“Lou Ann, cloakroom now!” Miss Johnson snapped. Cat-eye glasses menaced under her tight French twist reeking of Aqua Net. We all stared as Lou Ann slunk down the aisle between desks so ancient they had holes for inkpots in them. Once again, Lou Ann had been caught doodling in the margins of her book instead of paying attention. Once again, she hadn’t answered when Miss Johnson called on her.
I sat pinned to my chair while Lou Ann disappeared through the door. Miss Johnson turned back to us with a triumphant smile. I prayed her eye wouldn’t catch mine. The radiator hissed, water churning through the pipes as hot air pumped over us, making it hard to stay awake. The milky winter sun barely strained through the huge classroom windows covered in city grime and pigeon droppings. Turning back to the blackboard, Miss Johnson droned on, and everyone, including her, forgot about Lou Ann.
Like myself, Lou Ann was a transplant to Chicago; except her family came from Kentucky, one of myriad southern families who had flocked to Chicago’s factories since the end of World War II. On the playground, kids yelled Hillbilly when she went by. Tall and skinny, Lou Ann had pale almost pinky-brown hair. I stayed away from her brash southern drawl, desperate to keep my classmates from noticing the similarities between us. I kept my own mouth shut in case my Texas slipped out. Mostly, I didn’t want anyone to notice me at all.
I was 7 years old when my family moved to Chicago. Like many working class parents, my father struggled to find work to support us. From the small town where I was born, we traveled through Texas and then on to Colorado before finally landing in Chicago, a huge industrial city like nothing I had ever seen. Before Chicago I had never seen piles of blackened snow or watched snowflakes swirling in the yellow glow of streetlights. Every day I faced the trial of going to school. After trudging through that dirty slush, I struggled along with my fellow third-graders to shed our wet snowsuits before going to our desks.
In the front of the classroom a raised dais held the teacher’s desk bolted to the floor. Scarred blackboards covered the wall and on either side two open doorways led into the cloakroom where we hung our coats and lined up muddy boots along the wall. Snow-clogged mittens threaded through sleeves on yarn gave off a wet-sheep smell. That cloakroom was where students were banished when they misbehaved in class, where Lou Ann now waited for Miss Johnson’s wrath to subside.
Built before 1900, Earle School covered an entire block with doors leading in and out on every side. My first few days, I got lost going home until I realized I entered one door each morning and left from a different one. I had to find my way through dark halls, my footsteps creaking across scuffed wood floors. With staircases looming three stories high, this monolith of a building terrified me.
I came toward the end of first grade. Because I could read better than most of the students my age, school officials put me into second grade for the last part of that year. I have no memory of those first months, but third grade, yes, that year I will never forget. Shoved into a class of children a year ahead of me, instructed by a teacher we all believed hated us. Although I could read as well as the others, holes gaped in my knowledge; I had missed multiplication, whole swaths of lessons covered in second grade. It probably didn’t matter much about history — they started with the Pilgrims every year anyway — but that lack of multiplication skills would plague me for years. I memorized the times tables but didn’t have a clue what any of it meant. Every day I cringed, terrified Miss Johnson would call me to the board to solve a problem. Every day I dreaded standing in front of the class with a piece of chalk clutched in my sweaty hand.
Earle School was a miserable, depressing place for all of us prisoners, students and teachers alike. Miss Johnson barricaded herself behind her desk with us ranged in front like enemies.
Once with an all-white population, Earle was now an uneasy mix of black and white, an inner-city school only a decade after Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling made segregation illegal. In class we mingled where Miss Johnson placed us, yet on the playground we quickly divided. African-American girls played Double Dutch, swinging their jump ropes over and over, each taking their turn to jump in and out of the circle. I had never seen such a game before, but didn’t know how to ask them to teach me. White girls like me stayed far away, swinging on the monkey bars or playing Four Square. We bounced the ball inside the yellow lines around the court, defining separation and order.
I often wonder what I told my mother each day when I finally found my way home. I know I never told her about Miss Johnson yelling or stamping on students’ feet with her high heels. I never told her about trying to stay invisible.
As a teacher myself now, I’ve often asked students, “But why didn’t you tell me?” They mostly just shrug, unable to explain their silence.
Some have said, “I just thought you didn’t care.”
