| Posted in:Family, Writing

spilled ink Spilled

My son is home this morning. He’s not quite so sick that he shouldn’t be at school; rather he just needs a few extra hours of sleep to catch up on what he’s missed because of some late nights recently. He’s in a split grade 2/3 class this year, where he is only one of six grade three children. His school – like the one I attended my elementary years – is quite small.

Grade three was a school year I remember well. Our teacher was very artistic, had a ferocious temper, and was easily frustrated. And our teacher was a man. A MAN! I had never seen a male teacher. He sat at his desk and read the paper every morning and he always had ink on his fingers. He left big black fingerprints on our worksheets which would transfer to our faces when we pulled at a ponytail or picked at our noses, but this was only one of the ways he left an indelible mark on our 1980 school year.

I loved him and I hated him and I’m sure he felt the same about me. I wasn’t special, but I was very smart and I asked a lot of questions – questions he sometimes couldn’t answer. He divided our class into groups according to ability and I was in the “advanced” group. Of course no one called it “the advanced group” but you didn’t need to be a genius to figure out that the “panthers” were quicker studies than the “earthworms.”

One day a boy in my group sang a version of “O, Canada” which combined biting wit, astute political awareness and perhaps a smidgen of treason. This boy’s version of our national anthem was smart and inappropriate and very, very funny. It was then – in grade three – when I realized that the funniest things usually come from a place of absolute truth and intelligence, but this teacher did not appreciate this sentiment. He was not impressed  and he took shit from nobody.

The teacher gave this boy a choice for his punishment: Sing the proper version – solo, at the front of the class – or miss every single recess all week. This was akin to imprisonment in a Turkish prison and so of course the boy chose the solo and the teacher told him that he respected his decision. This was the first time I ever heard any grown-up person say they respected a child, and I have heard it pitifully little since.

This man let us do fun arts and crafts projects with exotic materials like something called “India Ink.” In all fairness, this was a mistake from the get-go. Giving a room full of wiggly eight year-old children high on Wagon Wheels unlimited access to an industrial size bottle of permanent liquid stain was not a good idea. “Do NOT spill it,” our teacher said. Then he added, “I trust you.”

When a girl spilled it all over the wool reading-circle carpet the teacher had brought special from home, we all sat, scared silent, and waited for the hammer to fall. The teacher was calm. Finally he said – in the measured tone of an adult who has made the decision to change career paths – “Never, in my entire teaching career has anyone ever spilled the ink. My carpet is ruined.”

The half empty jug of ink disappeared from the art shelves and so did the ruined carpet and I think maybe the girl did, too.

The spilled ink was thick and it smelled heavy like blood. It seemed as much a living force as anything inside of us. It was potential and it was creation and it was relief from primary school baby crafts and safety scissors. It was trust and belief and freedom. I haven’t smelled anything remotely like it since.

Shortly before the Christmas break that year our teacher came to school and he looked upset. After the morning announcements and “O, Canada” (sung properly) he switched off the classroom intercom and faced the class. He told us that he was very sad because his favourite musician had died the day before. This musician was a young man, a talented man, a man with a family and a long life ahead of him and that he had been killed, his blood spilled needlessly by someone with misplaced fascination. We were horrified and sad, but our sadness was for our teacher and not the man we did not know and could not love or hate.

Our class often listened to The Beatles on a turntable during reading time. But there was no “Yellow Submarine” that day. Instead our teacher sat quietly at his desk and did not read the paper. It lay folded on his desk. There would be no ink on his hands this day.

Sometimes I wonder if my son will remember things that happen during his third grade year. On the surface he appears unaffected by events that happen around him, but I don’t know what feelings run in his veins. What would he think of spilled ink on a wool carpet? I’m not sure.

He’s a quiet boy.

Addendum: I am happy to announce that this post won a Blogher VOTY (Voices of the Year) 2013.


  • http://iamthemilk.wordpress.com Katia

    I ask myself the same question quite often. Very beautifully and vividly written!

