrong, I’d know and could fix them.

The teacher’s high heels clicked as she paced throughout the rows of desks. “The first word is…WHAP!”

My Teacher Makes An Impression

That was all I heard. She didn’t say it. Mrs. N made that sound when she slapped the back of my head. I got popped during the “pop quiz.” I never saw it coming.

She hit me in front of the whole class.

“No cheating, Tommy Owens!” the teacher growled. “Give me that paper.”

Why did the teacher’s voice sound like a muffled echo? My ears were ringing from the impact of her slap.

Mrs. N scowled at me as she tore my work into bits of confetti. I could see my neat printing in tiny pieces, fluttering into the wastebasket.

Tittering giggles from several girls in the class made my headache worse.

I sat and stared straight ahead. I tried to wipe up the puddle of tears with my long sleeve. I’m sure my paper got soggy, too.

I started my recess in the boys’ bathroom. I washed my streaked face and tried to see in the mirror if I was getting a head lump. I used to laugh when cartoon characters would have swollen heads.

I walked around the playground, noticing all my classmates didn’t want to be seen with this kid criminal.

I didn’t know what I did wrong. No one ever explained how a test was supposed to happen.

When class started again, I got more worried.

Mrs. N seemed to have taken happy pills. She asked me to answer no-brainer questions. “Good job, Tommy!” my teacher sang. I worried about getting trapped into making another mistake and getting hit again.

Nope. The rest of the day I was a class star. After shaming me in front of my peers earlier that day, the teacher toiled. She wanted to be my pal.

In reality, she didn’t want me to tell my parents that my teacher attacked me during class.

Mrs. N got her way. I never spoke of the slapping for the next 50 years.

Seeing the Slapper Again

But I did meet my tormentor a quarter-century later. I was employed to perform Christmas stories at a nursing home.

“Do you remember your first-grade teacher?” asked a gravel-voiced resident with a bouffant “hair helmet” wig.

I gave a polite half-smile at this audience member and nodded. “I would never forget you.”

She recoiled from my stare. The nursing home director said, “Dottie, was this a student of yours?”

The ex-teacher softened, offering a genuine smile. “This one was special. This little Tommy Owens.

“I learned early on that he was more sensitive than most of my students, and he deserved to be treated differently. I couldn’t treat him like everyone else. So that’s what I did.”

Yes, I wanted to scream at her. I wanted to ask how many students she had sucker-punched in her career. “Did you only hit boys? And, did you ever get caught for abusing children?”

Instead, I kept staring. Then, I had my awakening.

This former bully sounded like she felt remorse. Her words seemed like a feeble attempt at apologizing. Had she ever told anyone she was sorry in her long life?

I never stayed to find out. I threw my overcoat over my left arm. I walked toward her.

“You were a good boy,” she whispered.

I reached for her hand. The same hand that slapped me.

We shook hands. “Merry Christmas,” I added.

Driving home, I smiled. It was early December, but I had received my first Christmas gift.

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