Portrait of my Elementary School Principal
(no, no… actually this is a close-up of the portrait of a “prominent” New Yorker from the early 19th century—in The Museum of The City of New York).
…But the look on this woman’s face really did remind me of the look on our principal’s face if you were caught loitering in the hall without a hall pass or if you came in a couple of seconds late from recess. Yes, it took me back to those golden years (The Nineteen-Fifties) when there was none of this modern crap about being sensitive to children’s “needs”. I mean, gimme a fuckin’ break, needs? The only recognized need a kid had in those days was for the bathroom. If something else was troubling your little ego (like, for instance, neglect, abuse, gender confusion), you were expected to keep it to yourself.
If you weren’t writing something or drawing a picture, you were supposed to keep your hands folded on top of your desk and PAY ATTENTION. And if the school alarm bell suddenly went off and the teacher yelled “duck and cover,” you had to assume a fetal position under your desk or risk horrible injury from an atomic bomb blast.
You had to understand all these things were for your own good—that they created a healthy mind in a healthy body; good mental and moral habits, not to mention a total absence of radiation burns.
But if you were an incorrigible juvenile delinquent—a real degenerate; if you had a habit of talking in class, passing notes, not paying attention or just being generally truculent (not to mention running in the hallways or whacking some other kid out in the school yard) you were in danger of being sent to the principal’s office. And that was VERY BAD.
The scene unfolded thusly… The teacher stopped what she was doing and told you to come up to her desk. While you stood there, she wrote out a note, folded it over and handed it to you. “Take this to the Principle’s office,” she said.
And even though this was America, the land of free, this whole process followed the Napoleonic Code (guilty until proven innocent). You walked in shame (and/or faux defiance) to the class door—every pair of eyes in the utterly silent classroom fixed on you, every kid in the class saying a prayer of thanks that it wasn’t them heading for a beheading. You walked down the empty hallway, filled with foreboding. And with each step closer to the office, your pace slowed, your heart thumped louder and your mind grasped (vainly) for excuses.
You opened the office door, told the secretary that your teacher had sent you to speak to the principal and sat down on the wooden bench, awaiting the moment of JUDGEMENT.
After several years of anxious waiting, you were told to go in. You went in, handed the principal the folded note and stood there while she opened it up. She seemed to take forever to read it, pursing her lips and shaking her head. Then… Then…
Then what usually happened was that you got a cold, hard stare, the threat to tell your mother and a wave of dismissal. Maybe you were ordered to sit out on the bench for fifteen minutes so the true weight of your crime took hold of your conscience (and also made the kids back in the classroom wonder what horrible tortures you were enduring). Then you got up, walked back to class and made your way to your desk—trying to pretend you were invisible.
Actually, my elementary school principal, Mrs. Flinker (her real name), was a small, kindly lady and never really had cause, in our relatively well-behaved lower-middle class community to ever dole out any serious punishment. The worst that would happen is that she might take out her fountain pen, write a note to your mother, seal it in an envelope and tell you to give it to her as soon as you got home. Now there you could be in real trouble.
Never-the-less, the expectation of judgement and your sense of public shame (depending, of course, on just where you were on the shame continuum) combined to make this walk to her office a kind of a kid’s version of the last mile.
So the portrait I saw in the museum brought back, not the actual, kind, grandmotherly face of my real-life elementary school principal, but the emotional experience of being singled out in front of the whole class and sent to her office. Thus our memories are sculpted… much less from facts than from feeling; accumulating over decades into the great volume of our personal mythology.