During my sixth grade year in 1975, Miss Baker [not her real name] was the P.E. teacher for our self-contained classroom. She was an athletically stocky woman in her thirties with a soft voice and a motherly attitude. During sunny days she took us outside to experience a variety of team sports activities. On rainy days, she brought “Chicken Fat.”
“Chicken Fat,” also known as “The Youth Fitness Song,” was a song written in 1962 by Meredith Willson, the composer of The Music Man and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Miss Baker would bring in her record of the classic and her portable phonograph. She would open the lid of the machine, plug it in and commence with the exercises. With stirring lyrics such as, “Push up every morning—ten times. Push up starting low. Once more on the rise, nuts to the flabby guys! Go, you chicken fat, go away!” she demonstrated the basic exercises and then had us repeat them on the left aisle besides our desks. On the tiled floors we would do push ups and sit ups. With Miss Baker as our sweet southern drill sergeant, we ran in place and jumped our jacks.
On one particular rainy day before Christmas break, we were in the middle of the routine. Katherine Dewbury [definitely her real name] was exercising next to the desk next to mine. She would periodically glance at me with what I hoped were flirtatious eyes, and roll them in disapproval of the corny lyrics in a way only a dramatic sixth grade girl could master. I knew I would never impress Katherine with my physique. At eleven, I looked (and sounded) more like nine, a fact I was occasionally reminded of by Chuck Wilson [not sure if that’s his real name because I may have suppressed it] who, a foot taller than I, showed the first strands of a moustache and spoke with a raspy, maturing voice. But at 88 pounds, I had a goal. I would woo Katherine with my rebellious wit. That was the area in which I excelled. I was, after all, the one who created and sold humorous yet dirty lyrics to popular children’s songs. I had a reputation to maintain. “This is so stupid,” I whispered.
When we remember events from our childhood, time is a difficult thing to judge. Did Miss Baker really respond in less than a second, or did it take her a few minutes to reflect on class room discipline? At the moment, I felt as if the lady worked on sheer impulse. The music stopped with a screech of needle on vinyl. All students froze in the middle of a jumping jack. “Please be seated and put your heads on your desks.” We obeyed, a few of us asking why. I felt cold and shaky. There was no way she had heard me. No one had heard me but Katherine. No one else in the classroom had heard me.
“I spend my life,” Miss Baker said, “trying to find fun, educational activities for you to enjoy. Even in rainy weather.” She curled the phonograph cord and stored it under the base. “For one of you to call them ‘stupid’ is just an insult I can’t take. You can keep you heads down until your teacher returns.” She had heard me. She moved toward the door.
“But Miss Baker,” called Chuck “It was Jeff that said it, not the rest of us. That’s not fair to us.” I stopped breathing in preparation to be exiled from the class.
Miss Baker stopped at the door and looked out over the class in a morbid version of the last scene from Dead Poet’s Society. Her neck was a splotchy red as her hand gripped the handle of the phonograph case so hard a vein bulged on her hand. “It couldn’t have been Jeff,” she defended me. I exhaled. “It was a girl’s voice.”
I never talked to Miss Baker about that incident. I’m sure she forgot it when the Christmas break started. I remembered the scene and her hurt words the entire vacation asking God to forgive me at every holiday church service. But by the spring, I had forgotten any plans of confession and had moved on to other middle school sins. I had P.E. with her the rest of the year, and then she moved on to another teaching assignment.
When I saw her again, I was beginning my student teaching at a school where she was Director of Special Education. She had quit teaching P.E. years earlier. She seemed fulfilled and less impulsive, but she was still sweet Miss Baker. I thought about reliving the event with her, confessing, laughing about it, and receiving some reassurance to assuage my preadolescent guilt. I updated her on my after college plans instead.
I’ve now been a teacher for over thirty years. We all hear stories describing drastic reactions children have to mean comments from their peers, comments perhaps made casually to impress a peer—maybe even as a flirtation. Unlike the young Miss Baker, I know better than to place too much value on flippant comments that sting. But the harder lesson of editing what we say before we say it was taught the one time Miss Baker’s adult wall cracked and showed us the hurting child on the other side who taught me the best lesson of P.E. that year: many times our comments are blabbering blubber, layered with excessive wit and poorly considered humor that can be unhealthy even to those who seem strong and fit.