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The Ruler: My First Grade Teacher Used to Beat Me and I Am Only Seeking Help Now

Her name was Marion and years ago, she beat a young, scared boy nearly every day.
August 19, 2015, 3:00pm

The author as a young boy. Photo courtesy Shaun Michaud

He looks like the saddest man alive. His wrinkly face is a dam ready to crack tears at any moment. I squirm at the thought of a flood.

I peer around his dark cube of an office. It makes me wonder how Concordia University spends my tuition fees.

I can't admit to the school psychologist that I'm only here to glean information about child abuse for a feature story for a journalism class. Yet, I feel the sudden urge to confide in him.

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"Do you sometimes feel a strong desire to hurt others who might have hurt you in some way," he asks.

No shit, Sherlock.

In the questionnaire I was required to fill out beforehand, I remember it stipulating that the psychologist has to report any manifestation of a "desire to hurt others." I detect the trick question and go for an honest answer.

"I'm glad you've decided to be honest with me, Shaun," he says, seemingly relieved. "Do you, at times, feel an urge to hurt yourself?"

I sense the need for a swift and bold-faced lie. He listens without blinking.

Outside the barred windows, the place looks like a lost arctic outpost buried under white windswept dunes.

I feel trapped. Repressed emotions are bubbling to the surface. I flex my upper body, trying to ram back down the incoming flood of words and tears. To this day, it is difficult for me to talk about my past trauma.

I convince him that I'm overstressed. I mean, how do I bring myself to say, "Hey, my first-grade teacher beat me with a ruler every day for six months?"

Especially to this dude, who looks like he's already holding the weight of the world on his shoulders. In any case, he sets me up with two more appointments. I might get another chance to tell my story after all.

For a long time, I led myself to believe that my first year of elementary school had been epic. That I had wrestled a dragon and won.

The fact is I cried that morning in September 1985.

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"I thought you were eager to begin school," my mother said fixing my denim jacket on my six-year-old shoulders.

My father drove me to my Montreal elementary school. My heartbeat quickened as we inched closer. He told me to remember the way we came. It was the last time he would ever take me to school.

"You're a very smart boy. You'll find your way back. Just don't speak to strangers."

I hesitated getting out of the car. The school was quaint. Tall trees beckoned me forth with long green arms. This might not be so bad after all, I thought. Besides, this is what I had always wanted.

I had witnessed my older siblings leave me behind every day for years. I was eager to show them how smart I was.

I remember my brother laughing in the kitchen, begrudgingly shoving books in his knapsack.

"School sucks. You'll see."

We formed lines like little soldiers in the schoolyard. The bumbling first-graders were separated from the disciplined older students. While they marched up to the building, we were led to the side, where long cabin-like barracks would be our home away from home for the next year. And the site of painful memories for years to come.

An old crone led the way to exile. Her tail end swayed as if a goat danced under her long, bland skirt. Her curly bob made her look like a gray microphone. Geeky glasses with oversized lenses sheltered a mean streak.

She ordered us to stand next to our desks before she sat down. Only then were we allowed to do the same. She presented herself. Her name was Marion.

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I can't remember feeling rage before 1985. One thing I know for certain, though: my observational skills aren't a byproduct of her punishments. I knew the moment she laid eyes on me that I would bear the brunt of her sadism.

Marion took attendance.

A young boy with tanned skin and a dark mane picked his nose then stuck his index in his mouth. Like worms struck with rigor mortis, her hair stood on end when she shrieked. Her rage was spectacular.

"Maudit sauvage."

The boy looked down as if used to the insult.

I had never met an Aboriginal person before. She discharged a vocal vomit of abuse at him. Little blonde girls giggled. I stared at his buff sullen cheeks and noticed that they were a shade or two lighter than mine. I made a sudden attempt to hide behind a student sitting in front of me. I felt bad. Still, better him than me, I thought.

Marion turned her attention to the list, reading names aloud, tearing down unfortunate souls with a mere flick of the tongue.

I froze like a statue. The gorgon had noticed me. I tried in vain to force down tears. She yelled at me to shut up, a sardonic grin etched on her face.

She trotted toward my chair, ordered me to splay my tiny right hand over the desk, and whipped the ruler like a smith trying to bend steel.

