In third grade, I had a woman named Miss Fulton. She had been Miss Fulton the previous May and she was supposed to become a Mrs. Somebody over the summer. But when we showed up in September, she was still Miss Fulton. Before I was in her class, I had never seen her up close, but it seemed she had gotten about ten years older that summer.
There was something else strange about that year. We actually started in August. School had always started in September after Labor Day. For some strange reason this year we started on the Wednesday before Labor Day. It was just wrong. I wanted to know why. No one ever gave me an answer why. So, I started off the year with a bean in my craw.
The second bean was the radiator. Miss Fulton’s room had four pairs of windows and three radiators spread out along the outside wall. I sat in the fourth row from the front at the end by the outside wall. The second radiator was just in front of me and the second pair of windows was just behind me. That second radiator for some reason was always hot. Even in September. We would come in from recess. I was usually glowing red from kickball or killer (you know where one person runs with the football and everyone else tries to tackle them). I’d glow because apparently Irish people don’t sweat the way they’re supposed to. I’d be glowing red and I’d have to come in and sit next to that hot radiator. Miss Fulton would have us sit with our heads on our desks and she would sit up front and read out loud for a half hour or so. This was her way of letting everybody calm down from recess, I guess. But then sometimes her voice would get quieter and quieter – like she was going into a hypnotic trance – until finally, kids would start saying, “Louder.” It became a thing. When her voice began to drop, kids would lift their heads and on a signal, they would all shout, “Louder!” Then they’d laugh and she’d read a little more. So, when I noticed her voice dropping, I started slipping out of my seat and crawling along the wall to get away from that second radiator. And once I did that, I just kept going toward the back wall. Along the back wall were bookcases with reading books and bins of art supplies and supplies for science lessons and some other interesting stuff. And Miss Fulton was so distracted by the whole class shouting and waking up from her hypnotic trance that she never noticed that I wasn’t in my seat.
The third bean in my craw that year was Missy Wagner. She sat right behind me. She was funny – sometimes she meant to be, sometimes she didn’t. When I started sneaking out of my seat, at first, she would make stormy faces at me, pointing back at my seat, like I had to obey her hand signals. Of course, I didn’t. For most of September and October, whenever I would pass her in class or in the hall, she would lean toward me and say under her breath, “I’m going to tell Miss Fulton!”
Then we had to give our living history projects. The assignment was to talk to someone – preferably someone about to die – and ask them what it was like way back when. I talked to our mailman, because he always looked like he was about to die.
On Monday that week, Miss Fulton began calling up students to read their reports. It was the last class of the day – after recess and reading time. So once that started, everyone knew they could coast for the rest of the day. Four or five kids would get up and read their reports each day. Some of them were funny, but there’s only so much you can say about old people about to die. I went Wednesday and got through it all right. I padded my report with some details about their uniforms and special bags they give them for mail. He talked about his family, but I skipped that stuff. It was a snooze-fest. Everyone just enjoyed watching the clock knowing that as long as people were reading their reports, they wouldn’t have to do anything else. And it was nice that it was the end of the day. By Thursday, we had come around to Missy. She was a “W”, so she was near the end.
Miss Fulton says, “Next let’s hear from Melissa Wagner!” She clapped and the whole class clapped, as they did for everyone. Missy got up and stood next to Miss Fulton’s desk at the front of the class.
