In 1970, when I was a teen boy, I attended a high school of 600 just outside Cedar Rapids. The first day of freshman year had me in a study hall with several guys in our clique. The room was supervised — maybe the right word is “commanded” — by a demure white-haired English teacher named Betty Becker.
Of the 50 or so high school teachers, Betty Becker stood out. For one thing, she dressed to the nines every day — Fifth Avenue dresses, usually with a perfectly matched scarf; heels and hose; and always big juicy red lipstick, perfectly applied. The wife of a local funeral home director, Mrs. Becker’s perfect diction could intimidate even the most confident person.
I didn’t know this at first and learned about it the hard way.
Someone made a smart aleck comment in study hall. Although it had half the room laughing, thereby breaking Mrs. Becker’s silence-only rule, I was the one she focused on.
“You, out in the hallway. Now, Mister!”
I looked back at my buddies and saw a row of smirks.
I followed the click, click, click of three-inch black heels on cheap school linoleum until we were stationed outside the study hall doorway. We were certainly close enough for everyone in the room to hear what was about to come down.
“What is your name?” Mrs. Becker demanded. The top of her head barely reached my chin. It didn’t matter since she believed — and I wholeheartedly accepted — that she was about ten feet tall.
“Ed Krug,” I said. Naively, my lips held the faintest hint of a smile.
“You think this is funny, Mr. Krug?”
With that she pointed her finger, dagger-like, at my nose. It pulled me into the seriousness of the moment.
“Uh, no,” I said, fearing what might be next.
“Well, it sure seems like you think this is a big joke. I can already tell that you are a troublemaker. To be clear, I don’t like troublemakers, do you understand that?”
By now, my heart was doing wind sprints — the kind that I endured for football practice.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, sheep-like.
“The study hall is to be quiet. Do you have that?”
“I’m going to keep an eye on you, Mr. Krug. I doubt that you’re going to succeed here. You don’t take things seriously.”
At that point, I just wanted the ordeal to end. I certainly wasn’t going to argue with the woman.
“Yes, ma’am. I will be quiet.”
Mrs. Becker gave a quick shake of her head. We were done, and I followed her back into the study hall.
That was the last time I ever spoke up in Mrs. Becker’s study hall.
Three semesters later, I was in Mrs. Becker’s composition class. Halfway through the semester, she gave an assignment: create something that matched your words to a picture or image. It was pretty general — I am now sure it was intended to spark imagination and word choice.
That was okay with me. I had written bits and pieces here and there, never more than a paragraph. They were the about sending brain waves to world via pencil and paper — rudimentary dot connecting.
It was the winter of 1971-72. The Vietnam war was still raging. We weren’t that far past revelations about the My Lai massacre. Week by week, American soldiers were coming home in coffins. I cut out some pictures from several issues of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. I don’t remember them all, but one picture is seared into my brain all these years later. It was of a soldier walking through a napalmed jungle forest, with smoldering sticks in place of what had once been tropical trees.
I spent several hours putting cutouts coated with Elmer’s Glue on red-lined, pre-punched paper and matched each photo with several stanzas. For maybe the first time in my life, I truly used my imagination and worked to make my words just right. The result was part-poetry, part editorial, and something that made me proud.
Two days after handing it in, Mrs. Becker started the morning with an in-class reading assignment. I had just opened my book when I heard, “Mr. Krug, out in the hall.”
God. Now what?
Once in the hallway, Mrs. Becker closed the classroom door with a determined thud. I saw that she was holding my paper — the photo and prose document — in her hand. She was standing barely a foot from me and had her pointer finger drawn.
“I have looked at this, Mr. Krug,” she said, moving her finger from my face to paper. “This can’t be your work. Who did this for you? What’s that person’s name?”
This was the last thing I expected. Yes, most of the time I did not give anything school-related my best effort, but I was never a cheater or plagiarist. Even then, I had my standards.
“No one did this for me,” I answered, with fear and a bit of incredulousness. “This is my work, mine alone.”
“Are you being honest with me? I could swear that you are not capable of this quality.”
The words hurt like hell. “Yes, Mrs. Becker,” I said, now near-pleading. “This is all of my work, my thoughts. I would never cheat.”
The finger relaxed. Without saying a word, Mrs. Becker turned on one heel and headed for the classroom door, click, click, click.
As she was about to grab the doorknob, she stopped. I watched as a small-statured human with gigantic influence turned to face me with a half-grin.
“You know, Mr. Krug, I was wrong about you. You are not a troublemaker after all.”
She then opened the door and disappeared into the classroom.
For an extra-split second, I lingered in the hall and let the words — a collection of consonants and vowels that would stick with me for the rest of my life — settle in.
A smile appeared on my face, as my heart slowed.
I thought, “Yes! Maybe my words can touch others. Maybe.”
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir sequel, “Being Ellen: A Newly Minted Woman Challenges the World.”
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Ellie Krug, I hope you got an A.
I remember Mrs. Becker a bit differently than my sister. My experience with her was in Senior English Grammar. I am not as fluid with the written word as my sister (nor the spoken) but Mrs. Becker’s teaching forced me to learn and apply the principles of grammar (yes, I had to look to make sure I used the proper “principle/principal” in that context) in order to express myself more fully and accurately. And, while she may have been short, she was full of stature.
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