When Dalton was in first grade, he was assigned to Miss Queen. She was old, she was white, and she was known for being “strict.”
“But what does that mean?” I asked a Korean American mom who also had a son in the class.
“My daughter had her, she’s a great teacher,” she assured me. “Dalton will learn so much.”
A mom on my block told me the same thing. “Some parents can’t hack it. We started out with nearly thirty kids in the class, and by the end of the school year there were only twelve. But my son needed that structure.”
My Chinese American husband shrugged off my concerns. “Some of those kids were out of control in kindergarten. They need some discipline. And,” he said wistfully, “it would be nice if Dalton did exactly what I told him.”
I heaved a sigh and said, “I guess I’ll volunteer in the classroom and see what she’s really like.”
Miss Queen immediately put me to work—cleaning the guinea pig’s cage. Which apparently no one had cleaned all summer. I wound up buying the guinea pig new shavings and food, too.
Other than animal neglect, Miss Queen didn’t seem that bad. At first.
Gradually, though, we all learned about Miss Queen’s RULES. If a student blurted out an answer without raising their hand, they’d miss recess. If a student tried to check out two fiction books at the school library, instead of the one non-fiction book Miss Queen insisted upon, they lost recess. If a student didn’t take their seat quickly enough, write neatly enough, or asked a question that Miss Queen felt was unnecessary, they would have to skip recess and stay in the classroom with Miss Queen and her walker. There were no warnings given.
As the parent of a high-energy kid, taking away recess as a punishment horrified me. One of the great things about Dalton’s elementary school was all the recess—the school gates opened at 8:30 AM and the kids could play until the bell rang at 9. There was another recess at 10ish, a 45 minute recess after lunch, and a recess at 2 PM. On Friday afternoons, the students had a “Star” recess that lasted 45 minutes, complete with a DJ and dancing.
Every other teacher used the lure of Star recess to keep the kids in line all week. Miss Queen did not. “I have decided,” she would announce, “that our class has not made enough progress in math. We will work through Star recess.”
The reasons varied, but the outcome was always the same: no Star recess. The kids would sit in their classroom, listening to cheerful pop music and the happy shrieks of their schoolmates on the playground while working on math or doing art.
Art doesn’t seem so bad, right? Art was The Worst. Miss Queen would have the kids gather around her and watch her color in a worksheet of an animal. (I once timed her coloring a lizard. A bunch of six and seven-year-olds were stuck standing in a circle, watching Miss Queen color for TWENTY MINUTES.) And if they didn’t color in the lizard to her specifications?
“Taylor!” she’d snap. “You made the spine the same color as the scales! What were you thinking?!” She promptly ripped up Taylor’s picture.
When the students learned a song for a school play, Miss Queen berated the class for starting to sing too early while the recorded track played. But did she teach them to count with the music so they would know when to start singing? Of course not.
Dalton began chewing on the cuffs of his sleeves and his collars. Before the first quarter ended, I found post-its in Dalton’s handwriting at home that said: “I’m bad. I’m stupid.”
I showed them to Andy and said, “That’s it. I’m going to see the principal and insist she move him out of That Woman’s class.”
“She can’t be that bad. Don’t we have a parent teacher conference this week? His math and reading have improved a lot. Let’s wait and see what she says,” Andy argued.
I agreed aloud. (Silently I was already plotting my future conversation with the principal.)
Miss Queen was the only teacher who insisted that her students also attend their conferences (probably because it was a golden opportunity to criticize them with a new audience) She grudgingly admitted that Dalton might be smart, but insisted wasn’t good at listening. He couldn’t sit still. He made mistakes.
Dalton began nibbling on his shirt cuffs. Miss Queen pointed at him and exclaimed, “See! He’s chewing on his clothes instead of listening!”
I took a deep breath, put a protective arm over Dalton’s tense shoulders, and managed not to yell, “He’s chewing to comfort himself because you’re a mean, cruel woman!”
Instead, I asked if she planned on doing any science projects or if she was going to continue with “art.”
Miss Queen planned to continue with “art.” She also planned to have another play with “singing,” although we couldn’t expect “a boy like our son to have an important part.”
Andy is a fairly non-confrontational dude. But I could see his fists and jaw clenching. His nostrils flared. He eyed Miss Queen’s walker speculatively.
I stood up and said, “You’ve given us a lot to think about and we have to go now, bye!”
Before we were even to the doorway, Andy swung Dalton up into his arms. He hugged his son tightly and said, “Don’t worry, buddy. We’re gonna get you out of That Woman’s class.”
The principal said, “Miss Queen says you want to take Dalton out of her class because there isn’t enough math and science.”
I stifled a snort. So did Andy.
“Is that what she said? Wow, I wonder why?” I asked blandly, arching an eyebrow at the principal. The (white) principal shifted uncomfortably. “That’s not it. We want him out of the class because she’s emotionally abusive.”
“Oh, I don’t think that’s true at all!” the principal exclaimed, looking more shocked than a principal who handled the annual exodus from Miss Queen’s class had any right to look.
“Are you in the class several hours a week?” I asked. “Because I am and that’s what I see. Kids terrified to ask questions. Miss Queen ripping up their artwork in front of them. My kid is now leaving notes around my house saying that he’s ‘bad,’ and ‘stupid.’”
Without missing a beat, the principal said, “There happens to be one space available in Mrs. Guillermo’s class.
Mrs. Guillermo was young and innovative. Mrs. Guillermo played the xylophone when the kids got too loud. When the class came in hyper from recess, Mrs. Guillermo had them sit on the classroom rug and practice deep breaths (Miss Queen didn’t believe in rugs.) Mrs. Guillermo had daily “Rocket Math” where the students raced to solve math problems. Mrs. Guillermo was kind and never raised her voice. Mrs. Guillermo never took away Star recess.
Dalton loved Mrs. Guillermo and so did I.
The next year, at the annual event where class lists were posted the night before the first day of school, several moms I didn’t know found me. They asked about Miss Queen (a testament to the efficacy of the Mom Network).
“I’ll tell you what I wish someone had told me,” I answered. “She’s horrible. Under no circumstances do you want your kid in her class.”
“I’ve heard she’s strict…” ventured one mom uncertainly.
“I’m okay with strict.” An Asian American mom eyed my super white self skeptically. I added, “That Woman literally lives to criticize and punish kids for the smallest infraction.”
The Asian American mom didn’t bat an eye.
I hauled out the heavy artillery. “Queen is so bad that my CHINESE AMERICAN husband, who thinks eighty percent of the parents here are way too permissive, was ready to pick up Miss Queen’s walker and beat her with it at our parent teacher conference.”
The next morning, those same women had formed a line in front of the principal’s office.