Open Letter to a Quiet Hypocrite
For the purposes of this open letter, the subject will be referred to as “Poffenbarger.” -T.U.
I would have used your first name so as to at last be on equal footing with you. Yet I don’t want to seem as though I’m familiar or comfortable with you, even now. In fact, you don’t even deserve the “Mrs”. You were unworthy of the respect I was forced to show you in fourth grade. Wherever you are today I’m confident I’d still find you unworthy of courtesy or respect. You are beneath me, and indeed beneath decent people as a whole, as far as I am concerned. So Poffenbarger it is. Rude, but nothing like how you treated me.
My entire life I’ve had unusual perceptions of the world around me. When I was a child those perceptions combined with a near adult-level sophistication in certain settings. I was simply reacting and speaking and interpreting life from the only place I could and can-my own. It wasn’t until much later I realized what an outlier I was as a child. Until then, I assumed everyone could see what I saw in the universe.
This made for some difficult situations. While a luckier person in such a situation would have been mentored into success, I was more often than not teased, misunderstood, dismissed or ignored, sometimes all of the above by the same people. Sadly, tragically, this included some teachers over the years. With no intention, I impressed if not amazed some of the actual adults in my life. Others were intimidated by me because they didn’t know how to deal with a student that was so ahead in some areas. (Never mind that I was so behind in other areas.)
Other teachers were not even aware I was different in some way, and just went about their business. And a few teachers and other adults found it somehow fascinating or entertaining to be around such a child as I. I could be wrong of course, but looking back I think I was a curiosity to several teachers. A dancing bear, a toy with self-awareness to be explored on occasion and set aside when boredom set in or more challenging levels of intellectual engagement were required. No investment or mentorship followed. Very little positive followed, in fact. I can’t hold you responsible for how other teachers treated me, but you probably fell into this last category. At least at first. However you eventually morphed into your own category; you were something worse.
I concede that both then and now certain things bother me that don’t bother other people due to my sometimes sensitive nature. Yet exactly zero of your actions fall into that category, and you will receive no benefit of any doubt from me.
You see, as part of those unusual perspectives and levels of thinking, a kernel of my consciousness has remained, in essence, the same from my earliest days. At the true center of my being there is a place that the fourth grade version of myself would recognize quite easily. A nine year old Ty Unglebower could walk right into the spiritual and mental sanctum sanctorum of the grown man that now writes this post and feel at home. The walls may have been painted once or twice, and a few new chairs brought in, but believe it or not the child could get around in there. I assure you it is a testament to how mature the nine year old was, and not how undeveloped I am today.
I was not, I repeat, not a normal nine year old. But you already knew that, didn’t you?
Regardless, I was nine. Being a child is being a child and that must be considered by adults who interact with them. The things you did and did not do to me were wrong. They are wrong, and now that you have no power over me it’s time you hear from me about them.
I’m aware of the hellish possibilities of repressed memories. Nonetheless, I truly do not believe you attempted to be sexual with me. My memory is a keen one and I have not suffered most of the other warning signs of having been a child victim of such things. So I’ve concluded I was not. But you did victimize me nonetheless, and I feel confident that I was affected by it for years.
You knew, everyone knew, what sort of relentless bullying I suffered in school at that time. Now I didn’t realize back then that being intelligent made me an even bigger target for such people; I thought I was supposed to be as smart as possible in order to do good at school. But you and all of the other teachers that did nothing about it in that tiny school had to be aware of what a target I had become. I had no true friends and had only the teachers who were supposed to protect me. But instead of finding a way to do your job and keep me safe from any of that, you perpetuated the problem in any number of ways. The worst way was the little private talks you’d always make me have with you.
After almost every gym class there for a while,(during which I would perform poorly) you’d single me out, sit me down, and say such things as, “I’m here for you,” or “I want to see you have more fun” as you’d put your hand on my shoulder. Then you’d offer up that painted-on Romper Room smile you’d use in front of everyone when you were pretending to be cheerful and fun loving. Except during our talks you’d do it four inches from my face as we sat together on a park bench, and it took on quite a different power.
The other kids may not have heard what you were saying during these little mostly one-way chats of which you were so fond, but they could see I was still sitting with you when they went back to change their clothes. And they could see I would come into the next class late with you so you could let the other teacher know where I had been.
