Like most teachers of the time, she wrote on the blackboard and we were expected to write down pretty much everything she wrote. That doesn’t sound too bad in itself, until I tell you that she wrote with her right hand and erased with her left hand at the same time. The words would be up there for us to see - in cursive, of course - and when she finished two lines she would begin to write on the third and simultaneously erase the first line while continuing on with her writing, so by the time she got to the bottom of the board the top was already clear for her to begin again.
It was an impressive thing to watch, especially since most of us couldn’t rub our stomach and pat our head at the same time. It also meant that our room had more chalk dust per capita than any other two rooms at Raines, and I’m pretty sure she had to pay the custodians extra to clean each evening.
I learned a lot in Mrs. Moore’s room, and still diagram a sentence or two just for fun in my spare time, but there was one time she almost lost me. She handed out a mimeograph, all purple and white and still a little damp, with 100 prepositions in alphabetical order. Remember the smell of mimeographs? It was the smell of elementary school for many years until Xerox ruined it. Every test, every study sheet and every handout were a mimeo, and the first thing every one of us did was sniff it before we looked at it. This one was a full page. There were five rows of 20 words each, and I thought it was a pretty neat reference sheet to have handy.
That’s when she dropped the bomb - it wasn’t a reference sheet. I will mention that Mrs. Moore was rather insidious in that way. She would say something we thought was innocuous that, in the next sentence, turned into an impossible situation for us. Here it was again. We had to memorize it. All 100 words. In order. Before next Monday.
Since this was Monday afternoon, we figured out pretty quickly that we had a week left to live, because nobody thought they could do it. Nobody in my group, anyway.
The bike ride home after school that day helped me forget, for a while, the impossible assignment. That and the magic saddlebags on the back of my bike. I thought they were magic because a lot of the stuff I put in there - homework, tests for parent signature, report cards and other school stuff - often disappeared and magically reappeared just before or after the due date. I wasn’t sure how that happened, but there did seem to be a combination gravitic/temporal anomaly in there somewhere, but it didn’t happen with this one because I had to let my Mama know that my teacher had finally gone nuts.
I had tried this tactic with Mama before, and it had failed every time. My teachers would make some crazy, off the wall requirement that was clearly impossible or excessive or an exotic combination of the two and I would get home as quickly as I could to show Mama they had finally gone over the edge. I was a little slow in figuring out that Mama and my teachers had a mystic, cosmic connection that required them to agree with each other and for each to not only understand the others’ madness but to approve of and reinforce it.
It was the same this time. Mama did not seem upset or concerned about the draconian expectations of Mrs. Moore, and, after she sniffed the paper, quickly scanned it, and handed it back to me. “You’d better get started” she said, “those prepositions aren’t going to memorize themselves.” I was crestfallen.
My biggest supporter, benefactor and confidant had once again taken the teacher’s side. Was it possible the whole world was crazy, and I just hadn’t figured it out yet? Was it possible that once again that mystic, cosmic teacher/parent connection appeared at just the right moment to ruin my life forever? Was there after all a secret parent/teacher society that required one to support the other even to the point of abandoning their children? Alas, that certainly seemed to be the case.
I took the paper with a look of dejection that must have been apparent to Mama. I was, after all, reasonably objective about the ups and downs of life except when it concerned my model planes, Boy Scouts or baseball, and she had the ability to read my moods like a book.
“It’s like eating a chocolate cake,” she said. “You can do this with no problem.” That pretty much did it for me. She was on the teacher’s side again. I resigned myself at that moment to failing the sixth grade, dropping out of school and joining the Army. I already had my own genuine surplus Army helmet and canteen belt, so I had a head start there. I was big for my age, so they might believe I was 17 and take me without calling the house. I’ll bet they didn’t have to memorize prepositions in their foxholes.
Mama interrupted my foray into abject self-pity with “Did you hear what I said?” “Yes ma’am,” I replied, “but I didn’t think you were paying attention.”
She smiled at me and asked, “How do you eat a chocolate cake?” I knew I had to answer, so I said, “As quickly as I can, so my brothers won’t steal it.” It was honest, but not what she was looking for.
“No, silly,” she said, “you eat it one bite at a time.” She thought that would conclude the matter, but I didn’t get the connection. She saw my confusion and explained further; “If your job was to eat a whole chocolate cake, could you do it?” I had to think. A whole cake was a lot, even for me, and I wasn’t sure I could finish the whole thing at one time, but I was willing to try. I decided to play her silly game to see where it went. “I probably couldn’t eat it all at once,” I told her, “but if I could hide it from my brothers, I’m sure I could do it in two days.”
“I’m sure you could, too,” she offered, “but that’s not exactly what I meant. What I mean is that if you have a big cake to eat the best way to finish it is one bite at a time.”
She waited a moment for the light bulb to go on over my head. After a few long seconds, it finally did, and I told her “So, you mean that if I cut the cake into slices and eat one slice now and one later and one later after that pretty soon the whole cake will be finished.” “That’s exactly it, and, if it applies to chocolate cake, it will also work with prepositions,” she stated with a small degree of smugness that I have often noted in teachers.
“OK, so just to be clear, you’re telling me that if I memorize five or so prepositions today and five or so tomorrow that maybe this isn’t quite as impossible as it sounds?” “See,” she said cheerfully. “I knew you would find a solution to this” and turned and walked quickly to another room where my little brother had been suspiciously quiet for the last several minutes.
Left alone for a moment, I tried to think through what had just happened. Again. My teacher had gone nuts, my Mama had backed her up and shown me how to do what I was pretty sure couldn’t be done and had managed to give me credit for figuring out something she had actually figured out and explained and left me to feel good about doing what she was actually responsible for. I gave up after a few minutes of confusion, pulled out the mimeograph for one more sniff and started to memorize the first five words.
They had tricked me into succeeding once again. I was merely a pawn in the giant chess game of life and was becoming more and more convinced that real power in life was in the hands of Moms and teachers. Or both.