Florida Stories, Volume II: Ms. Jelks Strikes Back


This is what it felt like. Image Source: Skill Guru

This week I will be returning to northern Florida for the first time since September 12, 1986, my 14th birthday and the day we moved back home to Maine. What do I remember over the last quarter century? What is going through my mind? Let’s find out…

My first day in 4th Grade at Beauclerc Elementary, Jacksonville, FL, instilled in me a sense of terror and dread that I carry to this day.

I was The New Kid, a strange outlander from Maine, of all places. (“Do y’all have snow up there all the time?” “Do y’all live in igloos?”) It was difficult being so recently removed from all my friends and all that was familiar from my life in Brunswick, but I would find a few friends in short order.

But I will never fully recover from the horror that was Ms. Jelks.

Ms. Jelks was morbidly obese and ebony, with shimmering curls hanging into her eyes. I can see her yet, sitting on her desk, cross-legged and leaning right slightly, as if she was so exhausted that she wanted to lie on the desk, but was too exhausted to get her legs up all the way. The next year, when The Empire Strikes Back came out, I saw Jabba the Hut on the screen and immediately thought of her.

And her personality wasn’t much better.

She didn’t waste any time establishing the lay of the land. Not long after the bell rang, on my first morning in my new school in my new home, my new teacher was informing her class, “now class, you done heard that Headmaster Blah-blah’s paddlin’ arm been broke, but I’m here to tell you that his arm done been healed over the summer, an’ that paddlin’ arm is ready to go!” She paused for a second, and then repeated, “Ready to go!”, as if any of us really needed emphasis. I, a ten-year-old from a progressive Yankee enclave, had never heard of anything so draconian as corporal punishment in school, and the idea of a fully-healed and ready to go! paddlin’ arm made my butt-cheeks clench.

And then class began.

Memory lies, and memory moves the goal posts around, so I’m not sure if this was on my first day, or later. It definitely feels like it was the first day. It was at least my first week. At any rate, the equation on the board was 9 x 8. I was called forth to solve it, and I stood before the board in terror.

And I froze.

I stood there, in mortified silence, hearing the snickers of the class growing louder and louder. I stood there, trembling and trying desperately not to cry, feeling the raging disapproval in Ms. Jelk’s icy gaze. I wasn’t a dumb kid, but I was perhaps a bit slow with math (a safe bet, since I failed pre-algebra twice in high school), and I just couldn’t get 9 x 8 on a dime.

The seconds seemed like years in my head, and the snickers grew into a full-on William Tell Overture of laughs, cat-calls and withering scorn. Eventually Ms. Jelks put me out of my misery. Did she kindly help me out? Did she offer a hint, pat me on the shoulder and applaud me for trying? Nah.

“It’s seventy-two, now Sit! Down!

I slinked back to my seat, feeling the tears at least welling up. I don’t know if I actually let loose with a gusher, but it felt like I did. Needless to say, I can answer 9 x 8 on a dime to this day (with a shudder), even if I may not be sure why one gets 72 from 9 x 8. But why bother with such piddly details as process and meaning?

My first day and week, and Ms. Jelks had broken my confidence and left me a shell-shocked wreck, paranoid of getting paddled for my next incorrect answer and even more paranoid waiting for my next public humiliation. My spiritual de-pantsing would continue with great speed over the next four years, but this was the epicenter. My new life in Florida was off and running!

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15 comments
  1. As an educator, this kind of crap breaks my heart. I’m sorry:(

    • Jennifer, THANK you so much. Good to be reminded how many good teachers there are in comparison to the Ms. Jelks of the world.

  2. You are younger than me, all I can say is welcome to the South young man. I am more than certain this would have scared the ‘bejeebus’ into you and traumatized you for the remainder of your school years. I am sorry, it made me laugh as I was reminded of some of my teachers of earlier days (one of whom I made cry).

    So well written.

    • Fortunately I’ve always had a good sense of gallows humor and the ability to flip traumatic things around and laugh at it. I guess I developed that because of situations like this. (Ahh, all those years on the couch have really paid off!)

      Welcome to the South indeed. 24 hours from now I’ll be back down there. GULP…

  3. LOL This is very funny stuff. You made bad into good.

    • Story of my life. Literally. *wink*

  4. I went to Catholic school…nuff said about being traumatized. I had almost the same math experience in 6th grade…I could sweat just thinking about it. Enjoy your trip with adult eyes. (permission to kick Ms. Jelks ass if you cross paths)

    • Oh, man. I see her rancid ass, I’ll be ready to go!

      Ready to go!

  5. Ms. Jabba the Hut Jelks, looks and personality obviously matching! Do you know what’s happened to her? You poor soul! I can relate to your experience if that’s any consolation. We used to have a “game” at the beginning of each match class. Everybody had to stand up and the teacher shouted math questions into the class (I’m sure 9×8 was a regular one too). The first person to answer correctly was allowed to sit down. Guess who was alwasy still standing last?

    • Oooooowwwwwwwch! Solidarity, girl!

      Great to have you here, Christina!

      • Oh these childhood scars…they do make great stories though!

  6. I think this is my favorite line: “I, a ten-year-old from a progressive Yankee enclave, had never heard of anything so draconian as corporal punishment in school, and the idea of a fully-healed and ready to go! paddlin’ arm made my butt-cheeks clench.”

    Or it could be this one: “I can see her yet, sitting on her desk, cross-legged and leaning right slightly, as if she was so exhausted that she wanted to lie on the desk, but was too exhausted to get her legs up all the way.”

    Either way, this is great visual writing and wonderful storytelling!

    • *bllluuuuuussssshhhhhh!!!!!*

  7. Rebecca Booth said:

    Aw i really feel for you, having such a horrid teacher! Beautifully descriptive and great use of language! And for the record, you’re not alone in the maths stakes :-)

    • Solidarity! And thanks. ;)

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