Paul Willis

One day, in the winter of my sixth-grade year, our old and discontented teacher, Miss Weir, informed us that we would now take out our pencils and each write a story for the Corvallis Gazette-Times’ “George Washington’s Birthday Tall Tale Contest,” though the tales could not be all that tall, given the fact that they had to be fifty words or less. We all knew the one about the cherry tree, but that was true, wasn’t it? So we scratched our heads and went to work. According to Miss Weir, there was money to be had if we won. How much, she didn’t say.

This is what I wrote:

One night, a Tory at Yorktown filled American guns with black gumdrops. In the morning, when Washington ordered his men to charge and fire, gumdrops emerged instead of bullets. Greedy British soldiers gobbled them up and fell to the ground with bellyaches. Cornwallis thought his men were dead and surrendered.

It is not hard to guess where this story came from. In grade school, I liked to read about the Revolutionary War, and I also liked to eat gumdrops, and they must have given me stomachaches from time to time. So with great imaginative flair I connected these experiences, at the same time finding a way to make the father of our country an accidental pacifist.

So we turned in our stories, and Miss Weir delivered them to the Gazette-Times, and we all promptly forgot about them. Until, just before Washington’s Birthday, Miss Weir announced to the class after lunch that I had won the contest. I was filled with amazement and pride, and several days later my prize-winning fiction was published in the newspaper under the title “A Sweet Way to Win a War.” Then the United Press International scooped it up and splashed it around the country as filler. And then, according to several neighbors, Paul Harvey himself ended his mid-day news broadcast with the tale, no doubt adding at the end, as he always did, “And now you know... the rest of the story.”

This was 1967. The war in Vietnam was well underway. I had only the vaguest ideas about this—or, perhaps, none at all. But our country needed every distraction it could lay its hands on. And I happened to be one of them.

It wasn’t the injustice of the Vietnam War that eventually got my attention, however; it was an injustice that emerged in our very classroom. A few days after my brush with literary fame, I put up my hand and asked Miss Weir, “Isn’t there some sort of prize money I’m supposed to be getting?”

Miss Weir pursed her gravely over-lipsticked lips and said, “The prize for the contest is five dollars. But since your story was part of a class project, I am keeping that money in my desk on behalf of the entire class.”

Then she opened her desk drawer, removed a five-dollar bill, and held it aloft for all to see. And then she put it back. And gave me a glassy stare.

The classroom got very quiet.

But out on the playground, the verdict was given. “Miss Weir is being Miss Weird. You got robbed, man.”

Which is how I felt myself, but out of some high-mindedness, gained perhaps in Sunday School at the First Baptist Church, I decided not to complain.

But that didn’t make things any better. From that day on, for reasons I have never fathomed, Miss Weir declared war on me. And she wasn’t using black gumdrops. No, she used big, fat, red Fs on my assignments, whenever she could manage them. Outline for a report? F. Snowflake design? F. Notebook organization? F. She couldn’t get away with it on spelling tests and math quizzes, since I got each word and problem right and naturally could prove it. But give her a little wiggle room and she became wicked.

I remember trying to tell my mother that Miss Weir did not like me.

“It can’t be that bad,” she said.

And then, one day, Miss Weir reported to the class after lunch that someone—and here she paused and looked at me—someone had stolen the five-dollar bill from her desk. “Now who might that someone be?” she asked.

Out on the playground, everyone said, “The five dollars is yours to begin with. It wasn’t really stealing.”

But I hadn’t taken it, and said so, face flaming. Hardly anyone believed me. Least of all, Miss Weir.

How the spring played out I can’t recall. Miss Weir must have eventually stopped doling out those Fs, perhaps because of a clandestine parent-teacher conference. Deep down, my mother may have believed me and done what she could to put a stop to bad behavior.

But the more I thought about Miss Weir, the more I hated her in my heart. I nursed my grudge for a long time. And, finally, vengeance was mine.

My opportunity came almost a year later, when I was in the seventh grade. I had come back to the elementary school on a Saturday morning to watch my younger brother play in a basketball game. The game, I suppose, was not all that interesting. Halfway through, I slipped away from the shouts in the gym and tiptoed down a hallway to the classrooms of the upper grades. It was very quiet. I told myself I was just looking, just visiting old haunts. I was so much older now. How interesting to reflect back on former days.

Then I came to the door of Miss Weir’s sixth-grade classroom. I turned the knob. It opened. And I went inside. And then I knew why I had come. Holding my breath, I walked to the main blackboard, lifted a piece of chalk from the tray, and proceeded to scrawl, in letters as large as I could manage, WE HATE MISS WEIR. Then, for a stereo effect, I did the same on a second blackboard on the other side of the room. And then, for the coup de grâce, I opened the door to her private closet behind her desk and took out a soft pair of slippers, the ones she put on at the end of the day when she thought we were not looking, the ones that eased the aches and pains and corns and bunions on her elderly, swollen feet. Then I opened the top drawer of her desk, the drawer that had once held the contested five-dollar bill, and found a box of straight pins for posting bulletin-board displays. I dumped half of the box into the toe of her right slipper and half of the box into the toe of her left, where they couldn’t be seen, only felt. Then I put the slippers back in her closet. And snuck back out of the room.

I never heard how Miss Weir took it when she got to her classroom that Monday, so there wasn’t much triumph to my private act of vandalism. I could imagine, of course, her astonishment and anger upon seeing those messages on the blackboards. And the sudden pain of merging her toes with all those straight pins later on in the afternoon. But for some reason, I didn’t like thinking about it. My perfect hate crime gave me very little pleasure. I had told myself I was getting even. But all I got was ashamed.

Now that I am as old as Miss Weir was when she was my teacher, and now that I am a teacher as well, I know how little it takes to become locked in conflict with a colleague or a student for reasons that deepen and multiply in the imagination. I know the twinge of envy that I sometimes feel when a younger friend or protégé wins a prize or writes a poem that surpasses any I might win or write myself. And was that it? Was Miss Weir jealous? Had she entered the contest herself? Had she nurtured aspirations as a writer for many a year, aspirations that never met with recognition?

I will never know, of course. But I do know, finally, like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, that there is no real pleasure in meanness. In my ongoing battle with certain college administrators over the current fad of measuring “student learning outcomes,” I was recently told that, in response to one of my sharper sallies, one particular dean, feeling singled out, had checked herself into the hospital for two days.

Maybe she found Miss Weir there too.

In my next life, my better life, I will go and visit them there, and bring them flowers. And gumdrops.


Paul Willis is Professor of English at Westmont College and has recently served as poet laureate for the city of Santa Barbara.

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