By Richard Howland
When Mrs. Parmelee sat up there behind that gigantic desk, tapping the point of her red pencil and looking out over the tops of those gold-rimmed glasses like that, we knew somebody was going to die. And the way Bobby Livingstone was staring down at his hands, lying there on top of his own desk like a couple of dead fish on a pier, we all figured it was him.
“Mr. Livingstone, I presume.”
She pointed her chin at him and made a tight little smile with her closed lips.
“Might there be something you wish to share with the group?”
Bobby’s face was stone.
“No?” She went on, “I thought perhaps you would care to enlighten us concerning your most recent escapade.”
One of the girls giggled. Right away, they were all covering their mouths with their hands, sneaking quick looks, first at Mrs. Parmelee, then at each other, and finally at poor Bobby.
“Not feeling so clever now, are we young man?”
When she came out from behind her desk, we all saw the thick wooden paddle in her right hand, its leather strap looped around her wrist, and we saw the tears on Bobby’s face: fat round ones that slid down his reddening cheeks and fell onto his shirt front like soft noiseless rain.
“Mr. Livingstone, what you did this morning was despicable.”
She stepped toward Bobby’s desk.
“Why don’t you leave him alone?”
It was more a command than a question and we couldn’t tell at first from where it had come.
“What was that?” said our teacher. “All right, who said that? Who said that?”
“Holy cow! It was Little Pauley Bunt. Little Pauley: since kindergarten, the shortest kid in every class. For that and a slight stammer, we had picked on him so much that he rarely opened his mouth. Now, the same Little Pauley Bunt got up from his seat and stood there, facing the most feared teacher in school.
You could hear the clock tick. You could also hear a slight, but unmistakable tremor in the teacher’s voice.
“Sit down young man,” said Mrs. Parmelee. “This needn’t concern you.”
But Little Pauley did not sit down. Instead he tilted his head to one side and looked at her – examined her really – like he was an alien space captain down from his great silver ship, and she was the first earthling he had ever seen.
At that moment, Edna Parmelee met the boy’s steady gaze, and she knew that young Mr. Bunt had come to the clear and unflinching realization that he need no longer be afraid, and that she could do nothing to him to change that – nothing at all.
Without a word, she moved back behind her desk and shut the paddle in its drawer. After a heartbeat or two thudded by, Pauley sat down, Bobby stopped crying and the rest of us sat there in our straight rows, listening to the hum of the overhead lights.
As we watched Mrs. Parmelee straighten things on her desk that didn’t need straightening, we knew something had changed. We didn’t know what exactly, but we did know that none of us would ever pick on little Pauley Bunt again.
Richard Howland Copyright 2016 and 2018
(This story was first posted in WINN on October 14, 2016.)
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Courage takes different forms and this week in his recognition of the life of his friend, Jamal Khashoggi, Robert Lacey wrote,
“…(T)he two of us lamented the rise of political gangsters around the world who seem to be turning our decade into the age of the bullies, vaunting their thuggery and elevating their threats into a technique of government. ‘Bullies must always be faced down. We must never be scared,’ my friend explained his guiding principle when we said goodbye….”
From: TIME, “My final breakfast with my brave and open-hearted friend Jamal,” Robert Lacey, October 29, 2018, page 46.
After serving in Viet Nam, Richard Howland, spent his life devoted to teaching English to middle school students in upstate New York. He had a gift for story telling and he also loved writing short stories. Richard Howland died in 2016.
My original comment was: Heroes like Pauley Bunt are needed now. Some frightened people become bullies like Mrs. Parmelee, some people confront what frightens them and become heroes.