MR. SMITH’S MISTAKE
by ABBIE JOHNSON TAYLOR
When my mother was alive, she often told me the story of Mrs. Gammel, her eighth grade teacher who terrorized her class with a ruler. For any minor infraction, students could expect to be assaulted with this ruler. When I was in the sixth grade in Sheridan, Wyoming in 1974, one of my teachers was a man I’ll call Mr. Smith. He taught math which was not my best subject. He threatened that if I didn’t improve in this area, he would hit me with an eighteen-inch ruler.
One day, he came close to doing just that. He kept me after school to work on some problems. When I ran into trouble, I asked him for help as usual. He said something like “Well, maybe I should just hit you right now.” and reached into his desk drawer. At that moment, we were interrupted by the school secretary who told me I had a phone call from my mother.
It crossed my mind that perhaps I was singled out for this treatment because of my visual impairment. Although he was strict with the other kids, Mr. Smith never threatened any of them with his eighteen-inch ruler. Years later, an article about my accomplishments as a visually impaired person appeared in a newsletter produced by the Wyoming Department of Education. This publication was distributed to schools and visually impaired people living in the state.
Mr. Smith left the elementary school in Sheridan after my sixth grade year and ascended to the position of principal at a school in a nearby town. After the article was published, I received a letter from him. I was surprised because it was the first time I heard from him since the sixth grade.
In his letter, he stated that he admired me and hoped that I remembered him. I wrote him and mentioned that eighteen-inch ruler. To my astonishment, he replied, saying that he realized that corporal punishment isn’t always the answer and he hoped I would forgive him.
I was working as an activities assistant at a nursing home in Sheridan. I received Mr. Smith’s first letter at work since he didn’t have my home address and the article about me mentioned my place of employment. So I felt the need to explain the situation to my supervisor so she would know I was not in the habit of receiving personal mail at work. She laughed and suggested that during my next trip to the area, I should visit him at his school. I said I could do just that. I could walk into his office and say, “All right, Mr. Smith. I see your eighteen-inch ruler
and raise you a forty-six-inch white cane!”
But I never did. After giving the issue some thought and discussing it with my mother, I came to the conclusion that teachers make mistakes like anyone else. Mr. Smith realized his mistake and tried to make amends. Besides, he never hit me with the ruler. In fact, since I didn’t see it, it may not have existed. On the other hand, when my mother was in the eighth grade, she was a victim of that ruler. I wonder if Mrs. Gammel ever saw the error of her ways.