Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mini-Memoir: Sixth Grade Class

Miss June Aughinbaugh, our sixth grade teacher (standing almost right behind me in the picture above), was short, slightly stout, strict, and stern. First thing each Monday morning she acknowledged her Protestant version of Christ by seating herself at the upright that stood in a front corner of the classroom; I can see her smoothing out the pages of a hymnal, pushing her unframed glasses up her nose, and setting upon this or that hymn. Her shoulders would lean back and her ass would scoot forward on the bench as she stretched one and then the other of her short legs to reach any of the foot pedals, and those same shoulders would sway from side to side as her short arms strained to reach either end of the keyboard. She seemed to me not so much to play the piano as to assault it, banging out chords as if her faith was best demonstrated with a determined force.

After the hymn that inaugurated the week we each were expected to stand and recite a verse from the Bible. I loathed this; some of the words in my Douay Rheims Bible were different from those in the King James version; I didn't like being the embodiment of this difference. Once, urged to mild rebelliousness by an older brother or sister, I recited the shortest verse in my Bible: "And Jesus wept," knowing that the verse was even shorter by one word in Miss Aughinbaugh's King James Bible: "Jesus wept." On another Monday, on a dare from a pal, I gathered the nerve to recite, without knowing if it was an accurate quote (we Catholics were not big on Bible-reading): "Jesus tied his ass to a tree and fled to Jerusalem." There was some muffled snickering as Miss Aughinbaugh quickly named the person behind me to stand and take his or her turn.

But, yes, I despised this weekly exercise -- not because I was insulted by Miss Aughinbaugh's effrontery, not because it was an offense against public school secularity, but because -- as the lone Catholic in that sixth-grade class's sea of Protestantism -- I perceived that, just when I was trying to fit in with the guys I thought were cool, this exercise unnecessarily accentuated a difference in me.

I admit to having felt, in 1963, a touch of schadenfreude when, thanks to the infamous atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, such religiosity was banned in public schools. I had long left Mentone by then but when I read the news in The Detroit Free Press I smirkily wondered how Miss Aughinbaugh must have been offended by this Supreme Court-edicted comeuppance.

The comical image I kept of Miss Aughinbaugh eventually turned almost to affection. I recall how at Christmas-time and then again at Easter she brought for each member of her class a piece of her wonderful homemade fudge.

Then when, as an adult, I'd be back for a visit to my hometown, and I'd run into her at the Post Office, or see her eating a lonely meal in Teel's Restaurant, and she would ask to be reminded which of her former students I was, I would hope that she would not remember that I was one of those who hadn't paid attention to a damn thing she said.

Further, though I didn't appreciate it at the time, she was an excellent teacher, and I've wished I had paid attention to her, harboring regret that I reached adulthood without knowing proper grammar, without knowing when to punctuate (and with what), nor could I have diagrammed a sentence. I learned punctuation by studying Edna St. Vincent Millay's poems in an Army bunk in Germany; I learned some grammar by having my poor grammar pointed out to me (sometimes to my embarrassment), or by paying close attention to the sentences in the good literature for which I developed a taste.

Still, I don't feel confident today that I could explain what a split infinitive is, without thinking really hard, and I no doubt sometimes use 'lay' when I should use 'lie'.

Come to think of it, I've never known for sure if I'm getting anything right or not.

But I keep trying.


  1. I instantly recognized that picture from Dad's 1951 senior yearbook. I recall looking at that photo many times over the years and thinking that Miss Aughinbaugh must have been a strict crabapple sort. Sounds like she was but had something to offer as well. Thanks for the mini-memoir. Love, Johnny

  2. Same here. I use punctuation wildly figuring at least sometimes it'll be right!