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by Joseph Orost

On the outskirts of Morgantown, West Virginia, in a small coal-mining village stands a one-room schoolhouse. Ivy laces the brick walls as if moss-covered fishnets were washed up by the torrent waves and flung against the building. Their wiry roots penetrate the chalking mortar between the layers of mildewed bricks sucking dry what little moisture was left in them. The white paint both on the entrance door and on the window sills is badly checkered and peeling. This is where I was first introduced to crime and punishment.


Inside the schoolhouse, the stale air belies the lack of ventilation and stagnates my lungs. The untypical hush seems to indicate that someone has suppressed the natural verve and vitality expected of a room full of six and seven-year normally exuberant children. An extremely stern teacher is walking up and down the aisles poking fearsome looks at each child’s anagrams. She pauses at my desk and glares first at my work and then at me. The wart on the end of her nose, the indicator of her mood, reddens and without as much as a peep she grabs hold of my shirt with both hands and drags me out of my seat into the aisle. The rest of the class quakes as she begins to shake me unmercifully until I begin to cry. The crying is her signal to slam me back into my chair. Without another word she continues to walk down the aisle, as if nothing had happened. It takes a while, but the wart then whitens.

By this time my anagrams are all in disarray. With tears still flowing down my cheeks, I try to straighten them out again, attempting to determine the reason for her most vicious attack. Everything on my desk seemed to be in the right order and spelled correctly as far as I could determine. Maybe if she would have pointed out my mistakes I could feel better. But no! This teacher was determined to let me figure out my own mistakes. And if I could not, that was all right too. She had done her duty.

To this day, I am still puzzled over what was wrong with my anagrams. I have often thought of locating this teacher and inquiring about the nature of my crime. But the importance of past problems always seems to pale in comparison to present ones causing postponements. But, alas, by now, the teacher must have taken the secret to her grave.


Having moved to the more “cosmopolitan and civilized North,” I attended the second grade in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. There I was required to make frequent trips to the principal’s office. My crime was regional and centered around the lack of speed in losing my West Virginia accent, which had been laboriously drilled into my head by the “unsophisticated teachers of West Virginia.” The teacher picked on me for my frequent mispronunciations and my use of the works, “Yes Ma’m”. I was too unsophiscated to know that the term was used to indicate the owner of a brothel. To me, mispronunciations appeared when anyone else spoke. Others were the culprits. Not me!

Miss Hall, the principal, also taught third grade. Her office was in a separate building on the second floor of an old brick building. I knock on the door and when she opens the door I give her the note of condemnation. She is very old, and to a small child seems to be about a hundred years old. She grunts her disapproval and motions for me to crawl underneath her desk which is located in one corner of a small rectangular room. While she resumes teaching I crawl under the desk. I notice that the floors in the room were oiled with a tar-like substance in place of wax, which rubs off on my hand. I try to squat so that my trousers will not be soiled. After about two hours, it becomes not only uncomfortable but also unbearable.

I do not have to assure you that this form of punishment did not improve my accent, nor could I fathom how in the blazes squatting under cramped quarters of a principal’s desk would cause any improvement.


The summer after the third grade (I still don’t know how I passed), my parents decided to send me to church school, now called vacation school. I looked forward to the great compassion of the church, away from the earthly tortuous demons of the public schools. The purpose of this school was to teach me religion and to read and write in Hungarian, the language of my parents. Wow! If I couldn’t make it in English, how under the sun could I learn another language?


What a shock to seethe pastor who was teaching the class carrying a long stick in his hand. The stick was unique, since one end was split. The first time he called upon me to answer a question resulted in a wrong answer. Thereupon I was used as a demonstration for all of the children to see. The end of the stick was poked into my hair. When it grabbed a lock of my hair, he began to twist the stick and curl my hair around the end. He kept turning the stick with such force that I thought he would pull out a batch of my hair along with a piece of my scalp. He twisted until it could turn no more. To see the grimace on my face had a disquieting effect on the rest of the class. They seemed to be suffering as much as I. Fortunately the pastor stopped when I began to wail.

Misbehavior was dealt with in a different fashion. It required me to kneel on two kernels of corn, one under each knee, provided by the pastor. The torture was immediate and unbearable. It made caning look timid in comparison. But I found that I could control my behavior, so I only endured this punishment once.

I must now, after many years, conclude that punishment could not make me learn any faster. It made my body behave. But not my mind!

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