Fear in Room 134

The teacher stomped into the room like a soldier marching on Germany. She was tall, and had the kind of figure that people describe as big boned but no one would ever have the courage to say as much to her. All of this was overshadowed by her voice, when she talked, Ms. L’Ethope gave me the same feeling that I get as an adult whenever I cross the border.

“Any weapons or explosives?” the Homeland Security official will ask, peering into my car as though I’m already suspect. And even though I’ve only ever fired a gun twice and would run in the opposite direction of a hand grenade, I always feel guilty, like maybe I forgot about the eight semi-automatic rifles I packed next to my toiletries.

“You all did your homework,” Ms. L’Ethope would boom. It was a statement and an accusation, like she wouldn’t believe all of us lazy, high-school ingrates even if it was true. From my seat in the front row, I caught each blast of a word straight on.

She was a terror, not just to me, but even to the slackers that tried to skip her class. Five minutes into the period one day, she looked around the room, as though assessing all of us – I can only assume we failed the evaluation – before clomping out the door. She returned a minute later all but pulling a boy by his ear. “You do not skip my class to smoke,” she barked. The boy in question was too dumb to cower and laughed in response, but he did sit obediently in his seat until the bell rang. He was there every day from that point on.

I couldn’t imagine skipping her class. Forget presenting a doctor’s note if I’d been sick, I’d want my actual doctor to stand next to me and testify that the only reason I missed her lesson was because I had vomited up my kidneys.

Ms. L’Ethope had two moods: irritated and incensed. She was pregnant with her first child; unimpressed by the process she took her frustrations out on us. “I threw up five times in my car this morning and once on myself,” she’d say with a quick look at the clock to bring home the fact that it was early in the day and she was already deeply disappointed, mostly by us. Then she’d take a breath, and give the class the kind of look that a warden gives murderers and thieves, full of contempt and judgment, “So all of you had better have finished your homework.”

I spent more time studying science than any other class. The thought of this woman’s wrath was scarier than sitting alone at lunch, scarier than being turned down by a boy, scarier than even high school itself which was a landmine laden field of social mores and cliques. I wanted to win Ms. L’Ethope’s rare scraps of approval because I adored her. She would never offer outright praise, but when I did well, there was a lack of disdain.

No other teacher was as cutthroat or surly; they pandered to our humanity and cut us breaks for being teenagers. Ms. L’Ethope had no interest in that; she wanted to teach science and for us to learn science, end of story. No excuses.

The only time I was ever caught writing notes in class was in science. My seatmate and I were having a spirited conversation and I needed to finish my statement, but the bell rang and Ms. L’Ethope had started talking. I quickly scribbled down a sentence before turning my attention to the blackboard. But it was too late, my teacher had seen. With eyes like thunderclouds, she approached my bench. I wanted to liquefy in my seat, become a puddle on the floor to avoid her fury. This act of treason from a good student would not be tolerated; she’d bellow, have me thrown out of class, possibly frog march me to the principal’s office. I’d never gotten in trouble before and certainly never gotten in trouble with the most foul-tempered teacher I’d known.

Not stopping her lecture, she walked over and reached for my paper, turning it towards herself to read it. My weird saved me that moment because the note said, “Dye yourself blue then!” Ms. L’Ethope raised her eyebrows at me then turned and moved back to her spot at the board. I exhaled, realizing that I had narrowly avoided catastrophe and humiliation. I never wrote notes or stepped even close to the line, let alone crossing it, again in her class.

She was my favourite teacher. Still is. She ignited a passion for science that was only extinguished eight years later during the final year of my Honors Science degree when I realized that I’m abysmal at lab work. “Didn’t you want to study something easier?” people will ask me when I confess that I have a BSc in Honors Genetics. As if I had a choice of anything other than science.

Class : Introduction to Non-Fiction Storytelling

Assignment – Write a scene about a cruel teacher you loved or a kind teacher you hated

The Original Storyteller and The Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

My grandfather is the reason this blog exists. He told wild, interesting, funny stories to me before I could speak. My Granddad spent my childhood captivating audiences and his family. Those experiences are the reason why I myself became a storyteller and why my two year old son, who carries my grandfather’s name, now starts sentences with “Remember the…?”

For the past little while, I’ve been struggling with the nature of my blog. I debated whether I should keep it in its original form- a place for wickedly amusing happenings in my life, or transform it into something entirely different. My husband remarked that three years ago I lost my funny entirely and have since been penning a subdued form of Reader’s Digest humour, so maybe the change has already occurred.

