Monday, December 24, 2007

~ loathsome mrs coyle

On one of our regular walks around the block, Polly, Tweety Bird and I encountered a young girl named Gabby. Gabby is nine, nearly four years older than Polly, yet despite the gap they have become fast friends. Gabby lives opposite the small playground of mulch and cracked plastic that you pass on the way down to the grey creek. And that’s where, a few years back, the two of them met.

Gabby loves to talk; within seconds we were up to date on the travails of her netball team, the likelihood of her getting a daschund for Christmas and any number of other girlish facts of importance. Gabby is a determined child and very bright; she’s also slightly fascinated by my partner Jenny, whom I think she may regard as terribly dark, exotic and libertarian.

I can’t recall quite how the subject was broached, but I asked Gabby to remind me where she was going to school…

- Oh? I responded. I went to Holy Family.

This was the next Catholic primary school up the road.

- I have a friend there. She’s in grade six, said Gabby.

- I only stayed till grade four.

- Why?

- I moved to another school.

- Why?

- There was a teacher there who… caused me suffering.

- What did she do?

- She singled me out. Picked on me. I was kind of a nerd, nervous, awkward, thick glasses …

Or perhaps Mrs Coyle just didn’t like the sound of the name Sejavka… There was a lot ethnic bias back then in suburban Australia. Perhaps, it was just because I didn’t have the resources to defend myself.

I wish I knew why this young woman took so much time out to torture me. The year before, she had much longer hair and had been known as Miss Ballantyne. Perhaps there was marital strife that fuelled her spite...

Let me describe some of her behaviour.

Once, I captured a grasshopper and was keeping it imprisoned in my palms with the purpose of presenting it to Mrs Coyle as a form of conciliation. I know it doesn’t make much sense, but I was just a kid.

Lunch hour was over and we were arranging ourselves on the white painted dots in the courtyard, when the grasshopper nipped me. I cried out and violently cast it away. Mrs Coyle came down on me like a flash. I recall trying to explain my intentions and failing. I recall her punishing me, but not how, only that it left me emotionally devastated.

During grade four I had a problem with my heels. A chronic soreness. It was diagnosed as tenosynovitis, then later as something else. I was forced to rest my feet and wasn’t allowed to play at lunchtimes like the other kids. I would either read or my mum would drive me home, where I would warm a chocolate biscuits in front of a blow heater and lick off the melted chocolate.

One lunchtime, returning before the rest of the class, I saw an empty bottle on the platform beneath the blackboard. A line of chalk radiated about foot out from its base. My immediate and reckless thought was that it had been left there by some children who had not bothered to clean it up.

Studiously, I threw the bottle in the bin and rubbed out the chalk line. When class resumed, Mrs Coyle’s first action was to question where the ‘sundial’ had disappeared to. Horrified, I owned up. I pleaded that I was ‘only trying to help’ – I recall the words distinctly, but they bore no weight with this pitiless woman. She took obvious pleasure in pointing out my stupidly to the room and provoking their laughter.

Perhaps that was what it was. She thought I was stupid and ought be punished for it.

I think it was about this time that I began taking a shower as soon as I got home and crying beneath the soothing hot water. My mother was worried, I know that … I don’t know what discussions went on between my parents, but ultimately the authority of the school seemed to take sway … My father, in mortal fear of Communists, would do nothing to aggravate the authorities, and my mother was simply inhibited

Then, on a particular morning, we stood together, said the morning prayer, and …

- Everyone sit. Except for Sam.

I was always very proud of my efforts at school, and actually believed I was to be singled out for some honour.

Mrs Coyle ordered me to the front of the class. I can easily recall the growing realisation and the mounting terror I felt on that journey from desk to platform

She commanded that I repeat the sign of the cross before the class, who in those times would have been at least forty strong.

I began to see the problem and took care to make the sign correctly, but I became flustered.

- No. Do it as you did it before.

I was never any good at the Sign of The Cross. I’d always get my shoulders confused with my forehead or breast or whatever. I obeyed her and must have got it wrong because once more she solicited a riot of laugher from the class. Again I was deeply humiliated.

Her next act was to abandon her pupils and lead me through every class in the school. She stood me on each platform and asked me to repeat my flawed gesture and be humiliated. Again and again. Forty laughing children a shot. As extreme as it sounds, it is the truth as I know it.

I cried as loudly as I could on the way home that afternoon, I cried so loudly because I knew no way to find respite from my abuse. I remember a man asking someone what was wrong with me, and feeling a faint sense of satisfaction …

I told my parents I would run away from home if they didn’t send me to another school. They believed me and acted accordingly.

I actually feel shocked writing this, it brings back some strong emotions. Gabby was shocked too.

- Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you report her?