It also did not go unnoticed when I was a “special helper” for jobs I had no skill or desire to help you with; you knew from gym class I was awkward and not at all athletic, why have me carry a gym bag twice my size? Were you hoping you could mock me later and curry favor with other students? I’ll get back to that…
It was not unnoticed when you would feed me questions in my ear during field trips to ask our guides…questions I didn’t care about in the first place but would ask anyway because a teacher had told me to do so.
And I can only hope nobody ever knew that one day after yet another one of our (mercifully) non-sexual but obligatory uncomfortable chats after class, you smiled and whispered “I love you, okay?”
Remember that kernel of adulthood I mentioned I’ve always had? It knew even then that something didn’t fit with all of this. Maybe the rest of my nine year old self didn’t process everything around me, and would ask the Park Ranger on the field trip whatever you wanted me to ask him, but that kernel within knew you didn’t love me. At least he knew that if you did, you shouldn’t be saying it. Though some part of me thought I should say it in return to be nice, both that kernel and my nine year old self knew full and damn well I did not love you, so I didn’t say it back. I opted for “okay,” instead.
You might be a mere footnote instead of the subject of this letter had it all ended there. It may have just been a little bit awkward and icky all these years later if it was just the pink heart stickers, songs about sunshine and hands on my shoulder. I could have maybe written that off as unchecked and inappropriate enthusiasm for an unusual student that crossed your path. Everything but the “I love you,” might have been left in the past as I matured, wrong though it all may have been. I say, maybe. But it was your shameless public behavior clashing with such terrible consistency against the “softer” private moments that we shared that angers and disgusts me today, and always will.
What, were you with your tiny mind and unstable emotions angry because an otherwise precocious nine year old boy never told you, “I love you too”? The meaner things did seem to increase after the “I love you” meeting, so I have never been able to dismiss this horrifying possibility.
Or maybe you suffered pathetic levels of insecurity and arrested development and just had to look “cool” when the older students (many of which were my bullies) were watching you. Maybe you were and are simply a psychopath or narcissist. I don’t know the reasons for the dichotomy and I don’t give a shit. I only know the darker side was no more acceptable than the “I love you” side, particularly for a person in authority over children.
You see, Poffenbarger, all the manufactured cartoon cheerfulness in the world cannot hide a shallow heart such as your own. At least it didn’t hide it from me; I knew there was a glaring difference between the two versions of yourself. I knew what a teacher should and should not do, and maybe you knew I knew all of that. Maybe that’s why you treated me the way you did. Maybe a part of you cowered in the presence of a nine year old that knew things and wouldn’t love you.
I knew that as a teacher you don’t laugh from across the room with the eighth graders at something I have said or done, and insult my intelligence by saying later it was about “something else” while casting an obvious smile over your shoulder to said eighth graders. I knew a teacher doesn’t just tell me to “toughen up” and not advise me further when you I was bullied. A teacher does not snap at recess, “If that’s how you want to be, never mind,” when I respectfully try to deflect your requests to come help you fly a kite. Nor does a teacher tell jokes about slamming babies into the pavement in front of a class of mixed ages…an image that stuck in the sensitive child part of my mind for years afterward. Truth be told I still can’t think of that joke without a slight grimace.
You know what else a teacher doesn’t do? A teacher does not have an introduction to trigonometry class consist of a mix of all the grades, I dare say. I don’t even think the vast majority of fourth graders have any business attempting trig in the first place, though I’ll defer to educational professionals on that one. But I don’t have to consult anyone when I say how morally repugnant it is for a teacher to huff every time I would ask a question about what we were doing until finally blowing up and saying, “Ty, that’s the fifth question you’ve asked about this trig assignment today, and if you keep asking me questions I’m never going to get anything else done. Now, do you understand this material or not?”
I love you, okay?
Naturally, as always with the colder side of things you did this in front of the whole class. A class which of course contained some of my bullies. (Which you knew.) No surprise, I lied at that point and said that yes, I suddenly understood the trig assignment. Clinometers, Calculators, and Camels you called the assignment, and I doubt I’d be able to do it even today, but I lied to everyone under pressure and claimed I could do it at age nine.
All of these things illuminate just how heartless, corrupt and morally bankrupt you are. Yet the worst example of your failure as a teacher and as a human being came during the volleyball unit we had.
We used a beach ball, and we were practicing serves. In your typical and sickening, plastic fashion you laid out specific steps we were to follow in regards to different volleyball skills. (“You spread your hands wide, like there is just too much sunshine inside of you and you have to let it out!”) Then each student would take turns applying the supposed lesson.
