We sat cross-legged on the colorful carpet in three rows. 30 small bodies looking straight ahead with young, innocent faces at Mrs. Kablutsen. She stood in front of an empty blackboard and seemed too old to be a kindergarten teacher.
Mrs. Kablutsen looked like the dolls my grandmother made from old apples. She had a withered face crumpled like a brown paper sack sitting on top of a skeletal frame hanging inside a black dress. The wicked teacher of Westforest Elementary.
I was a transfer. A new kid. My sandy blond bowl cut hung over my ears and my legs were cinched into Toughskins jeans with a patch in the right knee. On top, I wore a long sleeve shirt with Ernie from Sesame Street blowing a trumpet on the front.
My top left lip had an extra lump of flesh. Scar tissue from a run-in between my face and a picnic table several months before. No one had made fun of me for my deformity, but I was new. Bullies hadn’t smelled blood in the water yet.
Each young, round face looked bright and open as we waited to scrawl with crayons, paint with watercolors, build skyscrapers with wooden blocks, or construct cabins with Lincoln Logs. We were the afternoon class and our three-hour, half-school day had just begun.
Mrs. Kablutsen looked out at us through her pterodactyl eyes and asked, “What do you want to do today, kids?”
Some raised their hands. Others quivered with anticipation. I stayed quiet and then Mrs. Kablutsen hooked her gaze directly at me and probed, “What do you want to do today, Gentry?”
I thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t care.”
Immediately, I was swept up by one arm and whisked violently outside into the hallway. My answer was obviously not a good one.
“We don’t say things like that!” Mrs. Kablutsen hissed at me as she dragged me up into the air and then dropped me. I landed on a small, hard chair.
“You will stay there and think about what you said,” she harumphed and returned to the classroom.
I sat looking down the long, vacant hallway. Turning one way and then the other. Cavernous stretches of industrial carpeting under low, fluorescent light. I looked down and studied my small hiking boots and swung my legs awkwardly. Checking to see if I was really there or a figment of my own imagination.
I wanted to cry but I wasn’t sure why, so I didn’t. Instead, I decided to hate Mrs. Kablutsen because I knew that she hated me, too. At five years old, Mrs. Kablutsen became my nemesis.
After my first day in Mrs. Kablutsen’s class — which was mostly in the hallway — she began to provoke me. It began in small ways. She placed me at the back of the recess line. She wouldn’t allow me to go to the bathroom until others did first. I received old, dried-up paintbrushes during art time. They were devilish means to destroy me. Small but calculated.
When my initial parent conference took place, she told my mother, “He uses big words.”
“Why is that a problem?” my mother asked, both curious and dumbfounded.
“He uses words I don’t understand.”
Mrs. Kablutsen was an evil witch and an arch-villain, but she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. She could never be diabolical because she didn’t know what the word meant.
My mother laughed when she told me this at home and praised me for being “a smart little guy”, but it didn’t improve my kindergarten life.
When the winter school play approached, we learned it was going to be about the zoo. Most of my classmates were excited, but I was concerned. I had developed a keen sense of pessimism about what Mrs. Kablutsen might do to me.
We were grouped together and given the animals we’d be performing. Her class favorite, Marty Bangles, received the highest honor: he got to be The Monkey. The Monkey got to swing around on the indoor monkey bars for the duration of the play. The remaining 29 of us were given our various animal roles in groups, which equated to the imaginary cages we’d also be placed in.
The cute girls got to be koalas and kangaroos. A pack of athletic boys got to be lions and tigers. The farm kids were buffalo and deer. And a group of my slower-learning classmates were birds of various kinds: a flamingo, a stork, an eagle, and a pelican, along with one lone platypus.
I was among the four remaining kindergarten criminals. Mrs. Kablutsen’s bottom rung. In her eyes, we were the soon-to-be-sinners; the ones who colored outside the lines. We were left to stand at a short table and choose from a pile of loose pantyhose, but we weren’t sure why.
Soon we learned that the women’s hosiery was to be stuffed with old socks and then tied around our faces. We were the elephants. The animal was not the problem. Wearing women’s stockings on our faces was what made this demoralizing.
During the play, Mrs. Kablutsen enjoyed every moment as she forced the elephants to sway our trunks side to side and we inhaled the leftover must of a million and one old footsteps.
As the winter began to thaw, Mrs. Kablutsen shoved us out into the cold of April where we crunched in half-frozen ponds of ice that stood under the teeter-totters. A few kindergarteners found their way onto the open ice rink to slip, fall, and break into occasional tears. The rest of us amused ourselves on rusted swings and icy metal slides.
A few of my classmates discovered brutality that cold, early spring. The birth of tiny torturers began on the playground. And they found it easy to poke fun at the lump on my lip.
A coven of three girls, who seemed to stand five feet taller than me, crowded over my small frame. A blond, a brunette, and a red-headed giant leered.
First Elizabeth sneered, “What’s that on yer lip?”
Then, Brenda cracked, “It looks like a big wood tick!”
And finally, Heather hammered the nails into the coffin lid of my self-esteem by blasting, “I bet your lip gets in the way of how stupid you are!!
I don’t blame the coven. They were just little girls and I tried my best to let their insults bounce off my puffy winter parka. But I watched Mrs. Kablutsen only a few feet away, standing against the brick wall outside school. Eyeing us and saying nothing. She would never intervene when I was being tortured. She would only smirk and then slink away to smoke a cigarette.
