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The Greatest Teacher in the World

by Andy Andrews

The Greatest Teacher in the World

by Andy Andrews | Return to Sawyerton Springs

Never in my life had I encountered such beauty. Her perfect face, framed by long, blond hair, featured the most incredible green eyes I had ever seen. Her voice was a symphony and her movements . . . hypnotic.

“Linda Gail,” I wanted to say, “I love you. You were meant to be mine.” And then I would kiss her. And not just anywhere either. I would kiss her—on the mouth!

Faintly, I thought, I could hear giggling. “Andy? Andy!” Looking up, I saw that wonderful face. She looked worried. I said, “What’s wrong, Linda Gail?”

There was a brief moment of silence. Suddenly, all around me, an entire classroom erupted in laughter. Kevin Perkins, at the desk across the aisle, was slapping Lee Peyton on the back. Steve Krotzer, usually quiet and studious, was practically crying.

I was horrified. Had I just said something? I couldn’t remember. Sharon Holbert and Dickie Rollins were howling, Charles Raymond was beating his desk, and Miss Wheeler was standing in the middle of it all with an open English book, looking right at me.

It was about that time when it hit me. I had called Miss Wheeler by her first name. Miss Wheeler was an adult. Miss Wheeler was my third-grade teacher!

“Class!” she said loudly. “Class, calm down!” Pow! She slammed the English book to the floor. Startled into silence, we looked up at her. “I said ‘calm down’,” she ordered. And then, leaning down to me, she continued, “I’ll see you after school.”

When the final bell rang, I ducked my head and sat still as my friends left the room. I could hear them laughing in the hall as Lee Peyton did impressions of me. “What’s wrong, Linda Gail? What’s wrong, Linda Gail?” I wanted to hit him in the stomach.

Miss Wheeler rose from her desk. Closing the door, she walked toward me. “Andy,” she began, “I think you’re a wonderful young man.”

Hey, hey, hey! I thought.

“But,” she continued, “If I am to maintain control of the class, you must not call me by my first name. It seems disrespectful.” I stared at her. I didn’t really understand what she was saying.

“Do you understand what I am saying?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I answered.

“I know that you didn’t intend to be rude,” she said, “but let’s be careful, okay?” And with that, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “You are one of my favorites.”

I put my hand up on her shoulder and said, “You’re one of my favorites too.” Then I winked.

Walking home, I smiled as I thought of Miss Wheeler. I could tell she liked me by the way she looked at me after I winked—kind of open mouthed, blinking her eyes. So I had winked again and walked out.

Sawyerton Springs Elementary had two third-grade teachers. One was Miss Wheeler, who was well liked and beautiful. The other was Mrs. Trotter.

Mrs. Trotter was short and wide. She wasn’t fat—she was wide. Her eyes bulged and her red hair extended straight up from her flat forehead like fire. Mrs. Trotter waddled around the schoolyard looking for all the world like some demented troll screeching at kids. In fact, that is what we called her: Trotter the Troll.

All through the second grade, we prayed to God in heaven above to reach down his mighty hand and place us in Miss Wheeler’s third-grade class. “In thy merciful goodness, spare us, O Lord, from Trotter the Troll.” Once I even prayed that at the dinner table.

My mother didn’t think it was funny, but my dad actually squirted iced tea out his nose.

Third grade with Miss Wheeler was wonderful. Every day, after arithmetic, she would introduce “show and tell,” and because we participated alphabetically, I was always first.

As I remember, that was a good year for me. I scored big with baby rat, a picture of Elvis, and a pair of my grandmother’s underwear. They were enormous.

Normally for show and tell, one would merely produce something from a sack, but occasionally we would get permission to go into the hall and get our presentation ready. Such was the case on that particular day, and so with Kevin Perkins as my assistant, I retired to the hall. Moments later, we entered the room, each of us through a leg of those massive panties. Miss Wheeler turned a bright red, but to her credit, she never said a word.

As we returned to the hall, we were triumphant and smug in our obvious victory. Often we were outclassed by whatever Lee Peyton brought from his father’s doctor’s office. Leaning against the lockers, I was about to help Kevin out of the right leg when the door adjacent to us opened. It was Mrs. Trotter.

She came fully to the middle of the hall before she saw us. Stopping suddenly, she looked, turning her head as if to adjust her vision, and then with a croaking noise not at all unlike a giant toad, she came for us.

In an instant, both Kevin and I knew she was not coming to us— she was coming for us. So we ran. We ran down the hall as fast as we could go with Mrs. Trotter close behind. It was as if we had stolen her underwear, and she was determined to get them back. “O Lord,” Kevin said, “save us from Trotter the Troll!”

