By Donald Tunnicliff Rice
I was saddened recently to read of David Baker’s death, but it did bring to mind many of the good times he and I had together as boys – particularly in the third grade. Our teacher that year I’m going to refer to as Miss X, and the reason for that will become clear.
Each class at Eldredge – first through seventh – was divided into two rooms with maybe 30 kids apiece. In the early grades we were under the tutelage of one teacher. I had Miss Waterman in the second and fourth grades with Miss X in between.
Miss X was quite young and new to teaching. There was no doubt she was relatively poor, because she apparently owned only two outfits. One was dark blue with white polka dots. The other was red with white polka dots. Each was composed of two parts, a blouse and a skirt. On some days she wore the red top with the blue bottom; on others, the blue top with the red bottom; and some days, of course, she wore all red or all blue.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who remembers those days to learn that Miss X was poor. I was told that for many years East Greenwich – being run as it was by the most tight-fisted bunch of Yankees you could find – paid the lowest average teachers’ salaries in the state. A young woman fresh out of college, probably R.I.C.E., and with not much income wouldn’t have had money to splurge on clothes.
She also wasn’t much of a teacher, at least when I had her. If you’re wondering why she even became a teacher, the answer’s plain enough. In those days boys went to college to become engineers, chemists, business executives, and so on. Girls went to college to go into nursing or teaching, and Miss X chose teaching.
She spent most of the day sitting at her desk and staring out the window after giving us busy work to keep us occupied. This left us basically unsupervised, and we took full advantage. The problem was that if you gave some of us an inch, we took a yard. Eventually our misbehavior would disturb her musings, and that caused her to become angry.
One day I got so loud and rambunctious that she tied me to my chair and put tape over my mouth. I realize you’re having a hard time believing that, but it’s absolutely true. How could she get away with such a thing? Because no one was going to tell on her. If I told my parents, my father would have said I had it coming and my mother would have been filled with shame. It wouldn’t have occurred to either of them to report the matter to Mr. Cole, who was the principal in those days. (And, besides, I saw Mr. Cole throw Freddy Wilding down the stairs one day.)
So, anyway, there I was bound and gagged, so to speak. David sat a few chairs behind me in the row to my left. I was able to turn my head far enough to see him and give a nod indicating he should come and help. At that age when David wasn’t being a boy he was either an American Indian or a wolf. On this day he was a wolf and came up the aisle on his hands and knees. I could hear him growling behind me as he undid the knot with his teeth. Once my hands were free I took the tape off my mouth, but I kept a low profile for the rest of the day. It wouldn’t have mattered. Miss X had already forgotten about me.
One of our busy-work assignments was to draw pictures. David was a pretty good artist and once drew a picture of a corral with a bunch of horses. “I’m going to call it the Hell Ranch,” he said. “How do you spell hell?” At 8 years old we both knew how to spell hell, but I told him I didn’t know and that he should ask Miss X. He considered the idea and walked to her desk. “How do you spell hell?” She barely glanced at him as she wrote the word on a piece of paper. Then she turned her full attention back to the window. We thought that was pretty funny.
One day David and I had done something particularly bothersome, and Miss X grabbed each of us by an ear and took us out into the hall. A common punishment was to stand in the hall for the remainder of a period, but she continued pulling our ears. It really hurt, and we both kicked out at her. She yelled and let go, at which point we ran to the boys’ room, thinking she probably wouldn’t follow us in there. It was the last period of the day, so we stayed there till the bell rang. The next day she had totally forgotten the incident.
Often after school David and I would go to his house. His family lived in the second-floor apartment at the northeast corner of Duke and Long. There was never anybody home. Both his parents worked, I guess, and his sister was with a babysitter. In those prepubescent days we were close to the same size and closely matched as wrestlers. We would tear up the apartment in ferocious matches.
On one occasion we found in a closet (or maybe in the attic) a late 1920s Gilbert lead soldier casting kit, complete with molds and an electric furnace. We had to try it, of course. This was really dangerous. In fact, such kits have been described as one of “the most wildly irresponsible toys” ever made. Fortunately we survived the afternoon unharmed and in a rare show of good sense decided never to use it again.
One day in the side yard we found a dead baby bird that had fallen from a nest. We were touched by this and decided to bury it, which we did. A few days later we found another and buried that one also. Now we had an official animal graveyard and decided we needed more dead animals. It took us a couple of weeks, but we finally found a dead cat that had been run over. Not wanting to touch it, we got a piece of wire that we tied around its tail and dragged it back to David’s yard. It too was interred. What next? A dead dog maybe? But as so often happens with young boys, we were soon distracted and went on to other things.
We were never quite so thick after the third grade. The last occasion on which I spent any time with David was a few days before he left for the Marines. It was the middle of the afternoon, and we were hanging out in the fire station. There were no other idlers, so we played a few games of chess. David was no good at it, but willing to give it a try.
And that was the end of that. Both of us had our own journeys to complete and off we went. Years later I met him just one more time while I was back in town for a visit. It was a short awkward encounter on Main Street, both of us realizing that those two little boys we used to be were long gone.
Donald Tunnicliff Rice grew up in East Greenwich. He is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. His latest book is “Who Made George Washington’s Uniform?”