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ARE YOU chewing gum? Her accusation, loaded with fury and disgust, turned my limbs to jelly.

Miss Parker, with her beady eyes, small tight mouth painted red and fashionable, yet unflattering, short, dark hair, bore down on me with utter contempt. The whole class turned to look at the criminal in their midst as all the blood in my body raced to flush my face a burning crimson.

Outside, as we formed our single-file line after recess (no talking!), I realized I’d forgotten about the gum in my mouth. Oh no, what to do? It was verboten. At nine years old, I was a smart kid but not a devious one. Standing there in line, I struggled with my inadvertent act of crime. My clumsy and best solution was to keep it hidden in my mouth, tuck it way in the back of my cheek. While a risky move for sure, I could come up with no other option. I marched into the building, reeking of guilt.

To date, my short but illustrious elementary school career, had been stellar. A quick study, I’d been accelerated, barely letting my feet touch the grade four classroom floor. A star pupil, a sweet and eager child, the desired voice in the choir, an apple for the teacher. But things had taken a turn that year.

My mother, heavily pregnant with my baby sister, fell down the back stairs. She broke her leg and damaged her brain, setting the perfect conditions for a lifetime of grande mal seizures. Thankfully, the baby inside her was not hurt. Of course I was not fully conscious of the impact this drama was having on my life. That was going to take a while. What I was conscious of was Miss Parker’s indifference or quite possible dislike of me. I could see no reason. But she fawned over Norma Contini and her friend Penny. Again, I couldn’t figure out why, except perhaps they had prettier dresses than mine?

On a mother/daughter day, I caught Norma and Penny snickering at my mothers shoes. They were functional and sensible, as opposed to sleek and stylish. Her left foot (the one she’d broken) flipped too far out to the side when she walked through the classroom. She remained completely unaware of their cruelty and the fact that I burned with shame. Why did she have to wear those stupid shoes? At the same time, a fierce protectiveness welled up inside of me, leave my mother alone! Norma and Penny were nasty girls and Miss Parker favoured them. My world of sunshine and robins in spring, innocent rhymes and jumping rope turned a murky grey.

Are you chewing gum?

I nodded lamely.

Victory for Miss Parker! She pointed at the door with her long rigid arm and banished me from the room. OUT!

Legs shaking, stomach queasy with humiliation, I dropped the tasteless wad of gum with a clang into the wastebasket by her desk and left the room. There I stood, lost against the cold brick wall, criminal on display and began to count the bricks on the opposite wall.

Time served seemed endless, when along came Mr. Forentino , the only male teacher in the school. He smiled and raised his eyebrows as if to say You? No words were needed. Just as I knew there was something wrong with Miss Parker, I knew Mr. Forentino liked me and did not view me as a delinquent. There was kindness in his look.

We moved to a new town at the end of that school year but Grade Five at Maple Leaf Public School had left it’s mark. When Mrs. Dreyfus bitched at me in Grade Ten, I thought I told you to get rid of that gum!

I smirked (an aspiring delinquent now), I did! This is a fresh piece.

And when she gave that oh-too-familiar signal to get the hell out of her classroom, I sauntered with simmering defiance out into the hall, right out of the building and lighting a cigarette, left those hallowed halls in a cloud of smoke.

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