My son is home this morning. He’s not quite so sick that he shouldn’t be at school; rather he just needs a few extra hours of sleep to catch up on what he’s missed from some late nights recently. He’s in a split grade 2/3 class this year, where he is only one of six grade three children. His school – like the one I attended my elementary years – is quite small.
Grade three was a school year I remember well. Our teacher was very artistic, had a ferocious temper, and was easily frustrated. And our teacher was a man. A MAN! I had never seen a male teacher. He sat at his desk and read the paper every morning and he always had ink on his fingers. He left big black fingerprints on our worksheets which would transfer to our faces when we pulled at a ponytail or picked at our noses, but this was only one of the ways he left an indelible mark on our 1980 school year.
I loved him and I hated him and I’m sure he felt the same about me. I wasn’t special, but I was very smart and I asked a lot of questions – questions he sometimes couldn’t answer. He divided our class into groups according to ability and I was in the “advanced” group. Of course no one called it “the advanced group” but you didn’t need to be a genius to figure out that the “panthers” were quicker studies than the “earthworms.”
One day a boy in my group sang a version of “O, Canada” which combined biting wit, astute political awareness and perhaps a smidgen of treason. This boy’s version of our national anthem was smart and inappropriate and very, very funny. It was then – in grade three – when I realized that the funniest things usually come from a place of absolute truth and intelligence, but this teacher did not appreciate this sentiment. He was not impressed and he took shit from nobody.
The teacher gave this boy a choice for his punishment: Sing the proper version – solo, at the front of the class – or miss every single recess all week. This was akin to imprisonment in a Turkish prison and so of course the boy chose the solo and the teacher told him that he respected his decision. This was the first time I ever heard any grown-up person say they respected a child, and I have heard it pitifully little since.
This man let us do fun arts and crafts projects with exotic materials like something called “India Ink.” In all fairness, this was a mistake from the get-go. Giving a room full of wiggly eight year-old children high on Wagon Wheels unlimited access to an industrial size bottle of permanent liquid stain was not a good idea. “Do NOT spill it,” our teacher said. Then he added, “I trust you.”
When a girl spilled it all over the wool reading-circle carpet the teacher had brought special from home, we all sat, scared silent, and waited for the hammer to fall. The teacher was calm. Finally he said – in the measured tone of an adult who has made the decision to change career paths – “Never, in my entire teaching career has anyone ever spilled the ink. My carpet is ruined.”
The half empty jug of ink disappeared from the art shelves and so did the ruined carpet and I think maybe the girl did, too.
The spilled ink was thick and it smelled heavy like blood. It seemed as much a living force as anything inside of us. It was potential and it was creation and it was relief from primary school baby crafts and safety scissors. It was trust and belief and freedom. I haven’t smelled anything remotely like it since.
Shortly before the Christmas break that year our teacher came to school and he looked upset. After the morning announcements and “O, Canada” (sung properly) he switched off the classroom intercom and faced the class. He told us that he was very sad because his favourite musician had died the day before. This musician was a young man, a talented man, a man with a family and a long life ahead of him and that he had been killed, his blood spilled needlessly by someone with misplaced fascination. We were horrified and sad, but our sadness was for our teacher and not the man we did not know and could not love or hate.
Our class often listened to The Beatles on a turntable during reading time. But there was no “Yellow Submarine” that day. Instead our teacher sat quietly at his desk and did not read the paper. It lay folded on his desk. There would be no ink on his hands this day.
Sometimes I wonder if my son will remember things that happen during his third grade year. On the surface he appears unaffected by events that happen around him, but I don’t know what feelings run in his veins. What would he think of spilled ink on a wool carpet? I’m not sure.
He’s a quiet boy.