Mrs. Phillips was a harridan, a termagant, a Xanthippe—but don’t get me started. She was our sixth grade arithmetic teacher—the cross borne by countless eleven-year-olds at Sam Hughes Elementary School in early forties Tucson. We did not know her first name or marital status. She wore no telltale adornment, and all women teachers were respectfully called Mrs., a curious irony since, a scant generation before, none had been allowed to marry. We speculated that her unsmiling mouth, lips almost closed when she spoke, like a ventriloquist’s, hid the fact that she was toothless. At any rate, we were her dummies, in whom she was determined to inculcate the principles of sixth-grade math.
The only students exempt from her tirades were the Magee twins, Milton and Jack, of uncertain age, both over six-feet-tall, slumped in the back of the classroom. In the days before social promotion or special ed, the Magees had languished in the sixth grade for years. Valued chiefly for their strength, they did heavy lifting for the teachers and the janitor. During recess they repaired nets, fetched balls and lounged in a corner of the playground, smoking. Thus the scales first started falling from our eyes. The Magees were living, breathing proof that cigarettes did not stunt your growth, as our hygiene book would have us believe.
One day at recess, Lupe, who called Mrs. Phillips bruja—witch—brought out a fetish doll that had belonged to her Navajo grandmother. It was simply made, sexless, with four appendages, a crude face and an androgynous braid of yarn down its back. Lupe had a box of hatpins. We all clustered around her, everyone but the Magees, by now oblivious in their unfiltered nicotine reveries. Lupe explained that we must take turns sticking the pins in the doll, which she now called Mrs. Phillips. Then we need only close our eyes and wish reverently that the doll’s inherent powers could make Mrs. Phillips a kinder, gentler person—“a human being,” Lupe said emphatically, her beautifully beaded moccasins giving her authority in such matters. I remember wielding my weapon gingerly on the doll’s hand, and eventually the fetish bristled like a porcupine. We closed our eyes, Lupe led us in a Navajo chant, removed the pins, pocketed the doll, and that was the end of that. We thought.
The next day we sat stiffly at our desks waiting for the familiar click-click of Mrs. Phillips’s shoes in the hall. Instead, the principal came in. She always looked uncomfortable in her prim, constructing clothes, and this morning was no exception. “Children,” she began, her voice barely audible, “I have some very sad news. Your teacher, Mrs. Phillips, has passed. She died last night in her sleep…”
Pandemonium! We howled, flapped hands that had held the pins that pierced the fetish and cursed Lupe. It took the Magees and Mrs. Robertson, soon joined by the janitor, a full twenty minutes to restore some semblance of order. Totally misreading our reaction—Mrs. Phillips had not been popular with her colleagues—the principal could only manage, “I had no idea you children cared for her so much,” before dismissing us for the rest of the day. We all went screaming home. Guilt-ridden, I could not discuss this with my parents.
Over the next weeks, we had a series of substitutes. We were, with the exception of the Magees, a thoroughly dysfunctional lot. But one day, out of the the mists came Mr. Donald Pender, the school’s first male teacher. He was Lochinvar, Ivanhoe, Prince Valiant, with just enough Robert Taylor to keep him real. His thick, wavy hair, saddle shoes, tweed jackets, and natty ties set a tone the polar opposite of the perpetually mournful Mrs. Phillips, always in black. Totally besotted with him—I cannot say my math skills improved—he was just the balm our troubled hearts needed. He called us Miss and Mr., smiled and laughed easily. We began to heal.
And what of Lupe, the mastermind of our sixth-grade mayhem? In junior high, she told me that after l’affaire Phillips she vowed to become a nun-stringent penance for a high-spirited girl whose body curved in ways that elected wolf whistles from ninth-grade boys. I was not the prepubescent girl who suffered by comparison.
Years later, on a visit home, I saw her in my father’s dry goods store. She was the quintessential housewife, surrounded by a gaggle of children. In the battle for Lupes’ sacred vows, her hormones had trumped Christ. We hugged.
“They’re mine,” she sighed. And answered the question on my face: “I just didn’t have the vocation.”