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By Staff | Dec 11, 2015

There are 29 of us fourth-graders in the old black-and-white photo. I’m the skinny kid with the crooked glasses sitting on the floor at front and center.

The school photographers always put the smallest kids at the front of the firing squad.

Standing at the back of the group is our teacher, Mrs. Traver. My arch nemesis.

I truly don’t understand why I got into so much hot water during fourth grade. The first three years of my formal education were mostly trouble-free, with only the occasional reprimand for such things as leaving a tack on a chair or the accidental release of a pet frog during choir practice.

The sort of minor offenses that could happen to anybody.

Mrs. Traver brooked no such nonsense. She ruled her classroom with an iron fist that, for some reason, often landed on me.

The tiniest infraction would find me banished to the empty loneliness of the hallway. I spent so much time out in the hall, I wore grooves in the tile floor with my fidgeting feet.

I never knew what might invoke Mrs. Traver’s wrath.

For example, I helpfully tried to jumpstart a discussion about the laws of aerodynamics by floating a paper airplane. This effort to broaden our educational avenues landed me out in the hall.

I received similar treatment for shooting rubber bands as a way to demonstrate the basic tenets of ballistics.

One of the most onerous directives Mrs. Traver forced upon us was a daily health inspection.

First thing each morning, one of our fellow fourth-graders would go around the classroom and scrutinize each kid. We were asked if we had brushed our teeth and were required to lay our hands atop our desks so the inspector could check for dirty fingernails.

We were also required to have a packet of Kleenex on display.

I had to help with milking and chores every morning before school and there often wasn’t enough time to clean the cow manure from under my fingernails, so I was often given a demerit.

The pressures of fourth grade made me nervous as a mouse at a cat convention and I began to chew my fingernails.

When my fingernails became so short that it was impossible to have dirt under them, I was given demerits for chewing my fingernails.

I didn’t want to open my precious packet of Kleenex, so I just used my sleeve when the need arose. More demerits.

I began to develop a fear and loathing of fourth grade in particular and of school in general.

During class, I tried to make myself look smaller. I slid down on my chair until I was nearly on the floor, my rabbit heart pounding as I tried to blend in with my surroundings.

But Mrs. Traver’s eagle eye always managed to find me.

It recently came to my attention that Mrs. Traver had become a resident at the assisted living facility where my mother lives.

I decided to pay a visit on my erstwhile nemesis, not knowing what to expect or what I wanted.

Geraldine Traver sat in her recliner, a blanket pulled up to her shoulders.

She is no longer the commanding presence that towered over me; she’s frail, with arthritic hands and a whispery voice.

I introduced myself and told her that she had been my fourth-grade teacher.

“I don’t remember you,” she murmured. “That was so long ago.”

I showed her our fourth-grade class photo from 1966.

“Oh, my,” she exclaimed as she studied the picture, “Which one is you?”

I pointed me out. “No,” she said, “I don’t remember you. But I taught so many kids over the years.”

Good point. Take a couple of dozen kids per class times several dozen years of teaching and you get … well, math wasn’t my strongest suit, but that’s a lot of schoolchildren.

Feeling somewhat awkward, I decided to ask Mrs. Traver about her family.

“My husband has been gone for 16 years,” she replied. “We didn’t have any children. I have two nieces, but they both live far away.”

We chatted pleasantly for some minutes and it dawned on me that Mrs. Traver was just a fellow human being who had tried to do her best.

Maybe I had been a difficult kid. And maybe if I hadn’t sat in the hallway so often, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

With that in mind, I thanked Mrs. Traver for everything she had done.

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “And please stop by again.”

I said I that would. Although next time, I’m going to bring along a paper airplane. Just for old time’s sake.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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