By Sandy Olsen
I don’t know why we chose to torment Miss Stewart. There was nothing unusual about her. She had ordinary features and figure and teacher-type clothes. Her face was ruddy and she wore black-rimmed glasses.
Maybe we sensed her inexperience: that she was in her first semester of teaching eighth grade math, fresh out of college and eager to get on with her new career.
We met Miss Stewart for the first time on a fine day in the fall of 1950. This is a poignant time in the San Francisco Bay Area. Just as the summer fogs recede and the weather turns warm, children have to march off to school, freshly washed hair, new clothes and all.
Then Miss Stewart met us. Of the classes she was assigned to, our fifth period arithmetic class became–for us–a free-for-all. The boys threw things of one kind and another across the room and wouldn’t stay in their seats. The girls swiveled at their desks and gossiped and passed notes.
For Miss Stewart it was–a challenge. A crucible that alchemized her into a fine teacher? A message from God that she was in the wrong profession?
For us, it was just what we did in Miss Stewart’s classroom. In our other classes we behaved normally for that time: coming into the classroom before the five-minute bell warning, sitting and making a nominal effort to look attentive. But it was different in Miss Stewart’s class and okay to ignore her, even that day when the principal slipped in and took a seat in the back of the room. He took a lot of notes.
The weeks wore on until Christmas vacation approached, finally, and a few of the girls decided that we needed to get her a pity gift, so we took up a collection. We decided to keep this a secret from the boys, because they were too crude and insensitive to be included.
What to get her? Oblivious as we were to teachers’ personal lives, we knew that she spent time with the beautiful Miss Pennington, of the white skin and flawless pageboy. We stopped her in the hall between classes and told her what we wanted to do. She looked at us with those cool blue eyes and told us, “Oh yes, I’ve heard about that fifth period class.”
Now we felt competent to take the bus to downtown Berkeley and start looking for the perfect gift. We ended, after much discussion, with a modestly priced yellow sweater, and a small green silk scarf and rhinestone pin from Woolworths.
We presented the wrapped package to Miss Stewart on the last day of school before Christmas. I don’t remember her reaction. Probably she was, as usual, trying to be contained and self-controlled. Maybe she wept later in the teachers’ lounge.
We went home for Christmas break. On the first day of school in January, Miss Stewart came back to school, shoulders squared, in the yellow sweater, green scarf, and rhinestone pin.
I would like to report that we were transformed: that the boys didn’t throw spit wads any more and the girls stopped gossiping and paid attention to their workbooks. This was not the case. We morphed back into That Class and stayed that way until the semester ended late in January.
I mostly forgot about Miss Stewart. Her name slipped into that imaginary file that could be labeled “Misdeeds of Youth.” But recently I visited an old mission and there came one of those odd moments, when faces and deeds from the past surface. While sitting in an ancient pew in a contemplative mood, and evoked perhaps by guilty memories, my thoughts drifted to that long ago time, to the ordeal of that innocent lady who stoically showed up, without hope or help, in that fifth period math class day after day. Forgive us, please, Miss Stewart, wherever you are.