Safety First, Revenge Second

“Safety First, Revenge Second”, Who wrote it? Why? Why there? What does it bring to mind?

Written on the sidewalk a few blocks from the house we read, “Safety 1st, Revenge 2nd”. A poetic threat? I imagined hooligans busting out the chalk.

Safety 1st, Revenge 2nd
Safety 1st, Revenge 2nd

Revenge: Junior high girls exact their revenge on a the meanest math teacher in the world and somehow survive adolescence despite a daily dose of humiliation.

by Rebekah Smith

My eighth grade math teacher humiliated me daily. Borrowing a pencil drew ridicule no less than giving the wrong answer. In the first case you were a leech who expected others to prop you up. In the second, you were just stupid. I was badgered because I was a military brat who had arrived out of nowhere, shared no history with my peers and had no ties to ranching; my teacher was a cowboy. I was responsible for the B-52s that rumbled overhead, spooking the cattle and seizing the flow of milk. He said that I was ringleader, a word intended to make me shrink and it did. When I was dragged to the principal’s office for trying to be like the popular girls who held hands with boys in the hallway, my teacher predicted that I’d never graduate. I was on track to becoming a teen mom, he said. I probably wouldn’t amount to much.

And yet I was smarter than them, Mr. Portland and the co-conspirator principal, Ed Stitchie. (Stitchie had once punished three of my girlfriends and me by forcing us to stand in front of his desk on our toes and with our hands above our heads while he watched with his feet up on the desk. I was 32 before I realized this made him a creep.) As these goons stood over me, forcing me to dial home with confessions of my latest delinquencies, salivating in anticipation of my disgrace, I called the neighbor instead. Having asserted my depravity, I started to hang up when these clowns jumped up and demanded, “Tell him about the finger!”

“Oh, yeah”, I said. “I also gave my math teacher the finger.”

As soon as Portland turned his back on me on our way to the principal’s office, I flipped him off and as my dumb luck would have it, Stitchie swung around the corner just in time to make the bust. I described this to my dad’s stand-in on the other end of the line with a flatness that totally confused my teacher and the equally vile administrator. Why wasn’t I torn up? My parents must be horrible people, they speculated. Disengaged. Fine by me, I thought. My parents are horrible people. Or maybe Portland and his pal Stitchie were just stupid.

Compared to a classmate, a shaggy dirty blonde who sat behind me to my right, I didn’t have it so bad. Even as I routinely left Portlands’s class shaken enough to give my home ec teacher cause to inquire but never enough to give her a reason to press it, that kid got it worse. I don’t remember his name. But I can still hear Portland screeching it. I was Miss Smith and he was Mister Something. As if he were talking about a mathematical proof instead of a human being, the teacher explained that Mister Something was the sort who did this and the sort who believed that. In other words, he was trouble. A loser. Every day Mister Something had the guts to show up to class, Portland struck him down without provocation, well before the kid had a chance to straighten himself to see what he could see from a school desk that must seem tiny to him now, to him, a grown man. Boys don’t cry so unlike me, Mister Something didn’t. Sometimes I wonder whatever happened to him. And then I try to forget.

Retaliation against Portland was a group effort that took many forms. There was a chastising letter that was meticulously plucked out on Julie’s mother’s typewriter and signed “concerned parent”. We looked up every word in the dictionary as not to blow our cover as the adult who was created to protect us. Watching Portland react to the letter with agitation that briefly peeled back the thin shroud of authority he used to punish and demean, exposing him for a pathetic grown man who bullies children – watching the cracks surface with every second he surveyed the hallways in a desperate aim to nab the prick who had slipped the letter onto the podium from which he ruled – was worth whatever trouble that might come down. It was just too good.

We plastered “Wanted” posters all over the school. The hallways, of course. Bathrooms. Locker rooms. The rarely used elevators for which we needed a key. Check. Penetrating the teacher’s lounge with Julie’s spot-on caricature of Portland was a tasty conquest. Imagine his blockish head, that flattop, the unibrow and those black-rimmed glasses staring out from the center of the bulletin board at a bunch of teachers eating tuna sandwiches. The poster read: “Sees all. Hears all. Knows all.” Recalling it makes me laugh because, first of all, it was funny and in hindsight I realize it’s a big reason why I survived junior high.

There was also my favorite antic, something I would later appreciate as performance art. Before the first bell and after lunch, students would gather in the school’s lobby, the perfect setting to unwind an entire spool of thread. Weaving in and out of the crowd until a third of the student body was entangled in a giant invisible web would have been sufficient amusement. But Portland would see fit to grant us the hilarious image of him punching the air with the empty spool, shaking his fists, yelling… He was always yelling.

Twelve years later my niece was assigned to Portland’s class. Not wanting to make a stink before there was cause, my sister took my warnings with a grain of salt and didn’t request a transfer. She would learn the hard way: the man was a dangerous jerk. Portland would eventually tell my sister that her daughter was failing math because she was a girl. That could have been the end of this story, a satisfying verification of my reality as the man’s student. But it wasn’t.

When I was a young adult in my 20’s I worked at the English as a Second Language (ESL) Center, which was housed in the same school with Portland. On occasion I encountered him in the infamous teacher’s lounge and once on a bus a bunch of teachers chartered for a trip to Deadwood, South Dakota’s Vegas. I immediately won 50 dollars on a giant slot machine that towered over the casino. I gave a one dollar coin to a friend and then quit gambling for the rest of the night. It was on that trip that my eighth-grade English teacher told a dirty joke that began “What do men and linoleum have in common?”

I wondered if Portland remembered me. Did he know my face? Would it help if I cried? Mostly, I avoided him, which was easy to do but not always possible. There was the day I took my ESL students, little kids, to visit a seventh-grade classroom that had been decorated like the rain forest. The lights were turned down. A tape recorder played the sound of water and exotic birds. There were paper mache trees and flowers made of construction paper. It was nice. It was peaceful.

Just outside of the classroom door, the rain forest teacher and I could hear the screaming coming from the floor below. It was Portland. Some kid wasn’t going to amount to anything.

“He does this all of the time,” she told me, sort of shrugging her shoulders as if nothing could be done.

Believe me I know.

It had never occurred to me that anyone would have been standing within earshot when Portland was going after me. I imagine they’d cast a dirty look in Portland’s general direction and then quietly shut the classroom door, just like what we were doing now.

I might have been reassured had I turned to see a “Wanted” poster with Portland’s blockish head on it staring back at me from bathroom door.

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