School Ruler

pk School Stories, High School Years

School Ruler

My sister, eighteen months older, was always two years ahead of me in school. Kids with older siblings always hear things about teachers that kids without that advantage get no advance warning on. I knew before I had her that Miss Brown, the history teacher, was formidable. In my sister’s opinion Miss Brown was hard, but Miss Brown was good. I never saw what she was good for; except a perhaps broken bone, and a sick chuckle.

Miss Brown was I believe your true school spinster. Well beyond bearing age by the time I had her, I saw no reason why any man should want her: unless he was starving and she had the only available income. (But knowing that position, once common for black males in America, is unusual for white males.) Miss Brown was small, light of build, a shrimp with gray hair. But she marched before our desks like a true martinet: spitting facts at us like a Maxim gun.

Truly Miss Brown was a character out of Dickens. Like Pip’s Mrs. Joe who kept her sewing needles protruding from her bosom, Miss Brown would have offered pain only, no comfort, in that area. And like Dickens at his most satirical, Miss Brown was a fierce one for “facts.” Her classes cascaded names of countries, capitals, rivers …

As I say, her delivery was like a machine gun. My favorite moments came when the subject was fine art. Miss Brown would stand in the front of the class room and brandish a fistful of art postcards. Then, at astonishing speed, she would flash the great art of the West at us. Kids trying to break track records sprinting around the museum still managed far more exposure to the paintings they ran past than we got to the postcards flickering before us. Every once in a while, Miss Brown would allow extra time for a favorite. Say, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus came up: “There,” isn’t that lovely,” she would say. Then it too was gone.

(Lovely. She though art was supposed to be lovely? Ayeyaiyai.) (Remember: my kind of art in those days was Lionel Hampton, William Soroyan, Jacques Lipschitz … Hardly lovely.)

The first moving picture machines flipped cards in a series, so it looked to the human mind as though the horse were running, the man were riding a bicycle. There was no such illusion from Miss Brown’s card show. Zhoom, Western history went past us in a flash, no details noticeable.

Fine. It that were the whole story I might agree that Miss Brown had been one of the better teachers, not one of the worst. I tell the above just in hope of giving an image of her. Now: as Miss Brown would parade before us, she typically held a ruler. A stick, of wood, twelve inches long, perhaps eighteen; certainly not a yard stick. She carried it as a pointer. She might use it to point to a particular on the blackboard … or to punctuate her speech in the air. But regularly she would smack a desk as she went by, punctuating her speech with a report like that of a rifle. Anyone who listens to much live music knows that there are drummers who get a sound from the drums, and other drummer who get SOUND from the drum. Practice helps. Ali could make a jab feel like a love tap, wouldn’t hurt a child; or Ali could jab you to jar your marrow. Miss Brown practiced only the sharp report type of blows from her ruler.

I can’t imagine anyone getting much from a Miss Brown class. But there was more than enough stimulation to make it hard to doze off. But there was one kid: such a loser. This kid was a dunce in EVERY class, not just in Miss Brown’s class. And HE would manage to snooze.

It was too bad, because in one class. Miss Brown’s ruler met not with the sharp crack of whizzing ruler on rigid wood but with the sick sound of startled flesh.

Miss Brown knew her class room like a blind woman knows her bedroom. She never looked where she was whacking her ruler. Should Gene Krupa have to look to find his snare drum? His cymbal? No, Krupa could play with his eyes shut. you can’t teach a kid to play drums with his eyes shut, but with practice, drum kit always set up the same, the veteran can. Billy had fallen asleep with his knuckles on the desk edge.

Hell, he didn’t need that hand: he’s still young, he can learn to use the other one.

Let’s see: I was in maybe the ninth grade? That would have made it 1952: sometime around then. Had Miss Brown broken the kid’s bones, would she have been reprimanded? made responsible for the kid’s medical bills? She might have been told to watch where she swung the ruler: something I can never imagine Miss Brown succeeding in doing. On a roll, she didn’t know where she was; certainly not in this world.

What if Billy’s bones were broken? Would Billy know to complain to anyone? If he complained to his parents, would they complain to the school board? Quite possibly not. Any culture always has elements that are above the law, beyond accountability, and other elements so traumatized that they wouldn’t understand a word of the law no matter how slowly or clearly it were read.


I remember years back some politician, some damn president, one or another of those morons, was in a position where he was forced to announce something about some world masterpiece; not the Mona Lisa, not Nephertete, but something internationally well known. Mr. President felt obliged to comment. “It’s a lovely, lovely thing,” he said.

A real intellectual at worst will look embarrassed hearing such a comment. At best we howl with derision. The surest sign that a speaker doesn’t know shit about art is if he says it’s “lovely” or “beautiful.” It would be less damning to say it’s “very nice.”

You will never hear a true expert say such a thing. No. We talk about technique. We note devices.

Even in the tenth grade I knew that. Though with my beloved jazz I might still at that age throw around meaningless praises like, ‘”That’s a gas!”

Lovely? That’s what you tell a girl: when you don’t mean it.

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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