If all the world is a stage, then Mrs. Gelde would be some novice playwright’s cliched depiction of a kindergarten teacher. She was a stout woman with crop of pewter curls and a penchant for appliquéd vests. She didn’t crack rulers over knuckles, but she prided herself on her ability to administer corporal punishment.
“I once broke a paddle on one bad little boy’s behind,” she boasted.
We never doubted it for a second.
In today’s age of helicopter parents with lawyers on retainer, that sort of thing wouldn’t fly. But it was 1989 and my peers’ parents were either oblivious to Mrs. Gelde’s methods, or they were as afraid of her as we were.
I have to give Mrs. Gelde props, at least to some degree, for her sense of efficiency.
When taking attendance, for instance, she also made note of who was eating the cafeteria lunch and who had a sack lunch; when she called your name you said either “here” or “brought my lunch.”
She also took roll call as an opportunity to check on Calvin Dobey, who hadn’t yet mastered the art of, um, containing himself.
“Did you bring an extra pair of pants today?”
She accomplished so much during that exchange. She determined that Calvin was present, that he was eating school burritos and that he would have something clean to put on after he inevitably soiled himself.
In addition to efficiency, Mrs. Gelde also valued thrift. Nothing was wasted in her classroom, at least not without serious discussion first.
One day during snack time, we were given a package of off-brand Pop Tarts and a carton of milk. As we ate, Mrs. Gelde stalked the aisles between our desks to make sure everyone finished his or her snack, leaving nothing behind, not even the crumbly, frostingless edges of the toaster pastries.
As I choked down my pastry crusts and opened my carton, I discovered something that looked more like cottage cheese than milk. The smell made Calvin seem fresh.
I reasoned that milk is for drinking, not for chewing, so I pushed my carton to the edge of my desk and continued to gnaw on my cardboard-like treat.
“Carrie, why aren’t you drinking your milk?” Mrs. Gelde boomed as she approached my seat.
“It’s rotten, ma’am.”
“Oh, is it?” Mrs. Gelde said, snatching the carton from my desk and giving it a whiff. Recoiling from the stench of sour dairy, she slammed the carton back onto my desk. “So, you’re not going to drink that?”
“You think you’re too good for that milk?”
“No, ma’am. I just don’t want to get sick.”
“Somebody spent good money on that milk.”
“I am sorry, ma’am.”
“Well, you don’t have to drink it, but you are going to stay in during recess,” she said.
Then, turning to address the rest of the class, “Does anybody else want to let good milk go to waste?”
I don’t know whether anyone else had bad milk that day, but I do know I sat alone in the classroom during recess that afternoon. So, what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger. That goes for characters as well as digestive systems.