On the chalkboard Mrs. Brown slowly wrote out the letters as she repeated, "Summer is… O-V-E-R."
This was her first sentence to us, her fresh crop of Language Arts students, and it was calculated to send crackles of fear through our young bones. It worked. All of our other teachers had played get-to-know-you games that first day, sowing warm and fuzzy first impressions, assuring us that the year ahead would be a fun one and that school was a cozy home away from home. But not Mrs. Brown. She meant business. Using any means necessary, she intended to shepherd our small souls, on the cusp of puberty, through crucial lessons like how to diagram a sentence and why it's necessary to wear deodorant every day.
Unlike those other teachers, she didn't seem to follow a strict lesson plan. Instead, she taught by divine inspiration and guided with theatrical, military discipline. To us, babies of baby boomers, our egos mostly fluffed and coddled from birth, she was something utterly unfamiliar, both frightening and exciting.
One day we filed into the the classroom to find Mrs. Brown not by the chalkboard, but kneeling in her tweed skirt on the large carpet beyond our desks. She sat silently until we joined her. On the floor sat a packaged bar of Irish Spring.
"Children, you know what this is?"
"Yes! Soap!" It was wise not to assume Mrs. Brown was being rhetorical. She encouraged us to express ourselves exactly.
"Do you use this every day?"
"Well, that might be true. But, today I'm here to give you a warning. Your bodies are changing in all different ways. Maybe it's already changed. Maybe it will change this week or the next. The point is, it's going to happen, and when it happens, you will start to stink."
The room itself seemed to close in with a humid funk.
"Not your usual playing-around stink, but an adult stink. Before the change, if you forgot to use soap or deodorant, it might not be too obvious, at least for a day or two. But, after this change, guess what? There will be no denying it, you'll stink. So, tell me, what's going to happen if you forget and come into my class stinking?"
None of us could even mouth an answer. We were paralyzed with the fear that we already stank and didn't know it. Maybe I smelled like sweaty garbage to my classmate next to me? How could I know? Had I used soap that morning?
"Well, I'll tell you what's going to happen. The first time, I'm going to be nice and pull you aside and tell you that you stink. But, the second time? If there's a second time, you will find this bar of soap, this very bar, which I keep in my top desk drawer, sitting on your desk for all the world to see.
"And every year, at least once, this bar ends up on the desk of some poor student who doesn't listen to me."
We imagined a dirty, prematurely mustached child coming in to find that relic of shame perched neatly on his desk. The horror.
This style of teaching was wildly, dangerously different than anything we'd experienced before, and our brains and possibly reeking bodies stood at attention. The lessons Mrs. Brown taught us are seared into the folds of my frontal lobes like no other teacher's. She was fearsome and unpredictable and one of the best teachers I ever had.
Another time, she stopped herself in the middle of a lesson on etymology, heeding the call of the Gods of Decency:
"I know you all like wearing those Umbro shorts. No idea why you'd wear swimming trunks away from the pool, but if that's the style, that's the style. Even though those trunks might have built-in underpants, they're not real underpants! You have to keep on wearing your regular underpants in addition to the Umbros! If I see something hanging out of those shorts, I'm going to let you know it."
I've never forgotten Mrs. Brown's practical advice, and not just about the basics of hygiene. For example, no one should dot their i's with anything other than a simple, clean dot; hearts and smiley faces are not diacritics. But, it was her passionate love of books and language, and her determination to instill the same ardor in us, that made her my favorite teacher. Listening to her lecture about the origin of words, we felt like little scholars. She encouraged me to write, and when she read one of my poems, her brow would furrow in concentration like she was an editor going over an important piece.
Mrs. Brown never did reveal a soft gooey center, and we didn't know if she had favorites, but she did give special attention to those of us who liked to read.
Before Christmas she asked me, "How many books do you plan to read over break?"
"No, you're going to read at least a thousand pages, and I want to know exactly how many when you get back." Over break I got a thrill opening my small reading log and noting how many pages I'd read after I finished each book.
Mrs. Brown had high standards and expected us to exceed them. She stretched our abilities and expectations of ourselves like we were her fresh warm dough. For fun she would give us mysterious phrases and ask us to translate them into aphorisms. "Class. 'A winged vertebrate in the palmar extremity trumps twain in the foliage.' Quick. Go!" Somehow we made our way to "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush".
Unlike other teachers, Mrs. Brown didn't give A's just for effort. In fact, from time to time, she even gave F's. We had heard about F's on TV shows. We thought they were mere elements of fiction used to heighten the drama. But, in her top desk drawer, next to that bar of Irish Spring, Mrs. Brown kept a thick, red felt-tip marker, which she used exclusively to dole out F's, large and circled, in front of the shocked eyes of a lazy student. I'm pretty sure that nothing of the kind was actually recorded in her grade book, but it still made an impact. It was just one more weapon in her teaching arsenal.
She wanted us to leave at the end of the year with a more accurate glimpse of the world that was eventually waiting for us. Our future bosses wouldn't stroke our egos. We had to work hard, deliver results, push ourselves. We couldn't show up to the office unwashed with baggy shorts and no underwear. People were watching and judging.
At the time, we probably complained when some days her class felt like a tightrope walk of shame, but we still felt like she was giving us a peek at something beyond the daily grind of middle school, at the outside world, but also deep within us. Curled inside the core of each of us was our future self with individual talents and drives. She used all the tools she had to root around in us and get to that core and carve it out a bit more. It was a little painful, a little embarrassing, but worth it.
I don't know if Mrs. Brown still teaches. I hope so. I wonder, if she had taught our class in this day and age, would she get flurries of texts and emails from parents at the end of Soap Day or Umbros Need Underpants Day? Would she have to throw away her red marker and stick to a lesson plan? Would some of her special spark be dimmed?
That's not to say that others teachers should use her tactics. Frankly, I don't think anyone else could get away with it. She was a unique package of practicality, stern character, and passion, and it was this blend that made her techniques so effective. She saw us as multifaceted potentialities—dirty rugrats, readers, future citizens—and she addressed every one of them with her stuffed drawer of tricks, following where inspiration led.
At least once a month, when I finish a book or properly dot an i, I think of her and get a chuckle and say a little prayer of thanks to whatever power was whispering those magic secrets to Mrs. Brown.