My mom called her the Mother of the Devil, and my mother meant it with every inch of her being, all five feet of terror. All five feet of her Mother Bear anger went into the name. This Mother of the Devil does have a real name, and for now I will call her Mrs. Williams. She should be dead by now, but as I sit at my laptop I have that feeling of impending doom. She will see this and tear me a new one. That’s how horrified I was of her. I was ten, and her name still causes me fear.
I was ten. It was my last year in elementary school. Of course, I didn’t know then with great detail what the hippocratic oath meant, or what it did to doctors. What I do know is that had the Mother of the Devil been required to take such an oath, then countless children would be better off.
The elementary school was an odd one, and very ‘Early 2000s’ in set up. People were just starting to understand that college was becoming a very different experience- just going didn’t guarantee anyone a good job like the degree used to say. Now, a person needs so much more, and the guarantee is still so far away. Schools began to preparing children younger and younger for college.
My elementary school did this, too. I remember the first day of fifth grade, and Mrs. Williams said, and I remember how she said every word, “Fifth grade is to prepare you for middle school. If you don’t do well in fifth grade, you will fail at middle school. If you fail at middle school, you won’t do well in high school. And if you don’t do well in high school you will never get to college.”
This sentiment travelled around the entire school, and it was in every bit of the set up. Being normal or average just wasn’t enough. If you had special needs, they had a program for you, and then they had a program for the ‘advanced’ children, but being average? The elementary school was at a loss for the average. I remember the rush of parents signing up their children to get them placed in advanced classes, as young as seven years old. If you weren’t advanced in elementary school, you were behind. The worst thing about the school was their system of punishment, and I don’t know how they believed it was a good design in the first place. If you were in trouble, you received a ‘Success.’ Successes were like detention, meaning you didn’t get to go outside during recess, and your parents had to sign a form that stated what you had done wrong. To this day, Success has bitter taste to me. The word doesn’t sound or feel like a good thing. The shiver up my spine signals that I’ve done something wrong, I’ve been bad, and I’m in trouble. It’s all my fault.
I received so many Successes that year, I thought I’d never go outside for recess again. I had no friends to play with in recess. My mother would sign the carbon copy success form, and scream her head off. At first, she couldn’t understand. I’d been a straight A student all through elementary school, hardly ever got in trouble. All of a sudden, I was failing. I was quiet. I hated school and always forgot my work and supplies.
And yet, because she was the toughest teacher, everyone wanted their fifth grader to be in her class. Otherwise, how could they be the best in the grade? If they weren’t the best in the grade, as Mrs. Williams pointed out, how could they be the best in middle school, then high school? How could they get into a good college without these things, without being in her class? A good school career all starts with Mrs. Williams. I guess we should have seen her ill-behavior coming- she hated my sister before me. As I was placed in her class, that rage moved from her to me.
Mrs. Williams didn’t ‘pick on me’ or something silly like that. Her extreme displeasure with my existence was made known on the very first day, as we played ‘get-to-know-you games’ and everyone in class was allowed to laugh but my chuckles landed me in Success. If I ever raised my hand, I was wrong and how dare I be stupid, how dare I interrupt and say something. I remember being frozen in fear of her. I remember her just looking at me, that’s all, looking at me, and I was unable to move. I was unable to make sense of the world around me.
I can’t describe the specifics of Mrs. Williams, but I can say this: even the principal, who I only ever saw some mornings as she stood by the busses and watched children walk into the building, noticed that I was behaving oddly. She called my parents in to ask if I was okay, and they had no idea what was going on.
Mrs. Williams, the Mother of the Devil, had a permanent effect on my life. Because of her, I was placed on Zoloft, an anti-depressant, and half way through the year, my mom had to pull me out of the school. Mrs. Williams had tenure; as my mother complained about what I had gone through, she was struck down with the knowledge there was nothing that she could do. Mrs. Williams would never be fired, or even reprimanded.
A teacher is supposed to inspire the future, to encourage critical thinking, hope for a good life, and aid the future inventors, the movers and shakers, and the everyday lives of our future. Teachers don’t need to care if we will discover the cure for cancer, just that we understand and will be good people in adulthood. They can also cut our potential forever, and destroy our ability to think we can be anything at all.
As my mom drove me away from Mrs. Williams for the last time, she swore over and over again that she would sue. Mrs. Williams was the mother of the devil, who taught her daughter that she would fail and any attempt at anything would end up in a success form, that her daughter would never amount to anything but a stone in her teacher’s shoe.
My mom found out Mrs. Williams did this every year; she picked a student to hate and destroyed them. One mother claimed her son had such anxiety she had to move him to a private school under heavy anxiety medicine. He was twelve.
“Teachers should take the Hippocratic Oath.” My mom said. “Like doctors.”
Now that I’m an adult, I have to say that I agree. Teachers, who have so much power over our lives, should promise to do no harm. They may not be performing surgery, but they do just as much as a doctor. There is nothing stopping a kindergarten instructor from deciding they don’t like one child in particular, and ruining their confidence forever, and just for fun.
With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a toddler totting up to their parents, and saying, “My teacher doesn’t like me. I don’t want to go to school.”
Because what else would they say? Can a child even describe that teacher? I’m having trouble, and I’ve had two decades to prepare. What does a parent do?
The sad thing is that these teachers exist. They haven’t sworn ‘do no harm’ and sometimes, they do. They hurt. They shake their heads, tut their tongues, and move on with their day. Perhaps they’ll be fired, someday, but unlike a doctor, who’s black mark on their record and loss of license prevent them from being a doctor again, a teacher might get hired somewhere else. Or they have tenure, and they can’t be fired.
I think about all the people who can become teachers now. Unlike doctors, we can’t always see the damage they can cause. In my heart, I know most people become teachers to make a difference, a good difference, in our children’s lives. I also know some just do it so they can have the summer off of work, and the underlying anger in them can hurt. We need our educators to put the good first, and the next generation first. They need to promise to do no harm.