A dark and evil mist gathered around her as she puffed, bent to one side to hide her habit, and grinning like a broken jack-in-the-box.
In May, the piles of snow became dirty piles of speckled pollution on the fringes of the school yard and the ice rink turned into a large circle of empty black asphalt. Chunks were missing and pieces of hard blacktop were littered around the surface.
Where fourth graders had done pirouettes on their figure skates, now all that was left was a lonely, netless basketball hoop. None of us were tall enough to hit the rim with the ball. Except for Marty Bangles who shot hoops and made most of the other boys watch him.
I was playing with my friends, Shawn and Paul, on the merry-go-round. Paul was making Shawn and I dizzy and half-sick by spinning the wheel as hard as he could while we went round and round. We had no interest in Marty and his basketball abilities on the crumbling asphalt.
But when Scotty darted over and told us with feverish excitement, “There’s a rock fight!” we thought we should investigate the court.
We walked over to where a group of boys had brandished chunks of blacktop. Some were chucking it at each other. Others were running. Everyone looked feral and violent. My two friends and I stood at the edge of the combat watching the little men hurl siege weapons at each other. There were no sides. No teams. No armies. Just pure chaos. Each little soldier was out for themselves.
One of our slow-witted but warmly-souled classmates, Robbie Forderbee, was near us and he cackled with glee on the battle court. Without warning, a giant piece of asphalt landed directly on his head and scraped down the center of his face. Bleeding and screaming like an injured calf, he ran directly at me. His bleeding face came so close to mine that I nearly felt blood smear on my skin.
Robbie sprinted toward school. I saw a teacher gather him into her arms and bring him inside. Mrs. Kablutsen’s shadow lurked nearby.
On the blacktop battleground, the fighting stopped. Boys stood silent on the court. Some still holding jagged weapons and others were empty-handed.
All fifteen of us boys were corralled into an empty classroom. Some cried, others sniffled, and a few were silent like me.
Mrs. Kablutsen began in a militant way, repeating certain words like a scratched record, “You are all terrible boys. Terrible boys! Little Robbie is going to need stitches on his face. On his face! I’m calling each one of your parents tonight. Tonight! You are all in very deep trouble. Deep trouble!”
Night fell and I was home. Whenever I heard the phone ring, I was petrified. I waited for my doom.
After dinner, my mother answered a call on the fifth ring, “Hello?” she said. “Oh, yes. Mrs. Kablutsen.” Pause. “Oh yes. What? I’m sorry…what??”
I was dead in the water but I knew I was innocent. They couldn’t get me. This was wrong. Wrong! I burst into tears and ran up our steep wooden stairs to my bedroom, jumped into my bed, and buried my face in a pillow. No! It wasn’t my fault!
Time passed slowly and as I wet my pillow case with dribbling tears, I waited for my punishment. When my mother entered my bedroom she placed her hand on my back and said quietly, “Your teacher called and said there was a rock fight today. Did you throw any rocks at your friends?”
I sniffled and muffle-spoke into my pillow, “No.” Sniff. Snuffle. “No, I didn’t.”
“I know you didn’t. I know that’s not you. It’s ok.” My mother’s reassurance that I had committed no crime was a giant relief.
My mother called Shawn and Paul’s parents and asked what Mrs. Kablutsen said to them. Then, she learned that they weren’t called. No one else in my kindergarten class had been called. Mrs. Kablutsen had blamed me entirely for the break-out of the rock war and for Robbie’s injuries.
After that, I survived the remaining weeks of kindergarten keeping my eyes peeled for a sign of Mrs. Kablutsen’s wicked ways. I made it to summer unscathed but on edge. Always on the lookout for a poison apple or a trap door that led to crocodiles below the classroom floor.
First and second grades were more gentle and I liked my teachers. But Mrs. Kablutsen managed to cast one last evil spell on me. She placed me in all the low-learning groups after she was no longer my teacher.
A couple of years passed. I finished my schoolwork easily and spent most of my time playing, drawing pictures, and writing stories. Halfway through third grade, the school discovered that I was smarter than Mrs. Kablutsen had said.
One afternoon as third grade was ending, my mother picked me up from school and we ran into Mrs. Kablutsen in the hall. I moved away from the two women and stood quietly nearby watching. Listening to them speak.
When pleasantries were finished and small talk put away, Mrs. Kablutsen said in a whisper, “I’m sorry how I treated your son. I’m sorry. I’m just sorry.”
My mother said nothing in return.
Mrs. Kablutsen continued, “I don’t know why I treated Gentry that way. I don’t know why.”
My mother accepted her apology and small talk reentered the conversation. Mrs. Kablutsen only turned to look at me once and she said nothing. She just let a half smile slither from the side of her mouth. I continued focusing on her until she turned back to my mother.
They finished conversing while I studied the magic marker art on the wall but I kept watching for a sign of my former teacher’s villainy. After they said goodbye, I never saw Mrs. Kablutsen again. She walked out the front door and rode off on a broom propelled by cigarette smoke.
My nemesis was gone but she lurked in the shadows. Mrs. Kablutsen had made all three and a half feet of me into a kindergarten outlaw.
It is possible that she’s still out there. Withered and wicked and waiting for me. Maybe one day we’ll meet again on the black asphalt of an empty ice rink. An epic showdown. Two pencil-slingers at high noon. This time, I get to be The Monkey.