My mother chased me around the living room furniture. I had just called a friend of mine a bastard. I protested that I had heard my father use this word to describe his very own brother. She beat me, nonetheless. I was 4 years old. When I was 5 years old, it was my father’s turn. My father beat me with his strap because I had “purchased” a Purim toy on “account.” I told the proprietor, when I made the purchase, he need not fear; my father would take care of it. Such aplomb in one so young. The good man could not wait to tell my father. It seems my father’s brother was doing a lot of the same thing. So, there was some rough justice to my being spanked. My father was beset by bastards, big and small. I cried but I did not protest. My father made it very clear that I was never to buy anything for which I, myself, was not prepared to pay. Obviously, I had a big mouth.

When I was 6 years old and sitting quietly in my second-grade classroom, I got myself smacked in the face, not by a stray eraser or a ball that had flown in through the window, but by my teacher. So badly smacked that she told me to leave the room to find some cold water to put on my face. Her fingerprints were showing. I was speechless. I left the room, stumbled upon a water fountain, splashed water on my face and returned to the room and sat down in my seat. And mute, I remained, as I walked home, my face still smarting, but no tears. For there was no one at home to whom I could wail that my teacher had slapped me, especially since I had not the foggiest notion why she had hauled off and socked me like that. She never even said she was sorry. There was only one explanation. I had done something, silently. But what! In my family, “Teacher” was always right, and children were always wrong. Besides, my parents spoke broken English. So, in a way we were all speechless.

This was a long time ago. Beggars who sang in the streets were rewarded with red-hot pennies thrown down at them. Teachers could certainly get away with hitting kids. But Miss Maglavie knew she was wrong. Possibly, I had not been paying attention. My father’s brother was a swindler and we were being forced to move, from our comfortable flat to a cockroach-infested apartment. My mind was not on my lessons, but there were gentler ways to wake me up. I think Miss Maglavie really didn’t like me. There might have been some rivalry with the teacher who had skipped me a whole grade because she had found me so “delightful.” Teachers could play favorites, too. But my report card, the one that followed the slap, showed a series of As in every subject, even in deportment. I wasn’t that delightful. My previous report card had shown several deficiencies. This was payback for my not snitching.

I became a teacher, myself. I had other role models beside Maglavie, although she stuck in my craw. One of my first jobs was teaching some seriously handicapped children, a class of three adolescents who were partially blind and deaf, but their heads were OK. I could teach them by means of Braille but mostly by touch. They would place their fingers on my throat as well as my lips and, strangely, I could make myself understood. One day, a new child was introduced into my rather cozy little group of preteens. He was the child of a mother who had suffered rubella during pregnancy, and he was considerably challenged. So was I. He required very simple tasks, which I was told to develop so that he could work by himself while I instructed the older group in English or history or what passed for science or math. But even the simplest tasks for Dickie required my constant attention. He was 8 going on 6. One morning, he was so unhappy carrying out a task where he had to use his fingers to solve an exercise in addition that I helped him to count by pressing hard on his chubby fingers. He cried out in pain. I had pressed too hard. Immediately, I apologized. Still hurt, he finally said, “That’s all right, sweetheart.”

He left me in tears. This was his first experience with school. Obviously he had been treated with tenderness at home. Being a victim of injustice had not yet taken hold of him. I cried because I was ashamed of myself and because Dickie had forgiven me. I would never forgive Maglavie, but I understood she was a victim, too. Maglavie, who had not had heart enough to say she was sorry. What was it that we had in common? Victims have a way of giving back what they have received. They become bullies or worse, even teachers. Although Maglavie helped nurture my little vial of distrust and cynicism, she had not removed my ability to say and feel “I’m sorry.” She left me speechless, once. But Dickie, mon petit chevalier, left me another kind of silence. I think we call it grace.

Flossie Lewis still loves to teach, but is somewhat confined to a wheelchair. She lives at Piedmont Gardens and writes light verse for The Crest, the monthly newsletter for Piedmont Gardens residents. Her recent article on euthanasia, “Maude’s Pill,” appeared in the literary journal Persimmon Tree.

Faces of the East Bay