Did I think my mother didn’t care? Or did I just believe she wouldn’t understand? I’m sure she struggled to adjust to that alien new life as much as I did. But since her motto, even for herself, was always, Quit your bellyaching, I kept my troubles to myself. And back then in those black and white days, children knew not to complain too much about teachers. Our parents simply expected us to obey no matter what the regime, and Miss Johnson enforced a reign of stony coldness.
I found one bit of warmth in that place: Brenda. She was the only friend I ever made at Earle. Brenda’s Irish Catholic family was one of the few clinging to the old neighborhood. She studied Irish dancing, and I watched her once, her feet prancing in black shoes as pointed and dainty as deer hooves; dancing, she was so different from school where she stayed quiet and mousy like me. I think that was our main attraction to each other. Even though we rarely visited each other’s houses and attended different churches, we walked home together every day.
Finally, the three o’clock bell rang. We all trooped into the cloakroom for our snowsuits, our hats and mittens, our boots. That’s when we remembered Lou Ann. There she sat with her back against the wall, her red face puffy. A horrible odor permeated the air, an odor we recognized immediately.
Lou Ann had poo-ed.
Being a resourceful girl, she had used one of the boots lined up along the floor under the coat hooks. A red boot, the rubber kind we all wore, with a button and stretchy cord on the side to fasten after shoving a foot into it.
It was Brenda’s boot. Relief washed through me when I saw Lou Ann hadn’t chosen mine. Brenda began to cry, and even though I felt sorry for her, I couldn’t help but rejoice I had escaped. Such a misfit already, I didn’t need to give anyone more ammunition for teasing.
Miss Johnson whisked Lou Ann away to the Principal’s Office, hand clamped on Lou Ann’s skinny arm. I knew Lou Ann would never live this down. How could she ever return to class? I don’t recall the next day, but I can imagine Lou Ann back at her desk staring straight ahead, separated from us in her cage of shame.
I walked home with Brenda that afternoon. She wore one boot and carried the other, holding it away from her by the stretchy cord. Still crying, she picked her way along the wet sidewalks. I had no words to sooth her.
Why did no adult seem to question the role our teacher played — her disinterest in students’ well-being, her negligence in leaving Lou Ann alone, or her refusal to let us use the bathroom? Did no one care? Or did they think her good enough for the likes of us in such a school? Perhaps, like in many inner-city neighborhoods, Miss Johnson was the best they could hire.
For years I thought Lou Ann had chosen a random boot for her business. Only now does it occur to me that she might have been cagier than we all thought. She used a boot from someone like her, someone who wouldn’t fight back. Lou Ann knew very well what would have happened if it had been a kid on the other side of the playground. Many times she’d cowered, circled by others. They’d waited until our teachers turned away to taunt her, pushing and shoving. And how many times had she been the one flinging names? The ganging up of one race on another, like we’d learned from the adults around us. What no one ever spoke of but what we all knew.
When I think back on Lou Ann and Brenda, my bewildered, terrified self and Miss Johnson, it’s hard to believe that such a school existed then. Those forbidding hallways seemed more like a Victorian nightmare from a Dickens’ novel or that horrible Lowood School in Jane Eyre. But I went to Earle School in 1964, the year of the New York World’s Fair, the Beatles in Chicago on their first U.S. tour, the space program.
I understand now that the only way I knew to survive was to fold into myself, squeezing into the smallest size possible, like a student folds a failing report card over and over into a tiny square hoping the words would completely disappear.
Even though I spent a single year in that classroom before my family joined the many other families who left the neighborhood, my memories of the school are among my most vivid. Over 50 years later, I can feel the squeeze of the door slamming shut, hear the stair treads as I reluctantly climb to my classroom.
I wonder what happened to Brenda and Lou Ann. I wonder if they escaped like I did. I don’t recall their last names, if I ever knew them, so there is no way for me to know. Even so, I can still pick out their faces from our grainy black and white class photo. I wonder if they remember me and Earle School. If they ever relive that terrible day, that red boot.
Lisa Rizzo is the author of the poetry collection, Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2017) and In the Poem an Ocean, a chapbook (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals and anthologies as Calyx Journal, Naugatuck River Review and Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty (Weeping Willow Books, 2017). Two of her poems received 1st and 2nd prizes in the 2011 Maggi H. Meyer Poetry Prize competition. She can be reached at www.lisarizzopoetry.com.