Miss Collier and her sister were both teachers in the school system and the two of them lived together. Some referred to them as spinsters, but as in most people’s lives, truth and rumors sometimes get thrown together and the rumors come out on top. They were both very old, at least in our eyes; if not seventy, then surely in their mid sixties. It’s one thing to consider how much energy it takes to teach a bunch of rowdy junior high kids for a normal person, but to have these two women survive it all at their ages is amazing. There were times however that I thought poor old Miss Collier was going to have a heart attack; right in the middle of Art class. She must have had a bottle of something strong hidden in her desk drawer to get her through the turmoil that was a daily occurrence in our class. It was as if she was the chum dumped into the water and a few of us kids were the sharks; eating machines to be sure.
One of the boys in our class was named Gary and he was the catalyst for the majority of the rebellious behavior that occurred. He was the one kid that the rest of us always made sure to be on his good side. Rumor had it that he had nearly killed another kid with his bare hands in a fit of temper and we had no reason to think the rumor untrue. We were never quite sure what he would do or when he would erupt again, just wanting to ensure that it wasn’t on any of us. If he was quiet, the class was usually calm and serene; kids drawing, painting, working in clay; the usual art class projects. If, however, Gary decided to go off his meds, so to speak, then not only would the noise level escalate, but things would often become physical.
During these outbursts Miss Collier would come out from behind her desk and with voice calm but slightly raised would say, “Gary, please sit down.” Gary, knowing that all eyes were now directed his way would be defiant and refuse to budge, continuing whatever activity he had started. Miss Collier would then move across the room in his direction, her face flushed and body shaking with anger, and say once again, only louder, “Gary, I asked you to sit down!” Gary, in his inimitable way, would stick out his chin and bottom lip in defiance and with wild eyes (eyes that resembled many of the photos of Charles Manson with swastika carved into his forehead) would dare Miss Collier to proceed; standing his ground and engaging in a stare down. Miss Collier would be shaking visibly, the entire class wondering if she would collapse on the floor or Gary would lose his mind and strike he;, as she stood eye to eye and toe to toe with the perpetrator.
When she had finally reached her wit’s end, she would point her bony, gnarled finger in his face (at which Gary would mimic her and point his skinny finger back in her face) and threaten to go get the principal (the guy who had shaken me senseless and was at least six-foot five inches tall) saying one last time, “Gary, I told you to sit down!” Realizing that he had pushed the envelope right to the edge, he began retreating, but not directly, instead making her pursue him across the room until he indeed reached his bar stool and sat down.
Much to my shame and regret, I have to admit that during many of these encounters between the two of them, I and others often took advantage of the situation and began acting out; seizing the opportunity presented to us. Seeing the chum in the water and one shark on the attack enticed a number of the rest of us to join the fray, creating a feeding frenzy of sorts. While Miss Collier was engaged with Gary, we would get out of our seats and wander over to another table and begin pestering some innocent bystander. This would lead to a chain reaction of events and when our victim loudly voiced their concerns, Miss Collier would whip her head around and leave Gary for the moment to see what was going on at the other end of the room.
Her ire was now directed my way and she was adamant when she said, “Ronnie, go back to your seat!” her hand shaking as she pointed it first at my face and then toward my seat. Finding me much more compliant than him, I would briefly hesitate at her instructions, and then quickly return to my seat. Meanwhile, Gary had followed her across the room, making faces behind her back along the way. Once she had returned me to my rightful place, she would then turn her attention back to Gary; shocked to find him out of his seat and at the opposite end of the room. This activity could go on for most of the class and seemingly occurred on an almost daily basis.
What had Gary been doing to cause such disturbances you might ask? Because it was art class, there were plenty of distractions to occupy a person’s time and imagination. There was a Bunsen burner in one corner of the class which was useful for lighting notebook paper on fire. Once he had the paper on fire, Gary would squeal loudly, “Fire. Fire,” creating a major scene with kids jumping around stomping on burning pieces of paper, others leaving their stools to see what was going on and Miss Collier standing right in the middle of it, her hair sticking out in all directions; whatever hairspray being applied that morning no longer having an effect.
Sometimes Gary would convince an accomplice, let’s use me as an example here (and only as an example of course), to engage in a fictitious fight; with punches feigned, bodies recoiling, and grunts and outbursts displayed for additional drama. Miss Collier would quickly, as quickly as she could move, leave her desk and attempt to stop the fight, often times standing between two boys who would continue to throw fake punches over and around her. When the “fight” was over and the combatants had returned to their seats, Miss Collier would slowly walk back to her desk, her shoulders slumped as she went; sitting down as if she could no longer stand, and once seated, stare out into the room with a sad, tired look on her face. (I know and I agree; those kids should have been beaten!)
Other shenanigans involved lumps of clay; and rather than being sculpted on the spinning wheel, they were tossed into the air with such volume that they stuck to the ceiling. We couldn’t help laughing out loud seeing Miss Collier walk around the corner and ask, “Where have you kids put the clay?” and then, seconds later, see a huge lump of clay fall from the ceiling and splat onto the floor at her feet. Not only were their clay balls on the ceiling, but pencils could be seen sticking out of and hanging from the acoustic tile throughout the room. Spit balls were common; often being found later sticking to assorted fixtures in the room, the once wet wads of paper now hardened to the texture of paper mache.
I don’t know to this day how Miss Collier survived that class. She did what she could with us, putting me out into the hall by myself numerous times (I liked it out in the hall; it gave me plenty of time to contemplate). She could never get Gary to go out in the hall; he just refused to go. Unless I changed my ways down some future path, there was a special place in hell being reserved for me; if not for all my other sins, then for how I treated Miss Collier during seventh hour art class.
*From the soon to be released Always a Little Heathen the follow up to Little Heathens; available on amazon.com