In the first half of the 1960s, I went to Rosa E. True public school in Portland, Maine, from kindergarten through its highest level – the 4th grade.  If you were to try and find it now, you won’t.  That solid brick school building layered inside with hardwood floors was re-purposed decades ago.

Transitioning from 2nd to 3rd grade was uncomfortable for me.  I went from kindly Mrs. Shortland to a very strict Miss Burke.  Miss Burke was old old.  But she was sharp as a tack and did not suffer fools like Doug Bari lightly.  She wore her silver-white hair perfectly quaffed in a modified beehive and she dressed to the nines, always sporting the perfect earrings, usually set off by a necklace and a broach.  She often dressed her slender frame in black which was a perfect canvas for her jewelry.  She knew how to wear her stuff.  And she had a Doug Bari face.  A glare fixed on scary.

Back then, it was rare to change classes in elementary school.  You were stuck with the same teacher all day, every day, for all your subjects.  Mrs. Shortland had been a motherly type who wooed with her calm, but Miss Burke taught a different way.  Tightly wrapped Miss Burke ruled with an iron fist.  No prisoners.  Especially no prisoners named Doug Bari.  During my first 30 minutes in her classroom, I managed to set her off.

After roll call, she stood up and walked to the blackboard.  She grabbed a virgin piece of chalk from the blackboard tray and began writing cursive sentences in practiced penmanship.  She barked instructions without looking back at us as she wrote.

“No more printing!  In my class, we write everything in cursive!  Copy these sentences exactly as I have written them!”

I shot up my hand and called out, “Miss Burke, I don’t know how to write in cursive.”

She stopped writing long enough to angle her head back at me.  “That’s why we’re doing it now!”

No doubt she was cutting me with her eyes.  Wishing I had never said anything to start with, I slowly pulled my hand down.

Before she returned to writing sentences on the blackboard, she punctuated her distaste for me by adding, “And don’t you ever speak out of turn in my class again.  Just because you put your hand up doesn’t give you the right to speak.  You will wait to be addressed.  Am I clear?”

Oh, yeah.  Very clear.  At that moment in time.  But apparently not clear enough because on more than one occasion, my big fat mouth got me into trouble.  Many of my report cards all the way up through high school had special additional comments.

“Talks too much in class.”

Trouble, including talking too much in class, was rewarded with corporal punishment, mostly in the form of crippling your hands.  I found myself called to the front of the class in front of Miss Burke’s massive wooden desk more than once.

She’d instruct you to hold your hands out in front of you.

On a good day, it was palms up, but if my verbal interjections had really irked her, we’d go palms down.  Feeling her thick wood ruler rap the tops of your knuckles made an impression.  Usually she stopped at 3 whacks per hand.

And you dare not cry out.  One, because the other boys would laugh at you during recess.  Two, it was better than being sent to the principal’s office to get the strap.  I never got to the pulling my pants down for the principal part, but I knew kids that did.

Mr. Johnson was the 4th grade teacher, but he also served as principal and head disciplinarian.  When Mr. Johnson applied the strap to naked buttocks, he left the office door open so the wailing ricocheted down the halls.  There was never a boy – and it was always boys that caused trouble – that didn’t break.  Their cries were an echoed warning to others.

And in those days, they might send a note to your parents detailing your infraction and what punishment had been administered.  Parents I grew up around were not adverse to piling on with a secondary physical assault – payback for having embarrassed their parenting skills.  And woe unto you if you even thought about not delivering the dreaded note from the teacher.  Parents never wanted to get a note from the teacher.  But you didn’t dare think about not delivering the note.  That spelled future doom.

I would end up in Mr. Johnson’s 4th grade class, but first I had to get through the 3rd grade with Miss Burke.

Miss Burke was a smoker.  A frequent smoker.  After wrapping up a subject, she liked to take her pack of cigarettes and her lighter out of her top desk drawer and step out to the teacher’s lounge.  For the 10 minutes she’d be out of the classroom, she appointed a 3rd grader to sit at her desk and log any student’s name who dared to utter a sound during her absence.

