“A man’s errors are his portals of discovery.” –James Joyce
I did not like my third grade teacher. Things had been downhill for me after my second grade teacher died mid-year, and our replacement teacher just didn’t quite cut it, didn’t let us pick prizes from the cardboard elephant the way Mrs. Skwersky had. But third grade, that was the worst.
In past years, I had always loved each teacher as a second mother, revered and respected them like a good daughter, but occasionally overstepped my boundaries as young children tend to do. Mrs. Friedberg did not merit my love. She was probably in her young twenties, thick waisted with legs that brushed each other beneath her long skirts, when she walked. She mostly sat behind the desk, tucked in, so all the students could see were her baggy cardigans, close cropped sandy hair, and wool hat, pulled tightly over her head, revealing just the tips of her eyebrows. She rarely smiled.
“Why do you wear those hats every day, even when it’s hot, or when they don’t match?” I once asked her, after raising my hand and patiently awaiting my turn to speak. I also rehearsed the question in my most polite voice, and it came out sounding proper and sincere.
“It’s a beret,” she barked, correcting my limited knowledge of millinery, “And that’s an inappropriate question.” My cheeks flamed at the rejection, and the innocently intended question went unanswered, dismissed. Later, my mother told me that it was because sometimes married Orthodox women cover their hair as a sign of modesty. My own mother was orthodox but did not wear hats. Clearly Mrs. Friedberg was a fanatic. And she also smelled like cole-slaw. She would not be the recipient of my love. I couldn’t even muster up some “like.”
“I hate school,” I told my mother, a few weeks in. “I don’t like Mrs. Friedberg. She’s so mean,” I said, not really supplying a concrete reason behind this sentiment. But my mother just hugged me and later, called another mother to have a whispered conversation on Mrs. Friedberg’s teaching credentials.
“You need to fire Mrs. Friedberg,” I said to the principal, Rabbi Burke, the next day after lunch. “She’s the worst teacher ever.” My friend Hanna stood by my side, nodding and chiming in for emphasis. Our shoulders touched as we felt a surge of pride in our mission.
“Okay,” he said, nodding his head emphatically. “When? Today or tomorrow?”
“Today!” Hanna and I screamed in unison. We couldn’t believe our good luck. Getting rid of our teacher was as easy as asking a simple question, and the principal had cooperated.
But Mrs. Friedberg was back the next day. I sat stiffly in class, wondering why she had returned, if she was really fired. Maybe she was working for free, and they had stopped paying her. Maybe she really just wanted to take revenge on me, and continue to make me so uncomfortable in her class, as a payback for trying to make her lose her job. I came up with a plan.
That day we had indoor recess because it was too rainy to go play outside in the school’s parking lot. In the back of the room, there were art supplies that were available to us, and I huddled over a desk with a few friends, stapling, glueing and coloring. On blank sheets of paper, we scrawled, “Fire Mrs. Friedberg!!!” and rolled up other sheets of paper to make tubes. We stapled these together, the tubes acting as sticks, and made picket signs. I was their leader.
Mrs. Friedberg was up at her desk, going over some homework questions with Yvette, the friendless, petite kid who spent her free time trying to impress her teachers instead of trying to make friends. We began our march in the back of the room, four of us holding our signs high, and we walked down the aisle of desks out the classroom door to the freedom of the long hallway, where we began to chant, “Fire Mrs. Friedberg!” in case people couldn’t read our signs.
We marched all the way down the hall until the water fountain, gaining momentum and followers, then circled back, chanting and screaming, and waving our signs in the faces of passersby. And then Mrs. Friedberg’s silhouette appeared in the open doorway, first the beret, then the green cardigan, and the black, billowy skirt. Her hand rested on the doorjamb, somberly stroking the layers of chipped white paint, and for a moment, for a hairsbreadth of a second, the beret dipped down in defeat. “Back inside!” she bellowed, deflating our parade, our aggressive rallying. She grabbed each sign from our hands, and threw them in the tall grey garbage can in the front of the room. Yvette disapprovingly clucked her tongue, and smirked at us from her perch alongside Mrs. Friedberg’s desk, elated that we were in trouble, bumped lower on the hierarchy of “teacher’s favorites,” so that she was inadvertently bumped up. We stomped back to our seats, exchanging signs of victory with our hands, and recess was over.
