Short Story: Profane Words
by Ross Vander Meulen
The short stories "Profane Words" and "Beatrice & Goliath," grouped under the general title "Other Exiles," were read to the Caxton Club at Knox in October 1991. While the stories and the characters are wholly fictional, the school and the neighborhood of the 1940's do reflect the South Side of Chicago that I knew and grew up in. The influence of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer I readily confess. Given the troubles in our schools in the past few years, the stories can perhaps offer now, even more than when they were written, a refreshing look back to a more innocent time in public schools. -- RVM, 2001
"If you are able to read the words and tell me what they mean, you shall be robed in purple and honored . . . ." King Belshazzar to Daniel, Daniel 5:16.
We never called it grade school, or elementary school. We always called it grammar school. Back then we didn't really understand what grammar meant, and we certainly didn't learn much grammar there. But that's what we called it: Crefnole Grammar School.
Crefnole was built in the early years of the twentieth century. It looked like other schools of that era. It had three floors, with cavernous stairways at both ends of the building. The boys' entrance was on 104th Street and was always in the shade. The girls' entrance was on 105th Street and was sometimes in the sun.
Kindergarten and first grade were on the first floor, which also housed the gymnasium and a small lunchroom for the teachers. In the middle of the first floor, midway between the boys' and girls' entrances, was a heavy grated-metal gate with a large, forbidding "Keep Out" sign. The gate was sometimes unlocked. Beyond it was a narrow, steep, steel stairway that led down to a shapeless area filled with huge steaming and hissing pipes. Almost all of us had, of course, ventured into this forbidden area before the end of first grade. That was the way we proved we were ready for second grade and life on the second floor. But this kind of adventure required a witness -- and evidence, evidence in the form of a lump of coal from the coal bin at the far end of the forbidden area, beyond the chattering pipes, hissing valves, and around an immense gurgling boiler that blocked the way like a third-grade bully. Bruno Bokasch had his lump of coal before the end of the first day of school in September. Bruno did have an advantage, however; it was his second year in first grade. Beatrice Canti, who was better at getting in and out of tight spots than anyone else in our class, had hers before the end of October. Most of the rest of us had ours by the end of March, when the coal bin began to run desperately low.
I remember the first floor boys' room. The teachers called it the washroom, or the bathroom. We couldn't wash there because there were no sinks; and we certainly couldn't bathe there. But, as we learned early, when people asked for a washroom, or a bathroom, they really didn't want to wash or to bathe. What boys usually wanted were urinals. These the boys' room had. And they were nothing like the dinky wall-hanging fixtures I see in men's rooms these days. Those Crefnole urinals were massive structures, cut from hard stone. They were sunk down below the floor, towered over the six-year-old, wrapped around him. It was like pissing into a cave. Beyond the urinals were the stools. Beyond the stools, at the back wall of the room, was a small door, small even by six-year-old measure. This door was the entrance to the "dark room," a room filled with a bewildering maze of pipes, a room without light, without windows, narrow, low, horrifying. The preferred sport of third grader Joe Rigoni was to come downstairs to our boys' room, grab one of us and say: "I'm going to stick you in the dark room! And then I'm going to lock the door!" My first-grade classmate Dudley Dodson wet his pants three times in one week because he was terrified of going into the boys' room, where he knew Joe Rigoni would be waiting for him.
Boys were not allowed at the girls' entrance, nor girls at the boys'. But this did not prevent the seventh and eighth grade boys from gathering at the open third-floor windows high above the girls' entrance, and calling down, and laughing, or just watching. On one of the first warm days of spring these boys would stand at the windows and drop down balloons filled with water. Well, at least we thought they were balloons -- until we ascended to the third floor and the higher knowledge of sixth grade.
What I remember best is fifth grade. That's probably because I spent two years there. Not that I didn't learn anything the first year. In fact, that was the year I began to win the struggle with English, when I came to grips with spelling. That was the year I discovered there was more than one English language. There was, for example, spoken English, in which the word for the army officer was "kernel." And there was written English, in which that same word was "co- lo- nel." The secret was not to write spoken English and not to speak written English. They were different languages using the same words. Keeping each in its place, not mixing them up, that was the trick.