Loretta.

Loretta was serious about being Miss Burke’s surrogate.

If you said one word out loud with Miss Burke out of the room, Loretta wrote your name down.

And that’s when you got the ruler on your upturned palms.

The second time I couldn’t stop my chaotic mind from blurting something out loud, I begged Loretta not to write my name down.  Not only did she write my name down, she underlined it and told Miss Burke on her return that I had refused to stop talking.

That’s palms down stuff.

My underdeveloped mind hated Loretta.  Teacher’s pet.  That’s what I saw.

Once I realized I would get no quarter from Loretta, I started self-stifling.  I wasn’t always successful, but the sting of Miss Burke’s wooden wrath kept me in check more than I wanted to be.

Loretta’s dour face followed me into 4th grade, leaving Miss Burke, to be schooled by Mr. Johnson, wielder of the strap.  Mr. Johnson wasn’t a smoker, so he had less occasion to leave the room, but when he did, we all stayed quiet.  Nobody wanted to risk him returning to find someone who talks too much in class.  He had the authority to bypass the ruler and go straight for the belt.

I liked Mr. Johnson.  He seemed fair.  And he seemed to encourage us.  He encouraged me to be a Junior Fire Marshal.  And he got me to volunteer to be a safety crossing guard.  Not everybody got to be a safety crossing guard.  You wore a 3-inch-wide white canvas belt that buckled in the front over your clothes.  Attached to the belt was a matching sash bearing a prominent silver badge.  It was like being a policeman, and when you were at the early cops and robbers stage, nothing was cooler.

Rosa E. True school did not have a cafeteria.  Nor was there bus service.  Elementary school kids were expected to walk to school and back home, and everyone walked home for lunch.  Most kids I knew walked to and from school unaccompanied.  Rain or shine.  Or snow.

Safety crossing guards provided an essential service on the city streets surrounding the block our school was situated on.  During periods of kid movement, the guards provided protection so children wouldn’t get run over.  8 and 9-year-old guards held hands and faced oncoming city traffic, forming a wall blocking cars from entering crosswalks while kids crossed the street.  With no adult supervision.

We’d wait on the corner for enough kids to gather, and then we’d step out into the street.  The first guard into the crosswalk held up their hand and all cars stopped.  Immediately.  Without question.  No pissed off drivers.  It was just expected that safety crossing guards and motorists alike would behave responsibly.  I loved the power of being the first guard to enter the crosswalk and hold up my hand.  I always wanted to be that guy.  I liked having motorists under my command.  It seemed to me as a 9-year-old that that was all the power I had.

Like I said, I got along fine with Mr. Johnson.  And my crazy mother loved him.  Probably because he seemed like a real man.  Tall, broad-shouldered.  Full head of dark hair perfectly groomed and held into place with Brylcreem.  And he wore suits.  My mother was gaga over this guy.  And I guess I was, too.  He was the father figure I so longed for.

Several times during the week, the class had to man the blackboards that went wall-to-wall in an L-shape around one half of the classroom.  We lined up shoulder-to-shoulder and wrote out math problems.  Geography stuff.  English grammar and spelling.  And Mr. Johnson had strict instructions about participation in these exercises.  You had to face the blackboard and not look at your neighbor.  Mr. Johnson would go from kid to kid and stand behind them, verbally correcting their mistakes.

All the students I knew had total respect for Mr. Johnson.  After all, he was the principal.  And he was the only staff member who was a man.  And he seemed so freaking nice.  Stern, but nice.

In the 4th grade, Loretta was not the star she’d been with Miss Burke.  Nor was Loretta allowed to supervise the class in Mr. Johnson’s absences from the room.  And I found some satisfaction in that.