I began this blog, with the same hope that many other writers have- to strike it big, be recognized and be published for the larger masses. It never happened but still, I kept going. Over time, as with anything, my writing became better, more descriptive, more fluid. Even the process of writing itself became easier. When I started The Great Unwashed, it would take me an entire evening to come up with a couple hundred words. Slowly, the work of writing, editing and publishing became much faster.

As the years passed, I built up a portfolio of work. To date, I’ve published nearly 400 posts. When my son was born, something that I felt proud of was that my baby would always know my voice- no matter what. Not the sound of it, but the cadence of my words, my stories, what I found funny, what hurt me, what buoyed me up. Should anything ever happen to me, my son will have this. And obviously his baby book, where I write ridiculous long paragraphs of how much I love him. Undoubtedly he’ll throw the thing on a fire in his teens. But I digress.

There are unforeseen benefits that have come as a result of writing regularly for five and a half years. Ultimately, what I love about my blog is that it chronicles my life, and my stories. This year has been a tough one for me family wise. Hef died to start with. (Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time understands the depths of my obsession with the bunnies and recognizes what a blow this was to me.) So I knew the next twelve months were going to suck on some level if this was a warning of what was to come. Then my grandmother became very ill and passed away as well. Her death wasn’t unexpected- she was older than Hef. But this made the dark winter months significantly darker. Most recently, my grandfather was given an upsetting diagnosis.

The moment I received that troubling news, a decision was made. Nearly two months ago, The Great Unwashed ceased to be the only place where I write- currently I have two other writing projects on the go, so this blog can be whatever I choose. I pick family stories, whatever is clattering about my head on that particular day. The following are my heart’s musings for the day.

When I was fifteen and my sister was thirteen, our cat attempted suicide. Ringo concluded that he’d had enough of the excessive attention my sister lavished on him, that a life spent chasing a laser was not worth living and that perhaps my mother was buying the cheap cat food when truly Ringo deserved the expensive stuff with chunks of chicken rather than the machine pressed junk. So in a fit of angsty feline rage, he threw himself off the upstairs banister.

This is my version of the story. Despite cleaning our cats’ litter boxes for over a decade, I am not, nor have I ever been, a cat person. My mother has a different version.

Ringo was an acrobatic cat. Around the neighbourhood, he was known as the cat on the roof, because he would jump from the deck railing to the lower roof, finally making his way to the top of our forty foot house. Ringo was a thin, determined cat who knew what he wanted out of life- generally it was your chicken dinner. He walked around our house like he owned the place. Seeing as I spent my entire adolescence shoveling Ringo and his brother’s waste, I felt he had good reason for this.

Ringo used to taunt death by jumping onto our upstairs railing and walking along the thin curved piece of wood, twenty some feet in the air. He never once fell. At least until that day.

My mother recognized Ringo’s miscalculated landing immediately, had she not been in a hip to toe cast at the time, from a ruptured Achilles tendon, she herself would have rushed to Ringo’s aid. As it was, my mother’s cast cost Ringo the precious seconds it took for her to yell, “Dad! The cat!” Ever the knight in shining armor, my grandfather rushed to catch the now falling cat.

Granddad didn’t get there in time. But the point is he tried. Granddad tried even though he would constantly claim that we only had one black and white cat because he couldn’t tell the difference between the feline brother duo – Ringo and Splat. He tried, even though he hated cleaning up cat vomit especially when it was from a cat that didn’t belong to him. I have suspicion that Granddad does not actually like cats.

For all those concerned about the cat- Ringo used one of his nine lives that day and walked off without a scratch or even so much as a limp, whereas Granddad had to feel sorry that he didn’t catch our cat. Twice; once when he failed to actually catch the cat, and the other time when my mother relayed the tale to my sister and me over the phone while we were on vacation with our Dad.

This was the Granddad story I wanted to share this evening. He would tell you it’s less a story about him and more about our daredevil of a cat. True, but like so many of the stories of my life, Granddad was there, and I wanted to remember that he played a role. My grandfather of course loves having top billing but for this story he was there.

Also, the roof cat might not have been Ringo. My parents have had so many pets in their life that the cats blend together into one furry, Sarah-hating animal, that I spent years cleaning up after and chauffeuring to the vet.  All except for Splat who was almost as dirty and uncoordinated as me, God rest that filthy feline’s soul. If there is a lap to topple from in heaven, Splat is laying legs akimbo and irritated on the floor.