I had a crazy 5th grade teacher, Ms. Conkle. An older, skeletal woman with platinum hair, Ms. Conkle should have retired a decade before I landed in her classroom. As if it was yesterday, I can recall her telling the class the odd story of an Indian man forced to drink his own urine. When my family moved mid-way through the school year, I attended a better school staffed with teachers in their right minds. I know my parents were happy.
In that context, it may seem a little odd that my strongest teacher memory from 5th grade involves a substitute teacher. When Ms. Conkle was absent one day, Mrs. Pruder, the principal’s wife, graced us with her presence. I can recall her high frozen hair, bold (overdone) makeup, and dour demeanor.
At some point in the day, one of my classmates accused me of something I did not do. I cannot recall the specific accusation, but you can be sure that, in a 5th grader’s mind, the accusation was dramatic. As I attempted to defend myself — ever the good little boy — Mrs. Pruder cut me off, in front of the entire class, and took my accuser’s side. I now understand this to be a gross violation of the 5th Amendment due process rights and 6th Amendment protections guaranteed to me as an American citizen, but, at 10 years old, I did not yet have my law degree. I cannot recall what Mrs. Pruder said, but I can recall the horror of being wrongly accused, the feeling of defenselessness, and the fundamental unfairness of it all.
And I’ve never forgotten.
Once a year, I’ll daydream I encounter Mrs. Pruder and tell her how her unkind, thoughtless behavior has stuck with me for three decades. That, in her smugness that day, she embarrassed a scared little boy for no reason. She should have known better.
Admittedly, it’s very silly, but these are the little battles we all fight in our heads, solitary soldiers fighting over and over the lost battles of our lives.
That said, from my life, it’s the earliest piece of evidence that wholly validates Maya Angelou. The famous American poet once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
It’s a blessing to consider that all of the thoughtless, mean-spirited, ignorant words that leave our mouths at one time or another will, eventually, fade into the mists of time. But that blessing does not compensate for the curse that is the realization that we are accountable to the ineffable delicacy of the souls around us. The long ago fights, the bitter resentments, the venomous retorts, all vanished from exacting transcripts, but ever present in the emotional memories of friends, colleagues, and loved ones.
So, say and do what you want, for the specific memories of those acts will fade, but people will never forget how you made them feel. Worse yet, you may send a young boy down the path of a career in the law, looking for guaranteed rights of cross-examination.