When my turn to serve came, I didn’t do well. I hit it wide to the right and out of bounds. My height and my lack of athletic skill meant that such a result was likely.
So what did you do? How did my teacher, the one who sang of rainbows and swans, made me her little helper and told me she loved me when we were alone respond to my bad serve?
With a loud, “booo” and a thumbs down.
I was a child, you were my teacher and you booed me you vindictive, duplicitous bitch.
I love you, okay?
I got through the rest of the class trying not to let anyone know how humiliated I was. I talked and joked with my few so called friends for the remainder of the lesson, saying what I calculated to be Ty-type things so as to complete the facade of indifference, but feeling unattached to every word. I think that was one of my first performances, years before I did theatre. I was playing the uninjured Ty.
With great effort I simulated a casual demeanor that couldn’t have been further from how I was feeling. I pushed lighthearted words out of my dry mouth and into the threatening ether of an elementary school gym class. Through the heaviness of a clenched chest and by way of hot facial muscles practically ripping apart with concealed pain I said the things Ty would say when not in such distress. I don’t know if I succeeded, because anyone who would have noticed the pain would probably have not been worried about it anyway.
The boo would have been hurtful coming from any teacher, but especially from the one that walked around like she lived on Sesame Street, and whispered that she loved me. (Even though I never believed that you did.) You did that to me, Poffenbarger, and I have never forgotten it. Nor have I forgotten what came next.
When class was over I initiated a little private meeting myself this time, the first and only time I did so. We hadn’t been meeting quite so much anymore, (Could it be because I never said “I love you too”?) but the nine-year old was hurt and the kernel told me I had every right to address the situation in a polite manner after the other kids left.
“Mrs. Poffenbarger,” I said as the faux-nonchalance at last began to crack, “I don’t appreciate you booing me.”
Perhaps a nine year old has no real business talking in such a manner, but there I was being honest, vulnerable and dare I say it, brave in the only way I knew-with words.
I didn’t cry at school often, and I didn’t then, but I almost did. Even now I don’t like admitting that I almost cried, but am still amazed I didn’t.
“Oh give me a break! Reggie Jackson gets booed by thousands of people every single day. You think it bothers him?”
Being nine and me, I didn’t know who Reggie Jackson was at the time, but I concluded he was a professional ballplayer of some kind. I also concluded that I was not, and that it wasn’t a fair comparison at all. I don’t remember if I ever got to make that point though. Probably not, because before long you pulled a page out of your trigonometry class book of spells. I think you huffed and asked if I was “fine”, put a now much colder hand on my shoulder and sent me on my way to the changing room to be teased.
I love you, okay?
It’s a good thing I don’t have a yearbook from that year anymore, because if I had, I don’t know if I’d be able to sleep at night knowing that any facsimile of your face was in my home. Not that I would need it; your face still appears in the back channels of my mind at times. Whenever I hear of bullying, or the complicity of authority in same, I see you. When I hear that a child has been failed or worse manipulated by the adults in their life, I see your face. When I meet yet another empty shell of a human being that pays lips service to warmth by displaying cosmetic cheerfulness and love only to contract into the invertebrate filth they truly are the minute it becomes inconvenient to live up to the Candyland image they have constructed, I see your face,
But sometimes I see your face without any provocation, and those are the worst times. When that happens, I also see my classmates growing smaller in the distance as they make their way back to the schoolhouse. I once again wish I was traveling back with them, even though none of them stood up for me when I needed it. I feel the late Maryland spring on my skin, and see the breeze blowing your hair into your eyes as you pat the empty space on the park bench beside you. Once again I watch your gym sneakers on the sidewalk, wishing I could look at only them once you instructed, “look at me.”
I hear your voice…soft and upbeat to the point of song, and yet still revealing both a slight threat and a complete emptiness that even an unusual nine year old should never have to detect from his teacher. I note how your register lowers and your head tilts to the left as you once again utter the words that echo in the hallow, dark chambers of memory to which I have tried to consign you:
“I love you, okay?”
And when this happens? When I’m transported like Scrooge into the middle of a vivid, three-dimensional recreation of a moment in my past best left unthought of? I want only to spit in that smiling face…to run from it and catch up to the rest of the class. To seek you out in person today and tell you something in person that I almost never actually say to another person. I don’t know where you are, and it’s probably best, but what I can’t say to you in person I will say at the end of this open letter:
This post is part of the Open Letter Continuum.