The grade school teacher would hand you a yellow-sleeved envelope containing your final report card each spring during our grueling 1960s public education in the Red River Valley. She would gleam and wish you a fine summer, then gallop like Secretariat toward any saloon, pool hall or campsite where children were not allowed.
On the back of the report card was your “assignment” for next year. You ended up with a female teacher, or another female teacher who seemed much the same. Until the summer before sixth grade. That was the year you would face a breath-holding moment. There was a 50-50 chance you would spend sixth grade in Room 42. Miss Toohey.
Miss Toohey flashed fear into the spines of kids who didn’t even live in our town.
Curt Jensen and I spent our childhoods separated by three backyards and 28 days. I don’t remember not knowing him. We always seemed to pull the same teacher from the yellow report card sleeves each spring.
When fifth grade let out that May, we wordlessly stepped out of school and crossed the intersection to the first block of our three-block walk home before one of us finally said it. Someone had to be the first to learn if Miss Toohey was in our futures.
Curt, who died on the first day of summer last month, was certainly the daredevil between us.
He once climbed through a 5-foot high opening in a fence that hemmed in deer at Chahinkapa Zoo in Wahpeton, N.D. Soon after, we learned that a deer might rear on its hind legs and whack you on the head with a front hoof. Curt hit the turf, grimaced, put a hand to his bleeding head, leapt to his feet and scissored through that fence as if a fuse had been lit on his behind.
That adrenaline rush prepared him for this moment. He pulled out that report card, ignored the front with his grades and turned it over. Room 42.
My first sense was that “they” couldn’t do this to both of us. God had to let one of us zig-zag past Miss Toohey into junior high. If not, we’d both flunk and face a life of shoveling coal at age 13.
My second sense was that, worst case, we would suffer the summer together. I pulled out my card and turned it over. The curtain dropped on a summer of fun.
We walked to school that first day of sixth grade knowing our lives were over. We’d heard it all from the noble legions who had passed before us.
Every Friday Miss Toohey would hand you a sheet of paper with 20 words on it that you never heard unless your parents subscribed to the New Yorker, which didn’t happen in our farming community of 4,000 or so. Vocabulary words. Memorize the definitions because at some random moment, like the Luftwaffe bombing Paris just for fun, you’d have to tell her what “abstract” meant.
Multiplication tables? She’d pick on one of the five rows of kids each day before lunch and call a number from one to 12. “Seven.” The first kid in the row would stand, and had better respond with “Seven, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56, 63, 70, 77, 84.” Then it was the next kid’s turn, with a different number. Or maybe the same one.
Homework? Every night. Including 20 days worth over a 14-day Christmas vacation.
The first morning Curt and I stepped into Room 42, she wasn’t there. A couple of junior high kids were. They were writing stuff on her blackboard. Funny stuff. Back in the 1960s, kids didn’t write stuff on teachers’ blackboards.
Waaaaaytaminute. These guys had been in her class. Now they’re coming back to have fun with her on the first day of school? Had we wasted a summer, fretting for nothing?
Turned out, Miss Toohey delivered on all the rumors. We had one day that year without homework. It was the day we had a substitute teacher. Miss Toohey’s class was hard. She kept telling us that if we thought her class was hard, wait until junior high and high school.
I’m still waiting. After Miss Toohey, whom I visited often during my college years, every school year in comparison was more fun than throwing pies at a clown school.
Curt and I began to go our ways a few years later. He came to our 20-year class reunion, found me and said he wouldn’t have made the trip, except that he wanted to see me. For a long while, we knew more about each other through our mothers. E-mail helped us reconnect. I attended his mom’s burial service, so he’d have an old face in a setting hundreds of miles from his home.
We got together for dinner three years ago. Curt said he had cancer. It might be treatable. We had learned from sixth grade not to dread too early. It might rob you of a good summer.
Curt and I were never again close as we’d been in grade school. We didn’t live near each other. I’m not sure it mattered. It would be hard to get as close as we were in sixth grade, the year Curt Jensen and I had walked through hell in gasoline suits and came out on the other side.