I didn’t get my knuckles rapped in the 4th grade.  And I never got the strap – that was mostly reserved for a kid named Billy who was bad-ass.  Billy got it multiple times.  He was always the kid who punched some other kid in the nose during recess.  Billy had it coming.  But he was a cool character, I’ll give him that.  He had personality.  When we played kickball on the school playground, Billy kicked the ball so freaking hard, his shoe would come off and fly into the air.  And then he’d run the bases with only one shoe.

I admired the hell out of Billy, but not enough to emulate his actions.  I had no interest in getting the strap.

Loretta grew boobs in the fourth grade.  She matured early.  And it was noticeable among us 9-year-old boys.  You could see the outline of her bra underneath her blouses.  We certainly didn’t know what the hell to do with boobs, but we damn sure knew this was unusual.

Loretta was taunted.  Boys surrounded her on the playground at recess and chanted “Loretta wears a bra!”

And poor Loretta was mortified.  Cowed.  Crying at the unwanted abuse.

And at one point, and only one time, I joined into this mob mentality.  Because I was cowed myself.  Insecure.  Being shoved to participate.  I so desperately wanted to fit in.  And I wasn’t a big fan of Loretta.  So I joined the circle and taunted her.

“Loretta wears a bra!”

She dissolved into tears and ran away.

Well, Mr. Johnson got wind of this.  And he gathered all of us taunters in the cloakroom.  He sat down on our level and gave us a lecture about what pieces of shit we were.  And we were.  We had it coming.  We all thought we were going to get the strap, but it was worse than that.  He wanted to make sure we knew how disappointed he was in us.

By the end of his speech, all of us were in tears.  He had shamed us into realizing how wrong we were and how deeply this upset Loretta.  He had done the right thing.

And none of us ever made fun of Loretta again.

In the 5th grade, we all transitioned blocks away to Butler elementary school that taught 5th and 6th.

Loretta followed me to Butler.  But she was different in the 5th grade.  She wasn’t just seriously dour.  She was beaten down.  Unable to hold her head up.

And then the grapevine started among the students.  Loretta’s father was the captain of a freighter and his ship had sunk during the summer months.  Her Dad went down with the ship.  My mother confirmed the story reading an article at home in the Portland Press Herald.

And all of a sudden, I felt bad for Loretta.  And for hating her.  And for the taunting.  She was paying dues I wasn’t.  And I was partly responsible for her mental anguish.  I’d been part of the mob.

I never apologized to Loretta.  I wish that I could.

Rosa E. True, where I first met Loretta, became a public school in 1844, and closed in 1972.  When it was shut down to make way for public housing, it held the distinction of having the longest continuous run as a public school in the entire country.

One of my last memories of 4th grade came at the end of the school year.  There was a girl named Carla.  Carla was cute as all get-out and she was that kid that always seemed to be a little more in tune than the rest of us.  She had a twinkle in her eye that spoke volumes.

I remember us standing out on the playground at recess and she started talking about Mr. Johnson.  Her tone was a mix of early worldliness and curiosity.

“Have you ever noticed than when we’re all facing the blackboard and Mr. Johnson comes behind us, that he presses against our backs and rubs himself against us?”

A dim light bulb flickered over my head.  It didn’t come on, it just flickered.

I had to agree with Carla.  “Yeah, I guess that’s true.”

She smiled.  “Don’t you think that’s weird?”

All of us in the 4th grade knew he did that.  But we never put two and two together.  People didn’t talk about stuff like that back then.

It didn’t occur to me that Mr. Johnson meant us harm.

Just like I didn’t think taunting Loretta was that harmful until Mr. Johnson cornered us boys in the cloakroom.  Sometimes I think that with the exception of me talking too much in class, maybe Loretta thought I was one of the good ones.  That I was different than the other boys who circled her on the playground.  Until that day I gave in and taunted her too.

In later life, I think you’re sometimes forced to try and see the good and the bad in people.  And it’s a pretty dicey line sometimes.

But one thing I know for sure was Loretta didn’t deserve what she got from us.  And from me, in particular.

And Mr. Johnson was a pedophile.

Even though he seemed like a nice guy to me at the time.