Memories of Red Pen People

It was said that Ms Dungan dipped the end of her strap in vinegar so that it stung even more when she belted you across the palm of your hand. Mr. Smith called his strap the ‘Accelerator’ He had actually written the word Accelerator along the side of this friendless strip of leather. He called it the Accelerator because the very sight of it made students work faster. Yet, it was Ms Dungan’s strap that everyone talked about. It was a legend among straps. At one end it had a double layer of leather fastened by a metal pin. The extra layer of leather added extra sting when it made contact with tender young skin. That’s what her students reckoned anyway.

The students in Miss Dungan’s class never actually spied her dipping that dreaded leather strip in vinegar, but that didn’t stop the endless talk and the rumors. What everybody did know was that when Miss Dungan swung that leather strap it never failed to inflict immense pain on the victim. You could hear it whoosh through the air as it slammed down on an outstretched palm. Sometimes it came crashing down three times depending on Miss Dungan’s mood on that day. The rest of the class would sit in stunned silence, glad that it wasn’t them. Some cried, some whimpered, others just stood there with pain etched across their faces, determined not to give in and cry. It would take quite some time before the pain and the throbbing subsided and your hand felt normal again.

The victims of this foul punishment always turned out to be boys, for it was forbidden to strap the young ladies. What Miss Dungan did with the strap went by the name of corporal punishment, and at that time schools used it regularly to impose discipline. It was lawful to use a strap, or a cane to inflict pain on students who broke the rules and it was very easy to break rules.

When one entered Miss Dungan’s classroom you were left in little doubt that she was in total control. The desks were arranged in precise rows and every student had an assigned seat from which they were not allowed to move during class time. If you left your seat without permission you risked punishment, and punishment usually meant the strap. On occasions she would move to her own desk open the drawer and lift out the strap so that it was in clear view of the class. This was a sign to one and all that she was becoming twitchy.

Miss Dungan loved to stand at the front of the class on a raised wooden platform that extended across the entire width of the room. With her back to the chalkboard she controlled her troops like a mad general. Most of the time she prowled the length of the platform, carrying a wooden ruler precisely three feet in length. She frequently used this piece of wood to frighten inattentive or unsuspecting students. It never paid to look disinterested, or to day dream in Miss Dungan’s classroom. If you did, you stood an excellent a chance of being launched part way to the moon.

That ruler would come crashing down on the desktop with thunderous intent. The poor child receiving this thunderclap would either leap clear into the air, or instantly wet themselves. Some just quivered and shook, others burst into tears. Some just put their hands instinctively to their ears in preparation for possible repeat crashes.

Miss Dungan was not only the meanest teacher around, she was also by far the tallest woman we had ever set eyes on. When you looked up from your desk, which wasn’t all that often, she appeared to go on forever. Her legs were thick like tree trunks and she wore flat, tightly laced, sensible shoes. She only seemed to wear suits of heavy woolen material in muted shades of grey and brown. On top of this huge, body sat an enormous head. Her hair was a nothing sort of color, grey flecked, which she tied in a tight bun. This only served to make her face more fearsome-A face that looked like it was perpetually seeking out a bad smell. Her eyes alone could send messages that made the entire class continually nervous. In so many ways Ms Dungan was an unattractive package. Every day we got the clear impression that she hated being there –in that room- with us.

All through the day she hissed at the class sending shockwaves through her Grade 5 students. As she prowled the aisles between desks her fingers jabbed and poked any student who came under notice. It was a signal to work even harder. She grilled us on grammar rules and she drilled us on our times tables. She reduced us to quivering jelly when we couldn’t provide automatic responses to her quick fire questions. It was even worse if your answer just happened to be –heaven help you - wrong!
‘Wrong, wrong, wrong!’ she would bark. As if by some chance we had failed to realize our diabolical mistake. ‘When are you going to learn?’

By far the worst thing Miss Dungan did was the weekly writing lesson. Every Thursday afternoon she would announce ‘Get ready for composition.’ We would obediently take an exercise book labeled ‘Composition ‘from our desks and sit waiting silently for the weekly writing topic. Standing on the platform, Miss Dungan would draw herself up to her full height and announce, ‘Today, I want you to write a story called “Autobiography of an Ant” ‘

That was all the explanation we were given. No discussion, no questioning, no modeling –just the huge shadow of Miss Dungan towering over us as she prowled the room urging us to ‘Start writing!’
‘Hurry up lazy-bones. Get a move on! ‘was the only encouragement she offered.
We wrote in silence for the next twenty five minutes. When she slipped by your desk without bothering you, it was if a shark had glided past and you had been spared a chomping. The silence was occasionally punctured by Miss Dungan bellowing ‘That’s not how you write it, you foolish child. Don’t you remember anything I’ve taught you about subject and predicate?’ We would brace ourselves for the ruler slam that often followed such an outburst of displeasure.

At the end of our writing time Miss Dungan would bellow, ‘STOP WRITING NOW!’ -And every pen in the room would freeze. We would then pass our books to the front row desk and Ms Dungan would collect them. They would sit, piled high on her desk, – a monument to our unnatural pain and suffering.

Almost a week would pass before our composition books were given back to us. Opening them was a further dreaded moment in our miserable existence. Heart rates would quicken in anticipation of Miss Dungan’s appraisal of our writing efforts. We hated the red ink invasion of our work. We hated the comments in the margin that told how inadequately Miss Dungan believed we had performed, we hated the crossing out of our hastily attempted words, and we dreaded the mark out of ten circled at the bottom of the page for all the world to see. The saddest thing of all was that we had begun to hate writing. Many pages looked like blood had been spilt. Miss Dungan frequently pillaged the pages of our books with her rampaging red pen.

And so it continued throughout that year. Miss Dungan handed out the writing topics and we did our best to survive. One week she gave us the topic ‘My life as a Pen’ and I thought about Miss Dungan’s pen. -the much feared red one, and for a moment I figured I might write about it. Then I thought about my safety and how much my family might miss me. I eventually decided to write about an anonymous fountain pen that ran out of ink and gave up trying to write.

In the end we all survived that year with Miss Dungan, but I have never forgotten what she did to us. I was determined that if I ever became a teacher I would never treat my students the way she treated us in that grade five year. I would never approach writing like she did. I also determined that I would never use a red pen to make such scarring marks on my students work.

More than four decades later and more than thirty years spent as a teacher myself, have never changed my determination to be the antithesis of Miss Dungan when working in classrooms. I guess you could say that for me, Miss Dungan was an unforgettable teacher.

This is not a New York story for it happened in a time and a place far removed from the big apple. Yet it was my experience working as an Education Consultant in New York that dredged up this old school memory. I entered too many classrooms in that city where I encountered teachers who sent a slight shiver down my spine. Teachers, who like Miss Dungan all those years before gave the distinct impression that they didn’t care all that much for kids. They are the red pen people and they too leave their mark on young minds.


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