Mrs B was old school. Really old school.
There was something vaguely Victorian about her, hair pinned back severely, glasses perched on the end of her nose, (perfectly positioned for glaring over the top of) dresses that came up to the throat and ended below the knee, and posture so rigid you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d strapped a broomstick to her spine.
Coming to her class was a shock to the system for all of us. We were moving into the upper part of our primary school, making the transition to more serious schooling after years of teachers so saccharine sweet that they gave you a toothache.
Until moving up, the experience of school had always been universally pleasant, almost dreamlike.
The sweet, breathy voices of the teachers, cajoling or consoling rather than castigating.
The ‘magic’ cream rubbed onto grazed knees by teaching assistants, tears forgotten in a heartbeat as the placebo took instant effect on naïve young minds.
The endless games and songs. The time spent sitting cross legged on a carpet worn almost threadbare by decades of use as we learnt our ABCs.
As soon as you entered Mrs B’s domain, there was a shift. First, the colours. In lower primary, the walls had been adorned with a hodge podge of brightly coloured displays, designed to catch the eye. Here, there were meticulously ordered noticeboards bearing nothing but the written word in monochrome. It was like someone had reached in with a giant vacuum and sucked out all the joy.
Mrs B had high standards. No student’s work would be on that wall if it bore a smudge from careless penmanship, an illegible scrawl, a misspelled word, or, even worse, to her mind, a picture of any kind.
Secondly, the smell. Our old classroom had smelt of Playdoh, crayons, and chocolate custard (we were next to the kitchens.) Mrs B’s room smelled of those astringent bars of green soap that used to be common in public toilets. A kind of sharp, medicinal smell.
We had been spoiled by years of sprawling on the floor or slouching into squidgy beanbags and now we were required to sit on straight backed wooden chairs, some of which caused painful splinters when you moved them away from the tables. The temperature was noticeably lower, in winter it verged on frigid as she was a big believer in ‘exposing the young to fresh air.’ I don’t remember ever feeling physically comfortable during my year in her class.
Mrs B was a disciplinarian of the highest order. The ‘B’ could easily have stood for ‘Battleaxe,’ or, as we would whisper when feeling brave, only to clamp our pudgy hands across our mouths afterwards, shocked at our own audacity, ‘Bitch.’
Her rules were many, and detailed. You did not sit, stand, speak or go to the toilet unless you had her express permission. The classroom was silent unless Mrs B was imparting some wisdom. If someone dropped a pencil, or sneezed, the shock of the sound would cause everyone to freeze, as though shots had been fired.
We learned pages of poetry by rote, and I can still quote sections of some of them to this day. She would choose people at random and ask them to recite these verses. If you stammered over a word, she would assign page after page of written lines as punishment.
Years after it had become illegal to cane children, she kept a hard soled slipper in the top drawer of her desk as an alternative.
I only recall her using it once, as none of us were foolish enough to cross her again after actually witnessing the punishment metered out.
The boy’s name was Max. He was an overweight, red faced blonde who regularly bore the brunt of Mrs B’s wrath on account of him being an example of all that she despised about children. Not only was he fat, he was lazy. In PE he would try to hide behind the vaulting horse so that he wouldn’t have to run with rest of us. He was sickly, always sniffing, and never had a handkerchief. The sniffing used to drive Mrs B crazy.
And he wasn’t very bright, poor thing. He could be very sweet and funny, but he had all the academic ability of a lettuce. His work would regularly be labelled ‘a disgrace,’ crumpled into the bin as he looked on, shellshocked, and he failed every test we ever took.
These days he’d probably have been labelled with some additional needs and given a teaching assistant to help him, but this was the late 80s, and Mrs B was the sole authority in that classroom.
The day in question, we all had our heads down studying our multiplication tables when suddenly Mrs B roared ‘Maxwell! Here! Now!’
To this day I don’t know what the boy had done to offend her. Before she shouted out, the room had been cloaked in its customary nervous silence. But whatever it was, Mrs B was incensed.
I glanced up briefly, knowing that to look directly at her while she was angry would result in a punishment for me, too. My friend Donna gave my ankle a soft nudge with her shoe under the table, a non verbal exclamation of fear.
The glimpse I’d caught of Mrs B was enough to know that this was going to be bad. She was already on her feet, her whole body vibrating from the force of being held so stiff. The amount of tension in her muscles must have been incredible.
