20 06 2013

My third grade teacher was a witch.  Really.  I have the photo to prove it.

I was digging through my file cabinet on the last day of school, looking for a file I keep of my childhood photos to show my students, when I came across the picture of Mrs. Marx, my third grade teacher.  It was a school picture, wallet-size.  She gave one to everybody in her class.  Only it doesn’t show her face at all.  She was wearing a rubber witch mask.

Mrs. Marx told us all year long that she really was a witch, and this picture proved it.  “If everybody makes 100 on the spelling test,” she would say, “I’ll climb up on the window ledge and fly out the window,” no mean feat since we were on the third floor.  I worked so hard to always make 100, but somehow there was always someone who blew it for the class.  Usually Ted Pettis.

I spent my elementary years in the old Aiken Elementary, the one that is now the library.  This old building, built in the 1800s, had smells imbedded in the walls.  The lunchroom was in the basement.  Walking in silent lines down the creaky wooden staircase, I could smell it far before I got there: sour milk and overcooked vegetables.  Every day when I got home, I would change out of my school clothes and into my play clothes to please my mother, but mostly so I could step out of the chalk dust smell that permeated everything that spent time in this old building.

The classrooms were heated with radiators that hissed and spit on cold winter mornings.  Students lucky enough to sit in the back of the room put broken crayon pieces on them, watching the melted colors drip down as the teacher droned on.  I always envied those back-row-sitters.

Mrs. Marx was different.  In the days of Redbird, Bluebird, and Crow reading groups, she veered off the path.  She would give everyone purple copies of stories that she had written for us to read.  Somehow, I didn’t mind answering the questions at the end if it related to the time she and a friend played hookey, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, and spent the day in New York City.  I still have that story, stored somewhere in the dim corners of my attic.

Mrs. Marx read to us.  She introduced us to Greek mythology, reading story after story of Narcissus, Hercules, Zeus, and Persephone.  In those years before air conditioning, I remember coming in from recess, heat radiating from every pore of my body, unable to do anything more than listen, and she would transport us to another world.  “I’ve told you before about the half man-half bull called the Minotaur. This strange and terrible beast lived in…” she would begin, and I would leave the four walls and straight rows of my classroom, returning reluctantly only when she closed the book.

I remember the lessons that Gloria Marx taught me.  Not the ones about decoding, context clues, or even inference.  What I remember is how she engaged us.  She was fun.  She was real. She shared her life with us.  And she introduced me to a world beyond the stuffy classroom, a world filled with heroes and magic. A world of books.

Mrs. Marx may not have been a real witch.  But her magic was real.  And how appropriate that my old school is now the Aiken County Library, a place where magic spills out from every book on the shelf.  Especially in the mythology section.

My teacher the witch