Her name elicited fear. Dread. Angst. Trembling. Sixth graders in the elementary schools that fed into Jackson Junior High knew the name. We had heard the stories, coming from the mouths of older siblings, from friends in the church youth group, from the older kids at the neighborhood pool that summer, passed down through the communication networks of Mid-Ohio Valley pre-pubescents. Fear had a name. That name was Wilma Acree.
Sixth graders knew that next year was the Big Year, the jump from the warm cocoon of elementary school, where we reigned supreme in all our coolness, to Junior High School. Bottom of the totem pole. Kids, more than children. And we knew that the jump meant new teachers, harder classes, confusing math, bewildering science, and, for those of us unfortunate enough to draw the proverbial short straw, English with Mrs. Acree.
I don’t remember the mechanics of how I found out. I seem to remember we learned who our teachers would be long before classes started that Fall. I had heard that Junior High was fun in lots of ways. But that was for those who were lucky enough to get the nice English teacher. When I found out I was going to be in Mrs. Acree’s class, I got sympathetic looks from other students, pats on the back, “Hang in there”s. This could get rough.
Junior High was, in fact, quite fun. I liked the school, my classmates, my teachers. The gifted classes were down this dark hall, tucked away in a little wing that was like our private area. I played drums in the band. The drummers got to goof off a lot, and it felt like a little fraternity. Teachers were surprisingly cool, talked to us like adults, almost.
But then there was English. Upstairs, in the back wing of the school, the last door on the right. Mrs. Acree’s class was all business. Desks were arranged perfectly in a grid. The walls were barren of any fun bulletin boards. This was a place for learning, not for fun. We were seated alphabetically. Role was called. And this short old woman (I mean, she was probably at least 40) with a screechy pinched voice would patrol up and down the aisles between our desks, her heels clicking with military precision.
Our text book was a small, hard-backed white grammar book. We would diagram sentences, and learn the parts of speech. There were no color pictures.
Assignments were given from a leering teacher, her short, fearsome frame leaning on her desk, one eyebrow raised, warning us of the consequences of not completing a homework assignment.
Chatter among students was called out. The guilty were made to stand. “Perhaps, Mr. Webster,” that voice would draw out, “You would like to share with us whatever is so important that you are interrupting Tina Weaver while she studies.” And I would look at my toes. It wasn’t important. Nothing is important. I am unimportant. I want to be invisible.
With me, she would get annoyed. But with others, I remember, she would get angry. I don’t remember the infractions, but I remember the results. Her eyes would burn with fire. Her face would contort and wrinkle. And I sensed… what was it… glee? Her look said, with an unsteady intensity, “How dare you! You wanna take me? You wanna challenge my authority? ‘Cause I’m itching for a fight. Bring it, and I will bring you down, make no mistake.” She ruled. We drooled.
I brought my lamentations home with me. Joyful, expectant parents wanted reports of educational delight. I had none. I had complaining. I had gnashing of teeth. I also had a silly father.
“Well, why don’t you just kill her with kindness?” my father said.
Cough. Sputtering. “WHAT? Dad, you don’t get it! You don’t know what you’re saying! This, this thing, this Mrs. Acree, she’s beyond kindness. I’d rather kiss a bat. Or scratch a shark behind the ears. Or not punch my brother. Pshaw! Kindness to Mrs. Acree? As if.”
“Well, you might be surprised,” said Dad, peering with bifocals over the Parkersburg News and Sentinel. And that was that.
As days turned to weeks, I realized my station in life was not improving. Daily, the beatings continued. Okay,we weren’t beaten, not literally. But she was beating us. She was ruling us. Something had to give.
I don’t remember where it started, but I figured I had nothing to lose. I think I was handing in a paper, and I thanked her for the assignment. “That was neat. I think I learned a lot. You’ve really helped me.”
I stared at her for a second. She appraised me. I braced myself. I saw that sadistic grin. I awaited a rebuke for my misplaced humor.
But then I realized something. Her smile, twisted, strange, and contorted though it was, was sincere. She raised an eyebrow. “Thank you, Mr. Webster. Please take your seat.”
And so our relationship began a subtle shift. I tried not to be over the top, but I started greeting her when I walked into class, and thanking her as I left. And then I noticed that she started smiling whenever I walked in. Over time, she became something different. She became, somehow, human. I think I was a surprise to her. I don’t think she had ever had a student show her kindness. And I found that as I did, the kindness was returned.
I paid my dues for it, too. A cute girl in class sneered at me once, calling me a teacher’s pet. That was a low blow. Big loss of cool points. I tried to speak to defend myself, but I knew that maybe she was right. And I had to be okay with it.
One day I left Mrs. Acree’s class, graduating to 8th grade English, just around the corner. I’d poke my head into her classroom between classes sometimes, give a friendly shout-out, shock the terrified 7th graders, confusing them immensely.
Junior High gave way to High School, then to college. I remember coming home for Christmas break. Public schools were in session for a few more days. I decided to make an unannounced visit to a former teacher.
Class was in session when I cracked open the door. Mrs. Acree was standing before her students, her face stern, that eyebrow, raised. They saw me before she did. One of them pointed to the door. She turned, and her face transformed. A broad smile, a wave of an arm welcoming me in. And then two arms opened. I was now significantly taller than she, and I bent down and hugged Wilma Acree, my friend. We visited briefly and I made a hasty exit, apologizing for interrupting, and promised to stop by later, between classes.Which I did.
Another teacher later told me that the students thought I was her son. And maybe to her, that’s kind of what she might have felt.
Then one day I returned to say hi to some teachers, and found out that, after 32 years of teaching, she’d retired. And I was sorry I missed her.
Maybe she really wasn’t ever that tough. Maybe she wasn’t that hard. Maybe it was an act. Or maybe my memory is flawed. And maybe my kindness didn’t matter to her. Maybe my kindness really just mattered to me.
My dad was right all along, and I learned an important lesson. Sometimes the hardest people are hard because no one has shown them kindness. Choosing kindness can change your lot in life. Choosing kindness can make the unbearable bearable. Choosing kindness can be transformational, for you and for those around you. I’m glad my dad encouraged me to risk kindness. And I think Wilma Acree is, too.