By WENDY HODGE
In the fall of 1974, there was no shortage of major events to fill the evening news — the oil crisis had recently ended, President Nixon had resigned in disgrace, The Exorcist was terrifying moviegoers everywhere, and Mrs. Taylor’s second grade class at Carver Elementary was in a state of crisis.
The school year was barely two months along when the trouble started. Items began disappearing … small things at first — a pencil case from an unattended desk, a book from inside a locker left open, even a pair of shoes someone left outside on the playground.
Mrs. Taylor was mildly annoyed at first. There were so many things to deal with when you’re in charge of 25 seven-year-old children. I imagine it must be quite like the guy in charge of the chimpanzees in the middle of Monkey Park, except Mrs. Taylor had to wear a dress and a smile every day.
“This is just someone testing me a bit,” she must have thought to herself.
But as The Iron Bowl approached (this is how we mark the Thanksgiving season here in Alabama), things escalated. The thief had discovered the art of graffiti. Words like “shut up” and “turd” appeared on bathroom walls. Smiley faces popped up on the blackboard one Monday morning. No one knew where he would strike next.
The janitor must have welcomed the holiday break. His cart with the squeaky wheels could be heard rattling up and down the second grade hallway, back and forth, while he muttered “these dang kids” under his breath every single day of that third week in November.
Mrs. Taylor could be seen practically running out the back door to her car when the bell rang signaling the last day of school until the beginning of December. I imagine she shed her dress and smile for sweatpants and a sigh of relief. And probably a glass of wine or two.
It was cold the day we all trudged back into Carver Elementary to face the three weeks we had to get through before the Christmas break. I, for one, was excited to get back. I loved school — I realize, and can now openly admit, I’ve always been a nerd. But, if I’m honest, I must confess that I was also slightly thrilled to see what brazen steps “our” thief would take next. What lies beyond graffiti for a seven-year-old? Skipping school? Cursing? The possibilities were endless.
It didn’t take long to get my answer. Our second day back was an overcast Tuesday. Mrs. Taylor and her entire second-grade class returned from lunch in the cafeteria to find every single desk in our classroom had been turned upside down. Papers and notebooks littered the floor. Crayons had been thrown around like a giant game of pick-up-sticks.
The smile slid off Mrs. Taylor’s face. A low, guttural sound escaped her lips. And then she said it — “Dammit.” We all gasped in unison, all 25 of us. This was just too much to take in … chaotic vandalism and a teacher cursing … surely the world was ending.
Mrs. Taylor told us to stay put and stomped up the hallway, right past the janitor who was standing outside the door. “Dang kids,” he said and shuffled off, entirely defeated. He abandoned his cart and walked right out the front door. I heard later he retired, took up drinking and moved out west somewhere, never to darken the doorstep of an elementary school again.
We stood and waited, all of us. We waited for Mrs. Taylor’s return, for someone to come set things right again and for the skies to open up and send lightning bolts down on poor Mrs. Taylor’s head. We all knew that’s what happened when you said the D word.
Whispers started amongst us. “Who did this?” “Why would someone want to ruin everything?” “They broke my jumbo box of 72 crayons!!”
The rest of the day was a blur. We were herded outside for extra playground time while our classroom was cleaned up. Our belongings were returned to us, most of them none the worse for wear. But, sitting at our desks at the end of the school day, we were as deflated as last year’s birthday balloons. It’s an odd feeling knowing someone has handled your personal treasures – it’s a violation. But at seven years old, all we knew was that the whole thing was just icky.
Something had to be done. And Mrs. Taylor had a plan.