The fifth grade teacher was Miss Belcher. She taught in the last room at the south end of the second floor, Room 210. She was the gatekeeper to the third floor, to higher learning, and she kept the gate with unrelenting severity. She was heavy, always wore black or gray clothes, even on warm days in the spring, and black shoes with heels that were high and yet as large at the bottom as they were at the top. She had been at Crefnole forever. All of our older brothers and sisters had had Miss Belcher. A few of my classmates claimed that their mother or father had also had Miss Belcher.
I remember with special vividness one day in May of my first year of fifth grade. Spring arrived on that day. We had all been waiting so long, and then suddenly it was there with all its glorious temptations. We could hardly wait for morning recess, which went by much too quickly, and then we could hardly wait for lunchtime, which gave way all too soon to the warning bell for afternoon class. We entered our second-floor classroom still buzzing with the giddy laughter and madness of the season, milled around the room in random delight, waiting for the second bell and the entrance of Miss Belcher. But then a few of us, and very soon all of us, became aware of a word on the front board. Anyone who thinks about it for a moment will guess what word it was, the word most likely to delight the mischievous mind of a ten-year-old and at the same time guaranteed to provoke the shocked displeasure of teacher. The word was written large and bold, with the side of the chalk, not the point. Even Clarence Wieringa, who had to sit in the front row to read the board, could see the word easily from the back of the room, where he now stood blinking in disbelief and giggling with Klara Kohler and Stanley Zelmanowski. The sight of that word here, in Room 210, on Miss Belcher's blackboard, redoubled the noisy din and scurrying mischief of our spring spirits.
The bell rang, and in an instant Miss Belcher appeared, filling the doorway with grand corpulence. At once the buzzing activity was shattered by a terrifying silence and in one complicated motion fifth grade sped noiselessly to separate seats. The door slammed shut behind Miss Belcher, and the terrible silence returned. She faced us, her back to the front board, and moved slowly toward the back of the room, looking out at us with her accustomed edgy patience. The agony of silence was prolonged as she turned the corner at the back of the room and slowly trudged across behind the back seats, then seemed to stop. Fifth grade sat in petrified stillness, with heads bowed humbly down in mock study, eyes turned up stealthily to the word before us, ears awaiting fearfully the impending explosion. Suddenly she was moving, moving toward the front of the room right past me to the first row of seats. At first it seemed she was about to go up and erase the word. But she did not. Instead she turned and faced us. "Fifth graders," she began, "I am shocked!" She paused, we scarcely breathed. "We must behave like fifth graders in this room," she continued. "I want the fifth grader who wrote that word on our board to stand up. Now." She paused again, looking ever so slowly about the room. No one stood, no one moved. "I am waiting. I expect the fifth grader who wrote that word to stand. Stand up now!" There was another long pause. Then what we feared most seemed about to commence -- the dreaded roll call. Miss Belcher would call on us one at a time. Her questions would be sharp, direct, unambiguous. Roll calls almost always led to a sobbing confession, or a reluctant identification, and then to a quick conviction -- and sentence. As was not uncommon, or perhaps because I was in her line of vision, the roll call began with me. "Daniel," said Miss Belcher slowly, her eyes fixed on me, "Daniel, what can you tell us about the word on the board?" But before I could answer, my best friend Gene Cavali, who lived right across from me on La Salle Street, raised his hand ever so tentatively, as if the air above his head were filled with wasps.
"Miss Belcher," he said. "Miss Belcher, maybe it was one of those tough seventh graders from Mr. Creston's class."
"I bet it was Joe Rigoni," blurted Dudley Dodson. This seemed so sensible, so logical, that we knew it had to be true, and nodded in agreement.
"Did anyone see Joe Rigoni in the room?" asked Miss Belcher. No, no one had seen Joe Rigoni. "Did anyone see any other seventh grader, or anyone else in the room?" Alas, no, no one had seen anyone in the room. Another unending pause.