I yelled out and ran in frenzy. I ran as fast as I could. Tears streamed toward my ears. I was known as one of the fastest runners in my neighborhood. Except, I ran toward the back of the classroom.

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Marion caught up to me like Freddie Kruger. My dream had turned into a nightmare. I screamed every time the wood connected with the back of my hand. Little blue-eyed girls laughed in unison. The cheers seemed to egg her on; her eyes twinkled with strange glee.

I promised her swift retribution.

"I'll tell my mother."

She smirked in defiance.

I wouldn't tell my mother this story until I turned 21, gasping for breath between weepy fits. So I kept my mouth shut. I broke my father's rule after that first day of school. I asked a strange man for directions to the 15-minute trek back home. When I walked in, a ray of sunlight radiated through the patio door where my mother was watering her plants. I ran and hugged her; motherly love wiping away my memory.

"I'm not surprised," said Dr. Victoria Talwar, an associate professor of psychology at McGill University. "Children won't necessarily report abuse. Negating the event is a way for kids to protect themselves. It takes big steps for a child to talk about abuse."

Having failed in my initial approach with the sad school psychologist, I emailed all the experts at McGill University. Talwar leads a research team in understanding children's behavior.

"The teacher is in a position of trust," she told me over the phone. "Children don't think an authority figure can be bad. They think they've been bad and are being punished for it."

Marion smacked me around every morning at school like clockwork. She liked to hear me squeal and hit harder if I resisted. One morning, my scream was so horrendous it made the little blonde girls cry.

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To placate her, I soon learned to pretend. The rest of a typical day with Marion was sprinkled with a litany of insults and other cruel gems—like forbidding bathroom breaks.

I often went home with a trail of wet hot urine staining my pants. It made walking uncomfortable so I pretended to limp. A man I often bumped into thought my little subterfuge was hilarious until he met the same wet stain over and over again.

Constant humiliation at a young age will fortify your ego against any indignity you may encounter later in life. There is nothing like smelling like a bathroom stall to help you care less about what people think of you.

Under Marion's watchful eye, the smart boy became a dunce. The school officials required that I and three other students have a tutor. Unsurprisingly, we were all on Marion's black list.

We met the tutor every week. She was my first crush, my dream come to life. Her red hair was like fire. She said it was all natural, no dye—with a wink and a smile. When she walked in, Marion seemed to shrink in her chair like a withered old fruit.

Under the woman with red hair's guidance, my grades shot up. She said she would speak to school officials about me. She said something I had stopped believing—the way kids forget Santa Claus—she said I was smart.

One afternoon, though, everything fell apart.

When the tutor came to take us away to safety, Marion said I was too good to be in remedial class. She said she was jealous that I was putting so much effort with the tutor. She said it made her look bad. How come I couldn't learn with her? My tutor pleaded in vain.

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"Are you doing it on purpose?" the crone asked me.

I cried my heart out begging for the woman with red hair to take me with her. I cried all afternoon.

When I asked to go to the bathroom, Marion declined and said I better not wet my chair.

A few days later, she made me run around the desks again. Six-year-olds were gripped to their seats like frightened gargoyles.

"I want to hear you scream," she yelled sneering, gripping the ruler.

By then, I had dulled the pain. But I knew how to make her feel good—give it a good cry and run like the wind. And never forget to add a howl that would reach the next class. But remember that no one will come to your rescue, black boy.

The door slammed open. Marion's grin melted away; I thought her whole face would melt like the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark. The principal and a girl on Marion's black list barged in; her outraged parents followed in tow.

The girl's mother stared at me with shock and awe. I wiped the tears out of my eyes to reveal cold indifference. Part of me couldn't help but feel sad that the fight was over.

Marion never raised the ruler again. She was allowed to teach till the end of the year. The principal, a mild-mannered man, would often visit the barracks. The last few months were uneventful.

I saw her again a year or so later. I was eight years old by then and the neighborhood bully. My class was walking in file to the Montreal-North Library. In the fog, I glimpsed her hunched back from afar. I rounded my fists like my new karate sensei had shown me and readied my gaze. She was with a friend who looked just as expired.

Marion didn't teach anymore.

We came within an arm's length of each other. Shame betrayed the lines on her mug.

I stared her down in victory. The buzzard faded into the mist.

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