- Kids weren’t allowed to stand up for themselves in those days, was all I could say.

Gabby - with her clear sense of right and wrong, and her determination - made me think of how far we’ve come with how we treat out children; we listen to them more, invest them with a strong sense of self, and an awareness of danger. It was a positive omen for Polly, I thought. If anyone like the evil Mrs Coyle ever happens upon her, I’d like to think she’d know how to defend herself.

- You know there’s a Mrs Coyle teaching at my school, said Gabby.

My mind ran ahead of itself. I have always wanted to seek revenge.

- I’ll ask her if she ever taught at Holy Family. I mean, it’s close by….

But too long ago, surely, I thought.

I carry with me the image those primary school teachers with their bright synthetic Sixties dresses and their long hair. They were young, probably in their early twenties. I recall my bewilderment when one of them leaned over, peered into my eyes and asked me – in complete seriousness – if I was wearing false eyelashes. Mrs Coyle was present too. In the corner of my memory, forcing a smile.

I’ve done the calculations. It happened thirty-nine years ago. Mrs Coyle could easily be the woman in her early sixties working as a librarian at Gabby’s school.

I have to ask myself what I will do, if it is her. It’s a moral question of quite some complexity. I don’t think she scarred me for life, in fact she may have made me stronger. But she did hurt me badly, cruelly, when I was too young to even be sure what she was doing was wrong.

If it does turn out to be her - and I will try to find out - I think I’ll write a letter, calling her out, demanding an apology. If for nothing else than to let her know that an adult now bears witness to her crimes.

And perhaps to find out why.

Polly, Tweety Bird and I finished our walk home.

Polly begins prep next year and Jenny has just finished acquiring her first uniform. We found her sewing a name patch onto the inside of her sun-hat. Jenny had found a forgotten roll of embroidered name patches reading ‘Sam Sejavka’ in the back of a cupboard - and with motherly thrift had just clipped off the Sam and begun using them afresh, after forty odd years of dust gathering. And species extinction. And climate change. The further sophistication of weapons and war. The conversion of greed from a vice into a virtue…

At least here, in this time and place, we’ve learnt to treat our children better.

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lily was here said...

Thats abominal Sam! Coyle like a rattlesnake. I hope her nastiness came back to bite her. I wonder if those kind of people ever think back on the past and the hurt they caused? And by the way, i love the name Sejavka.
Sue x

angel wings and hearts said...

unfortunately my daughter (now 22) was singled out by a teacher who seemed to be obsessed with her. it started when the said teacher was the co ordinator of the after school program. i had to pull my daughter out of the after school program and thought the problem would end there. how wrong i was. this woman then became a teacher at the school and began to isolate my daughter from her friends at play time. my daughter was 9 or 10 at the time. complaints were made to the principal but he lacked a spine. as if that wasn't enough the following year my daughter was placed in this womans class!!! well i won't go into it but the result was that i had to get the education department involved. i swear if i ever clap eyes on this person my mouth will suddenly go into overdrive. it makes me wonder what these schools are doing to our kids.


Sam Sejavka said...

But things, surely, have got to be better than what what they were .... Polly is starting school next year...

Ann O'Dyne said...

My blogpal Ben Locker at Scorn & Noise has written a BOOK about hating his school.

re "I have to ask myself what I will do, if it is her. "

get a roofing nail or a tech screw and find her car. place item at an angle wedged behind rear tyre ... everyday for a week.
drive her mad. no whales, but maybe some roadkill on the hood.

or just phone school, make appointment to see her, then tell her that in purgatory she will be chewed for all eternity by every child she ever frightened.

I have horror stories from primary school. The only one I dare tell is that Mrs Elizabeth Day spent all of my first year forcing me to write with my righthand, because I already knew how to write with my Left. Now I can't write at all.

A pox on all of 'em.

Sam Sejavka said...

Carl, the drummer in one of my old bands, same thing happened to him. It was a major effort putting pen to paper.

Ann O'Dyne said...

... and now!
here's something I know you'll really like

Jade said...

Did you ever find out if it was her?

It's unfortunate, but it still happens, maybe not in such obvious ways as happened to you, but it still does.

I'm terrified of sending my son, Max, to school for this very reason. He's grown up in a home filled with love and endless patience and I hate to think of some grumpy teacher shattering that with thoughtless and patronising words.

Sam Sejavka said...

I eventually decided to leave it alone. Let the gods punish her, not me

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of a similar event at my school. By the way, i thought only nuns could be that cruel. A girl had come to school even though she was ill with measles or chicken pox or something. Her teacher - a nun - took her into every class room and in front of the class she was required to show her bare chest.
My son was a lovely happy kid, until he went to school. It is a jungle, altho some things have improved it is still a jungle