She was wearing a taupe-colored beret the next day, and it looked like it had hair growing out of it, little unshorn and neglected pieces that had sprouted up without anyone noticing. I know, because I got up real close. I stood behind it in the middle of class one day, desperate to get her to leave, to find a new job, or just to go home to sit endlessly on her couch instead of behind her desk. “Who can tell me the answer to the first homework question,” Mrs. Friedberg asked, sitting lazily on her chair, peering down through her hooded eyelids.
Yvette nearly flew out of her seat in excitement, and she bounced up and down, shrieking, “Me! Me! Me!” Mrs. Friedberg looked out into the sea of blank faces, hoping for another volunteer. I was a shadow behind her shoulder, a ghost at the blackboard, a pair of purple safety scissors from the art supply cabinet pressed tightly in my palm. There was adrenaline surging in my ears, and I moved robotically, as if in a trance, acting not of my own will but in the momentous waves of our battle.
“Mrs. Friedberg,” I said, and she didn’t turn. My classmates sat frozen, anticipating my next move, waiting to see what genius act I would perform next, to further depose our despised teacher. “I am going to take off your beret and cut off all of your hair,” I said, waving the scissors wildly in the air. The beret had a one-inch long piece of material that stuck out at the top, like a little soldier, erect and proud. It beckoned me to grab it, to pull it off and unveil her, shame her, show the class who she really was. She would feel naked and exposed, and would never be able to set foot in our third grade classroom ever again. Without budging from her chair, she turned her head to look at me, and I saw embarrassment swirling in the browns of her dulled gaze, her drunken stare. Maybe it was a reflection of myself.
“Sit down NOW!” she said, her upper lip curling into a sneer, before returning to face the rest of the class. “Yvette, why don’t you tell us the answer?” And just like that, the class resumed. A few kids laughed as I tiptoed back to my seat, returning the scissors to the supply closet before sinking pathetically into my plastic chair. I felt foolish, shamed.
That Saturday night, my father rented a video for us from Blockbuster. As we sat entranced by “Garbage Pail Kids,” the phone rang, and my mother answered it upstairs. I suspected it was bad news when I heard my parents start to whisper. I knew it was bad news when they came down to get me. “Sarah, we need to talk to you.” I hastily stood up, relinquishing my position on our floral-patterned couch, and followed them upstairs. My other siblings barely even glanced my way as they continued to watch the movie in my absence.
“What is it?” I asked, blinking rapidly, trying to maintain a face of innocence.
“Mrs. Friedberg just called,” my mother said. My heart sunk, and already I could feel the tears springing into my eyes. “She said you stood up in class and threatened to take off her hat and cut off her hair.”
“Huh?” I said, pretending to be clueless. “She’s lying!” I said, a little too loudly.
“Why would she lie? Why would she make that up about you?” my father pressed on.
“Because she hates me! She always hated me! She’s the worst teacher ever!” By now, the tears were freely falling down my face. I was in trouble because she was a bad teacher. Just my luck.
“You need to apologize to her in school on Monday,” my mother said, ignoring the fact that I had just claimed not to do anything wrong. “You need to start being more respectful, and I’d like you to write her a serious apology letter.” I looked down, and slowly nodded my head. I had no resolve left, no more plans or schemes to get rid of her. I was bent, broken. I would try to be good. But first, I wanted to finish watching “Garbage Pail Kids.”
Mrs. Friedberg finished the year in our class. She taught, and I sat. We glared at each other. But she never called home again. Although we continued to whisper about her behind her back, we never took action again. On the first day of fourth grade, I anxiously returned to school, checking the doorway of our old third-grade classroom. Where there used to be a sign that read, “Mrs. Friedberg,” there was instead a new name, “Mrs. Garfunkel.” She was finally gone, vanished, and I never heard from her again. I sighed.
Years later, I became a teacher, and when I would wear a beret on my own head, I’d feel the shadow of mischief at my shoulder, threatening to reveal itself, to reveal me, but it never did.