It seemed certain that the roll call was about to resume, and I plucked up my courage as best I could. But miraculously, on that afternoon there was no roll call. Maybe spring fever had hit Miss Belcher too. She smiled. "We are going to give the fifth grader who has done this, who has written that word on our board, a chance to make amends," she said. "We are going to give that fifth grader a chance to turn over a new leaf." She paused. "I am going over to my desk. I am going to put my head down and shut my eyes tight. I want all of you to do the same. We will all put our heads down on our desks, eyes shut tight, and the fifth grader who did this to our board will come up and erase it." She waddled over to her desk, sat down, put her flabby arms out in front of her. "I am going to count to three," she said, "and I want everyone to put down their heads and shut their eyes until that word has been erased." She put her head down. We all did the same. I heard her counting, "one, two, three." For a long moment there was more silence. Then there it was, the soft sound of small feet scurrying to the board, the sound of hasty activity, of footsteps hurrying back again to an anonymous seat. After a few seconds we looked up, blinking. There, on the board beneath the first word, to all our horror, scrawled hastily but clearly, was a second word. This was the word of words. This was the word we had learned not from our parents, who never used it, but from older brothers, who used it all the time, as every possible part of speech. This word we now saw suspended before us in shocking splendor.
There are various accounts of what happened next in Room 210 on that spring day, accounts as remarkable for their variety as for their inaccuracy. One of these alleges that Miss Belcher left the room, did not come back, that we waited around for a while and then went home on our own. That did not happen. Another has it that Miss Belcher, in her distress, was struck speechless, that she tried to lecture us, but couldn't, that she finally sent us home early. That did not happen either. But the most extraordinary of these accounts tells how, after erasing the board, Miss Belcher flew into a screaming rage, using, in addition to the two words just erased, numerous others, not all of which were known to ten-year-old ears. Things got so out of control, as this story has it, that Dora Fritsma and Beatrice Canti, who sat closest to the door, darted out of the room, down the hall and down the north stairway to fetch Miss Flannigan, the principal. I should add that this absurd narrative originated in the seventh grade, a class known for a patented mixture of hyperbole and wishful thinking.
Compared with these stories, these fictions, what really happened later that afternoon was really quite unremarkable. It is true that the board was erased -- and quickly. There was, it is also true, some considerable awkwardness. But soon, guided by the distracted but determined Miss Belcher, we turned to the usual afternoon toil. I recall turning to the words in my spelling list, trying to work "pneumonia" into my system without adding a syllable. Finally the bell rang. We went home. That was all.
And yet that was not all. By the next day the word had spread throughout Crefnole. Ours was the class that had written the words on the board -- in Room 210. We were the envy of all. Even the seventh graders allowed us a certain grudging admiration. The events of the previous afternoon, the two words written on the board, had made us famous, as famous at Crefnole as the football team was at the high school. We had come through a harrowing ordeal, come through it together. Those two words expressed a bond, a special covenant among us. Even later, in sixth grade, in seventh, and in eighth, those words served to dissolve disputes. Fistfights usually ended before they began. Someone would recall the class covenant; the combatants would greet each other with the two words, would laugh, shake hands, and part. Years later, in Balonby High School, those Crefnole classmates would greet each other in the spacious corridors with the two words of the covenant, and then would chuckle with soft maturity. At Balonby this became known as the "Crefnole Salute." I have lost touch with my fifth-grade classmates, but I have no doubt that when they meet at high-school reunions they still greet each other with the "Crefnole Salute."
Who was "the phantom" who wrote those words on the board in Room 210? This question, while hardly irrelevant, became less important as the legend of those two words took on a significance of its own. There were nevertheless volunteers for the deed. Before the end of that spring, three fifth graders, perhaps bragging, perhaps jesting, claimed responsibility for the words. A fourth claimed that he had written the second word but not the first. Two others, bragging on a more modest scale, claimed they had peeked while we had our heads down. One of the peekers claimed that Miss Belcher had peeked too, and that that was why I had repeated fifth grade. But that is another story.