“I wrote my report on my Mema, Grandma Liza.” She looked around to see if anyone was listening. Most kids were not. Miss Fulton was sitting next to her at her desk writing something and looking up occasionally at Missy or at the class, like Missy, seeing who was paying attention or not. “My Mema left home when she was seventeen after she had a disagreement with her folks about who should be free or not.” She was looking around a little nervously, shifting from foot to foot. “She came west to Culver Creek. They had struck silver there and people were rushing there to dig it up. The people were mostly men. Some of them worked by themselves and lived in tents or shacks. Some men worked for mining companies and lived in dorms. Some of the women worked doing laundry or sewing. Some worked in saloons where the men got drunk and got into fights. Granma Liza worked for a fancy lady named Madame Joline in a house where men could come in and play with cats. Cats did not like tents and they weren’t allowed in dorms. So, men who worked in the mines did not get to play with cats much. So, the men would come to Madame Joline’s house where my Granma worked to get to play with cats. They had all kinds of cats. They had cats that came from the east, some that came from Mexico, and even some cats that came from Indian tribes. They had one black cat that had a lot of personality. She had to be really friendly because, of course, some people think black cats are bad luck.” Missy glanced at Miss Fulton and had seen that her face was getting really tense and she was turning red. “Sometimes miners would come right from the mines. They would have to take off their dirty boots and miner clothes before coming into Madame Joline’s house to see the cats. The miners worked really hard in the mines, so sometimes Madame Joline would put them right to bed at her house.” You could tell that Missy was getting uncomfortable with how Miss Fulton seemed to be responding to her report. Miss Fulton was now staring steadily at Missy. Missy kept going. “It would get so busy at Granma Liza’s house on weekends that some of the ladies would give the men something called a ‘pump and dump’ to get the miners in and out faster so they would all have the chance to play with the cats.” A strange noise seemed to come from Miss Fulton’s throat. “Granma Liza also did some cooking and took care of some books at Madame Joline’s house. Back then, people did not have a lot of books. Madame Joline’s house was one of the first places that had more than one book. They even had multiple sets of books. So, I assume many miners came to Madame Joline’s to read books, and they were able to read books if they had to wait for any before getting in to see the cats. Many men do not talk much after they have played with cats. But some men like to talk a lot. Granma Liza met one man who really liked to talk after he played with the cats, and he thought Granma Liza was a really good talker. He especially liked her insight into local politics. That man married Granma Liza and ran for Mayor.” Then things got really weird. First Missy started choking up. “He was my Granpa Steven . . . He died two years ago.” She held her papers up to her face and shook gently, making little noises.
By this time, I was in the back of the room. I noticed we had only about fifteen minutes before the bell that would mark the end of the school day and set us all free.
Just then, Miss Fulton blew up. “Melissa Wagner, I don’t know if appreciate the nature of the content of your report, but that was not at all appropriate for a young lady –”
Bam!! I could see where this was going. Missy did not deserve to be yelled at, whether she “appreciated the nature of the content of her report” or not. So, I took a handful of the biggest books I could find and dropped them on the floor. Immediately, Miss Fulton’s head swung around and her eyes locked on me like she would have killed me if I weren’t at the opposite end of the classroom. This is the only time anyone has ever heard her raise her voice. “Billy Singer, you will stay after school and write one hundred times on the blackboard, ‘I will not abuse books because they are artefacts of civilization!’” Her voice cracked. “And then you will clean the erasers!!” She seemed to be on the verge of tears. “Do! You! Hear! Me!”
“Yes, Madame.” There were a few nervous titters. And then a couple of minutes of silence, only the sound of Miss Fulton breathing. It was like you could hear her staring at me. And finally, the bell rang.
I wrote my one hundred times barely fitting in the last few that trailed off a little. By that time Miss Fulton had forgotten about the erasers.
Walking home I passed the yellow house on the corner and Missy was sitting on the porch steps. That was the first time I connected her to that house. “Billy!” She called to me as I passed. I stopped. I walked halfway down her front walk.
A light sun shower broke out. “Come in out of the rain?”
“OK.” So I walked the rest of the way to her porch. I stood awkwardly on the top step of her porch steps while she sat on the steps.
Looking up at me, she said, “This is my Granma Liza.” She tilted her head pointing toward an old woman in a rocking chair at the point where their porch bowed out and turned around the side of the house. She held a white cat in her lap, petting it with a delicate hand.
“Hi.” I waived faintly. “Missy did a real good report on you today,” I said to be polite. She nodded as if she knew I was talking to her but couldn’t tell what I was saying.
I looked back at Missy. “I’ll go as soon as the rain stops. It’s just a sunshower.”
“OK,” she agreed. “It’s just a sunshower.” She looked back out across the street with streaks of sunshine breaking through. “You can sit if you want.”
“Oh, OK.” I sat down next to her.
“Thanks,” she said quietly. “I know what you did.” Looking back out across the street, she continued, “I don’t know what I did.”
The rain stopped. I sat for an extra moment. She had the lightest eyes I have ever seen, and they lit up as the clouds passed.
The next week was a half week for Thanksgiving vacation. After that, Missy never came back to our class. People say her parents put her in a Catholic school. Miss Fulton never flipped her lid again.