We ran outside, across the playground, and back into the other end of the school building. It was like a two-man sack race. Kevin would fall, and I would fall. I would fall, and Kevin would fall. We were so scared that simply getting out of the underwear never occurred to us.

Shortly, we were back where we started. Opening the door to Miss Wheeler’s room, we fell inside and shut it behind us. Mrs. Trotter, seeing where we had gone, was running for the open door. Just as it closed. Boom! She hit it like a linebacker. As we looked up at the small window in the door, her bulging eyes rolled back in her head, and Trotter the Troll slowly slid out of sight.

I found out later that Miss Wheeler had explained everything to the principal and smoothed things over with Mrs. Trotter. We never got in trouble, my parents never knew, and I was more positive than ever that Miss Wheeler was the greatest teacher in the world.

As the years passed, Miss Wheeler came through for us all many times. She remained a friend even when I wasn’t in her class, but because her ultimate goal was to teach high school English, I was fortunate enough to be her student twice more as she taught different grades.

The next time I caught up with Miss Wheeler was in a seventh- grade English and literature class. The assignment one week was “poetry parodies.” Using poems from our literature book, we were to “make the verse our own” while maintaining the style of the original. The poems were to remain recognizable—humor was encouraged.

Still trying to impress Miss Wheeler, I chose the longest poem in the book and made a mess out of “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” Lee Peyton did the best job, I thought, with his stunning adaptation of the Joyce Kilmer classic, “Trees.”

I think that I shall never know
A poem so lovely as my toe.
A toe that may in summer wear
Scabs from stumps everywhere.

As the years passed, my crush on Miss Wheeler developed into an admiration for her abilities as a teacher. Her classes were taught in an atmosphere of laughter and excitement, yet she demanded respect. The day after Lee received an A for “Toes,” she paddled him for calling her “Wheeler Dealer.”

I was thrilled to be assigned to Miss Wheeler’s English class as a senior. It was good to see that she had not changed. Our first period discussions often carried over into second period study hall, which she also supervised. Most of our class had signed up for study hall during that time, and to this day, a majority of my high school memories revolve around Miss Wheeler and those first two periods.

We talked, argued, laughed, and teased her about Coach Rainsberger, who the year before had taken her to our junior-senior prom wearing gym shoes with his tuxedo. I suppose, however, that there came a time when, due to familiarity, we began to see ourselves as Miss Wheeler’s equal. This was not an accurate perception.

We had mistaken her interest and concern for us as an inability to see through mischief. We could have saved ourselves a zero on a major test if we’d only listened when Miss Wheeler said, “Remember, to take advantage is to invite trouble.”

It was a crisp March morning—not cold, but crisp. Kevin, Lee, Dickie, and I had gotten onto Beauman’s Pond at daylight. We were fishing before school. The day had already been fantastic. Kevin and Dickie had their limit on bass; Lee and I were one shy.

The problem we saw, as we stopped to discuss it, was time. In less than thirty minutes, first period would begin. None of us had ever gotten a limit before and now here was a chance for all of us to accomplish that feat. But if we stayed for a limit, Dickie pointed out, we’d be late for school. And today, he warned, was the midterm exam.

“Big deal, “Kevin said. “We’ll just tell Miss Wheeler we had a flat tire. You know she’ll believe us. Then we can make up the test during study hall. So that’s what we did. Confidently, we strode into Miss Wheeler’s room just as the second period bell rang. Looking up from her desk, she asked, “Where were you?”

“We had a flat tire on my car, Miss Wheeler,” Lee said. “We were down near Henley’s Hardware on the back street.”

She glanced at me. I nodded.

Kevin spoke. “We tried to hurry in time for the test, Miss Wheeler, but we just couldn’t make it.”

She glanced at me. I nodded.

“We’re ready to take the test, Miss Wheeler,” Dickie said. “We’ll make it up right now. We’ll make it up right here in study hall.”

She glanced at me. I nodded.

“Okay,” she agreed. “If you’re ready to take the test now, let’s get to it.”

We tried to hide our smiles as we turned to go to our seats. “I don’t want you to sit in your regular places,” Miss Wheeler said, “I would like you each to choose one corner of the room.”

As we settled into our desks, pen and paper at the ready, the greatest teacher I ever had continued. “Your makeup exam will be all essay,” she said. “The essay will be the answer to only one question. And the question is . . .” She paused. “The question is . . . Which tire was flat?”