She was a small woman, Mrs B. When you first saw her you could be mistaken for thinking she’d be feeble. She was getting on for 70 when she taught us (I think eventually they had to make her retire) and she was by no means what you’d imagine if someone said the words ‘physically imposing.’ But boy, was that woman strong! I know because she once lifted me up by the hair with one hand and moved me from the grass to the concrete of our playground without breaking a sweat. Right now, she was furious, and those wiry muscles of hers were gearing up for action.
Max stood up. His chair skrrreeeeekkked across the tiles as he pushed it away. I flinched. Strike 1. One of Mrs B’s myriad rules was that chairs should be lifted, not pushed.
He dragged his arm across his snotty nose as he shuffled slowly across the room towards her. Strike 2. Poor personal hygiene was a pet peeve of this austere, proper, woman.
He never got the chance to do anything further to wind her up. Once he got close enough, Mrs B swept him up as though he weighed little more than a pillow, sat, and put him face down over her knee.
I don’t think he even had time to realise what was happening. One minute he was upright, the next he was dangling upside down, his snot running away from his upper lip back towards his nostrils. His hair dangled in his eyes. He didn’t speak.
The entire class quarter turned their heads as one. What was happening? None of us dared breathe. We had all stopped writing and paused, pens hovering, eyes darting between our friends What did he DO? and the grim spectacle unfolding before us.
Mrs B reached into her desk drawer and swiftly withdrew the slipper. ‘No way!’ Donna mouthed at me from the other side of the table. ‘Oh my god!’
We all knew she was going to hit him, but still couldn’t quite process the reality of the situation. Mrs B was a woman of her word, if she threatened a punishment, she followed through with it. But for me, at least, I’d imagined being hit with the slipper would be just that. One good sharp smack and that’d be it. Over and done with.
First, she yanked down that terrified boy’s trousers and pants. He made a small, strangled sound in the back of his throat but thought better of protesting further. I remember feeling both scared, but also horribly ashamed on his behalf. How humiliating, to be put in that position in front of all your peers! Still no one spoke. The silence pressed down on us.
Mrs B raised the slipper high, her sinewy arm shaking with rage, and then brought it down, THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!
It was on the 4th brutal blow that the mixture of fear and pain caused Max’s bladder to release.
A slow trickle at first, barely noticeable, but then a steady stream of urine that soaked straight through to Mrs B’s dress. Her lips twisted in disgust, she dropped the slipper and jumped up, heaving the still urinating Max to the ground.
He lay there for a few minutes face down, bare buttocks sticking comically up in the air.
Mrs B stared down at him as if he was an unidentifiable, but definitely repulsive, insect.
The colour had drained from her face and she was holding the soiled part of her dress away from her between the tips of her thumb and forefinger.
Max looked up at her. His shoulders started to shake. Then his whole body. He was laughing! At her!
Well, the sight of this bare bottomed boy lying there in a pool of his own urine, by now killing himself laughing, was too much for a couple of Max’s friends. They started laughing, too, unrestrained, hysterical laughter, the kind that becomes all too rare once you leave childhood behind. One laughed so hard he snorted like a pig. That set off a few of the girls on their table, one of whom laughed until she almost tipped off her chair.
Before we really knew what was happening, we were all in fits of laughter. Real, side splitting, tears spilling down your cheeks laughter. Every time we started to calm down, someone would glance over at Max, and his bright red bum, and start again.
Mrs B didn’t know what to do. For just one moment in that year, possibly her whole career, she lost control of her class. She turned on her heel and fled.
A couple of the lads helped Max up off the floor and someone went to tell the caretaker there’d been an ‘accident.’ We didn’t say who. We’d been too small and too scared to protect Max against Mrs B, but at least we could preserve his dignity.
We had a feeling Mrs B wouldn’t be sharing the story with anyone.
Lisamarie Court was born in Nottingham, UK. During a self-proclaimed pre-emptive mid-life crisis, she decided to move to Barcelona, where she now works as an English teacher and actress. In her free time she sings in various choirs and bands, and loves long walks around the city. She recently launched a blog, Scribbly Lily, where you can find more of her anecdotes, poetry, and short stories.
Photo: Alan Levine