My Quirky Teacher

Since March is International Women’s month, I’ve been reflecting about women who made a difference in my life. A handful come to mind, which may be due to some women’s reluctance to mentor other women. If they’ve broken the glass ceiling, they revel at being the exception, not the rule. In contrast, most teachers strive to make a difference in the lives of each of their students. They cajole, encourage, tutor, counsel–in short, they do much more than pontificate from the podium. They’re not the sage on the stage, but the guide on the side.

Then there are teachers like my fifth grade one, Miss Peddlar, who was odd, peculiar, and prone to outrageous behavior. She would have been fired within a week in today’s public schools. Yet, Miss Peddlar changed my life.

She was a tall, big-boned woman, slathered with make-up and rouge; her hair was some rendition of a French twist. She’d pull into the parking lot in a humongous Cadillac, donned in very fashionable attire. Our glimpse of her suits or dresses was short-lived; for once we were in our assigned seats, busily at work on a writing assignment, she went out in the hallway, took off her dress/suit, and put on an oriental silk robe. At 9:30 A.M., she’d send two of us girls to the home ec room to make her breakfast–two slices of toast and butter, a half of grapefruit, and a cup of coffee. We’d return to our classroom and serve her. At 10:00 A.M., Miss Peddlar turned on her radio and listened to Arthur Godfrey, while she ate. No one was allowed to talk, nor ask questions during the radio show.

Every other Friday, she’s select two girls to take her paycheck to the bank for deposit. The bank was four blocks from the school on a four-lane highway. We surreptitiously took orders from the rest of the class, and we’d stop at the store to buy fireballs and licorice to distribute on our return.

Obviously, both of these behaviors would have gotten her fired, but she had a wicked temper too. She called me to her desk once, while grading my paper: “Suzanne, I can’t read this!” She tore up my paper and tossed it in the wastebasket. “When you learn to write legibly, I’ll grade it.”

Once she lined up all the boys in front of the room and swatted each of their behinds for flipping the bird behind her back. (Not that we knew what it meant–just that it was bad.) On several occasions when she was mad, she threw two large flower pots out the open windows of our second-story classroom. Then, she sent two boys outside to clean up the mess.

Surprisingly, we didn’t live in fear of Miss Peddlar, we just thought she was odd. None of our parents ever complained about her outrageous antics. She improved all of our handwriting and spelling skills. We knew all of the state capitals, and we memorized one poem each week from When the Frost Is on the Pumpkin, to Barbara Fritchie, to The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Every Friday, each student had to recite the assigned poem–some I recall over 60 years later! She played the piano and taught us patriotic, holiday, and even religious songs, and she taught us how to march in order during our singing.

Years later, I learned Oma Peddlar was Sarah Smith, a married woman who drove 120 miles round trip to school each day. She created her single persona because at the start of her career, women teachers were forbidden to be married. What a character!

I’m forever indebted to Miss Peddlar, who taught me to memorize, which has proved invaluable in both my personal life and professional career. However, my handwriting is still a work in progress.

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