Isn’t it funny, some of the stupid memories we retain as we grow older?
As I write this in early November, 2021, I’m 56 years old. While I couldn’t tell you, minute-by-minute, what happened yesterday, there are lots of snatches and moments that I can, of course, recall with clarity. After all, it was only yesterday. The same goes for the day before yesterday.
As I get farther away from yesterday or the day before, the space between the snatches of memories gets larger and larger, to the point where, I can remember specific events but can’t say for sure when they happened. I certainly couldn’t tell you what happened the day after those specific memories.
Sometimes, one of those memories will come out of the blue — one that I haven’t thought of in years and my jaw will drop. “Holy crap! I haven’t thought of that in years!” Usually, there’s a phrase in conversation that triggers it, or sometimes a smell or a song.
Other times, they’re memories that are always there, have always been there, and you can’t imagine they won’t ever not be there. This is one of those.
It happened in the spring of 1973. I had to count on my fingers last night, just to be sure that date matched up with my stint in Grade Three.
It was my first year in that school. We had moved from the city to the country that summer. Don’t you just love being the new kid in class? My teacher was Mr. Hunka — with a name like that, you can probably imagine what we called him under our breath or behind his back. From the snatches I remember, mostly a good teacher but with a bit of a temper that when it came out, involved a lot of shouting at whichever student had misbehaved, usually in front of the entire class. (Can’t imagine that today but, it was a different time.)
Noonhour recess in the spring up in this area of the world involves lots of melting snow, lots of mud, and rubber boots. After eating lunch at our desks, me and a couple of friends were outside just walking around and talking. I’m not entirely sure who the two friends were. There are at least four different names that come to mind but, it was definitely just three of us.
At one corner of the school, there was the mother of all mud puddles. Big enough so you’d have to walk around. No way could you jump over. I have no idea why, but we decided we’d go through it. About halfway across, one of my rubber boots got so stuck that, when I went to take the next step, my foot pulled right out of it.
Okay. No big deal. You balance yourself, slide your foot back into the boot, tighten your foot up and pull the boot out of the mud.
That didn’t work.
Tried it again and found the other boot on the other foot was stuck now, as well.
Tried pulling one then the other, alternating back and forth. Still no luck. My two friends were very amused.
I stood there, not entirely sure what to do. And then the bell rang. Time to go back inside.
My two friends urged me to get out now. Frantic, I pushed and pulled one foot, then the other. Back and forth, back and forth. When the first boot suddenly let go, I was not ready for it.
Lost my balance. Fell back. Ended up sitting down right in the middle of all that mud.
My two friends grabbed a hand each, got me up and out of the mud, and we rushed for the door.
As it turned out, Mr. Hunka was on boot-room supervision that day — we had to take our boots off just inside the door and put them on the boot rack so mud wasn’t tracked into the school. I peeled off my coat and held it between myself and Mr. Hunka for the entire process of taking off my boots and walking past him to go to class.
I remember thinking as I walked away from the boot room, “They’re not going to let me sit in my desk with muddy pants on. They’ll make me take them off,” and I did not want to sit in class in my underwear. What third grader would? What the hell was I going to do?
I needed time to think of a way out of it, so instead of going to class, I went into the washroom. I stood in there waiting for a solution to pop into my mind.
And then, of course, with all the students now back in class, it got very quiet.
Mr. Hunka had seen me come inside. He’d even spoken to me. He knew I was in school. But, I’m sure when he got back to the classroom from the boot room, he saw my desk empty. I’m equally sure that my two friends filled him in on what had happened just after the bell rang.
I stood in the washroom, at the sink, my heart in my throat and no solution coming to my mind. After a few minutes, Mr. Hunka eased the door open and explained that they’d called my mum and she was bringing clean pants for me to put on.
As you can imagine, the relief that burst through my was profound and I said something along the lines of, “Oh! Thank god!”
At which point, Mr. Hunka’s temper exploded. “Oh, thank god?” he bellowed as I jumped, “You should know better than to be playing in the mud like that!”
He may have said something different than the “You should know better…” I honestly don’t remember. Him bellowing at me had totally freaked me out. I presume that’s why the memory is so vivid.
“Bad” kids are the ones that get yelled at. I wasn’t a “bad” kid. This is so unfair! I wasn’t playing in the mud. We were just walking along and my boot got stuck! This was all an accident! It’s not my fault.
I wanted to say all that to Mr. Hunka, but I didn’t. “Good” kids don’t talk back.
There is a case to be made that despite that “this wasn’t my fault”, my friends and I should bear the responsibility for what happened. We could have walked around that mud puddle but we thought it would be more fun to go through it. We certainly didn’t expect my getting stuck and falling down. For the most part, the consequences that we most often try to dodge are those unexpected and negative ones.
Needless to say, I survived but I’ve never forgotten that encounter in the washroom. It was an early lesson about how perception skews with circumstance. “Bad” kids weren’t the ones who got yelled at. Nor did “good” kids not get yelled at. The kids who got yelled at, in this case anyway, were the kids who had inconvenienced the so-called grown-up.
To my great regret and shame, a few times in my life, I have acted the same way Mr. Hunka did with my kids. Every time I remember one of those incidents, I cringed inwardly and I can’t help but wonder the effect those times had on them.
I wonder if Mr. Hunka ever thinks about those times he bellowed at a student and how it affected them?