Locked in the closet

Mount Pleasant, Texas, September 6, 1949: At the time of my matriculation into the first grade at East Ward Elementary (a squat rectangular building that could easily have passed for a penal institution), Miss Sims was already more than 60 years old and had been teaching there for 28 years. Born in Victorian times, she was the classic old maid school teacher, gray hair in a bun, stern countenance and malevolent attitude, who expected her students to color within the lines, behave impeccably and obey her demands instantly.

Me, Art & Nancy

Me, Art and Nancy

I arrived for my first day of school a shy, sensitive, self-conscious, scared, scrawny little kid who typically ingratiated himself to others to gain their approval and be included in their games. But there were so many new faces (20 or so), and Miss Sims’ foreboding manner didn’t raise my comfort level at all.

Holy cow, who are all of these kids? That old woman really looks mean. I don’t want to be here! I want to go home! Please, Mommy, take me home with you!

At the beginning of the school day, my Mom stayed in the fastidious little classroom for 20 or 30 minutes, as did some of the other mothers, mostly to help settle the nerves of us newcomers. She’d made me what was to become my customary lunch–a cheese sandwich on white bread wrapped in wax paper along with an apple–and placed it in a well-used brown paper bag with my name printed on it. When it was time for her to leave, Mom handed the bag to me and, with a light kiss and a hug, was gone.

When lunch time rolled around, we began lining up to march single file to the cafeteria, but I couldn’t find my lunch anywhere. I was frightened, and I wept quietly. I was afraid I’d have nothing to eat and that the other kids would mock me. Treated like a charity case, I was given a school lunch, unfamiliar stuff that I tentatively picked at amidst the boisterous throng.

Upon arriving back in the classroom, one of my fellow students said, “There’s his lunch under his desk. He was crying about nothing.”

They’re going to think I’m a sissy. They’re not going to like me. They’re not going to want to play with me. I’ve got to run. I’ve got to hide. I’ve got to get out of here!

After that I settled in for the long haul, determined to make the best of a situation that sucked. I endeavored to behave and live up to Miss Sims’ perplexing expectations and pernickety directives, though frequently I didn’t.

One day we were given a sheet of paper with a black and white outline of a nature scene, and we were instructed to color the scene, not only within the lines, but in the prescribed colors as well. Well, I was coloring along using all of the crayons in my trusty Crayola eight-pack, exceedingly¬† happy with my creation, when Miss Sims walked by and spotted my handiwork. “Bruce, you’re not using the right colors!” My heart sank; I slumped into my desk chair, embarrassed and ashamed.

I must be stupid. I’ve really messed up. I can’t draw at all. I’m going to be an outcast. I’ll never get it right.

Then there was the time that in front of the class I was made to hug and kiss with another boy in order to reconcile after a playground altercation. But that might have been the second grade. Humiliating nonetheless.

The piece de resistance during my first year of school came on a rainy winter day when we were forced to have recess in our classroom instead of on the playground as usual. Two groups of boys were each building towers out of blocks, and our endeavors quickly turned into a competition to build the highest tower. We were neck and neck, with only one box of yet-unused blocks remaining. I raced for that box as did Jimmy from the other team. As we hurried toward the bookcase where the box of blocks sat, we bumped into each other, inadvertently knocking over a potted plant that was sitting near the object of our desire. The pot fell, it broke; soil and plant spilled onto the floor.

Oh, my gosh, I’ve really messed up now. She’s going to kill me. It’s all over.

Ms. Sims was furious. She grabbed me and Jimmy and dragged us to the principal’s office. Once there, she opened a closet door and shoved us inside. “Let this be a lesson to you,” she called as she slammed the door shut.

So there we were in a tiny closet, no light, just me and Jimmy and lots of school supplies. Jimmy started to weep, and I tried to console him: “At least we aren’t in there with that old biddy anymore.” But it was to no avail.

I’m really scared! But we didn’t get a paddling from the principal. I’ll be a good boy from now own, I promise! Just let me out of here.

After what seemed an interminable amount of time (probably 15 or 20 minutes), we were released from our captivity and returned to the classroom, heads hanging low from the shame of our transgressions, or at least the shame of getting caught.

I made it through the rest of the year relatively unscathed . . . until Mom invited my whole first grade class to my birthday party in April. Really ill at ease at being the center of attention, I let one kid tease me till I cried. Then there were the gifts and ice cream and cake which made up for all of the hullabaloo . . . well, almost.

Looking back at my experiences in the first grade, it’s no wonder that I pretty much thought school sucked–from my year with Miss Sims onward. The die had been cast. For the next 11 years, more often than not, I found myself ping ponging between total boredom (doing my best to obey and sit quietly at my desk while the teacher droned on and on about some inane topic that had no relevance to my life) to dreary dread (trying to control a pervasive fear that I would finally be severely punished for my persistent insubordination or one of my numerous juvenile pranks).

Nonetheless, I doubt that Miss Sims was very different from other elementary school teachers at the time, perhaps some even now. It’s possible that her sternness and primness were merely a result of the culture of the times and the expectations of those around her. Here 60-some-odd years later, I wonder about her hopes and dreams and how fulfilling she found her life and her chosen profession in small-town Texas.

The 1940 census shows that Miss Annie Sims lived with 31-year-old Lois Couch, who is listed as Annie’s partner. Did Miss Sims have aspirations that were thwarted because of her sex or, perhaps her sexual orientation? Likely I will never know. From my Google search, I do know that she taught at East Ward Elementary for 36 years–from 1921 to 1957. Though if I’d been on the Titus County School Board, I doubt that I would have voted in the affirmative, upon her retirement, the school was renamed in her honor–Annie Sims Elementary. Miss Sims died on October 9, 1971 and was buried at Bridges Chapel Cemetery in Mount Pleasant.

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  • Larry McAllister

    Bruce,
    I don’t read your blogs in any particular frequency. Just finished your relocollection of first grade at Sims elementary. Being of the same generation, I could relate to your experience. But I was most pleased with your focus on Ms. Sims and what were her dreams for herself. Thanks for informing us of her and her impact. 36 years!

    • Bruce Mulkey

      Thanks, Larry. Glad you enjoyed the piece. I really had to dig back into my memory bank for this one!

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