  • http://fatliesandfairytales.wordpress.com fatliesandfairytales

    Your post just gave me a major flashback! I was in grade 6 when John Lennon was killed. Like you, I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember my teacher, Ms. Bailey, she was also an artistic, free-spirit, easily frustrated, calm and scary at the same time, no ink on her hands, but she wore wonderful perfume, etc. I will never forget it, another teacher called her into the hall to break the news. She came back into the classroom, heartbroken and crying. She told us what had happened, and also played the Beatles for us. John Lennon didn’t mean much to me at that time but I will remember that day forever.

  • http://jackstrawlanedotcom.wordpress.com Katja

    This brought me back to that day, and some of my own school days memories. I wonder too how my children will remember their youth. Will they smell something and have it flash something treasured in their minds? I hope so.

  • http://sendmetoparis.wordpress.com Chantal Saville

    Beautifully written, Jeni………………………..

  • http://mamacravings.wordpress.com mamacravings

    This is so beautifully written. I reminds me of vivid memories of my own childhood. It amazes me the mark that our teachers leave on us.

  • http://beckys-stockpot.blogspot.com Becky

    I just recently found your blog and I’m so glad I did! :) You’re such a talented writer that I lose myself in your posts. I’m able, if just for a few minutes, to forget the dishes in the sink, the kids whining, and all the other mundane parenting crap. Thank you. :)

  • http://mauriceabarry.wordpress.com mauriceabarry

    Lovely! For me it served as a reminder of how memories have lives of their own. While the factual parts don’t change…much, the emotions associated with them are so fluid.

  • http://www.imgonnakillhim.com Erin

    I’ll never forget my first male teacher. Mr. Baker. He wore snakeskin loafers. He was also, as they say, a little light in them.

    I try to act with a little treason as much as possible. I loved that line.

  • http://sadderbutwiser.wordpress.com The Sadder But Wiser Girl

    I love your whole blog but I particularly love how this post is written. :-)

    My second grade teacher was my first male teacher. I remember that he read Shel Silverstein poems to us every day. I had never really paid any attention to poetry up until then. I loved it. As an adult I own all the Shel Silverstein books. I don’t remember a lot from my elementary school days because we moved frequently, but him reading us those wonderful poems is something that I will never forget.

  • http://everydaycommotion.wordpress.com Everyday Commotion

    I am a big fan of short stories, and I love this post because it makes me think about some of my favorites. Concise, descriptive – lovely!

  • http://twitter.com/B4Steph Stephanie B. (@B4Steph)

    This was lovely. Such vivid details. They say we all remember our 3rd grade teachers the best. I’ve always doubted that because I don’t. I remember my 2nd grade and my 5th grade teachers because they were brutal. Anyway, seems to be true in your case. Or maybe the teacher himself. Great writing. I found you through Write On Edge. Glad I did. And your quiet boy – maybe he’ll write like his mom one day. The quiet ones – their thoughts run deep.

  • http://inthetesseract.blogspot.ca Azara

    What a gorgeous post! Your writing is amazing – love this.

  • http://sistersgrinn.wordpress.com Ai

    I have a teacher just like this. I wish I was still in contact with him. It amazes me how much of an impression that some people can make on you. Thank you for this beautiful read.

  • http://twitter.com/jonesbabie c j tittle (@jonesbabie)

    I have been told, by someone wiser than I am, that the quieter a child is (and my son was), the deeper they feel. Some children lock their thoughts and feelings deeper. My two cents worth.

  • http://redswrap.wordpress.com Jan Wilberg

    The spilled ink. I can feel his exasperation. How unusual you would have such a teacher in the 3rd grade and probably how lucky for you. How teachers stick with us almost never has to do with what we actually learned but how they made us feel. Loved this essay.

  • http://twitter.com/DanielleTodd DanielleTodd (@DanielleTodd)

    I love this story. It brings back so many memories of my own teachers and their idiosyncrasies.

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  • ritaarens

    My daughter just finished third grade. I remember fourth grade most vividly — something must happen developmentally around nine or ten years old to charge up our memories. This is a very cool essay.

  • http://www.themom100.com Katie Workman

    Beautiful piece. Maybe we’ll meet at BlogHer in Chicago.

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