Questions of self amid a hag’s scorn |

Questions of self amid a hag’s scorn

Miss Bryson was my first-grade teacher, and the slightest mention of her name was enough to strike terror into the hearts and pants of her pupils.

Although it’s hard to estimate age when you’re 6 years old, I’d put Miss Bryson at right around 127. Many years later I found out that my stepfather also had Miss Bryson as HIS first-grade teacher, and he said that she was old then. Luckily, what she lacked in youth she made up for with her deep and profound hatred of children.

If you keep in mind that this tale took place in a public school in rural Arkansas somewhere around 1972, it’ll be easier to believe that Miss Bryson’s favorite classroom learning tool was called, “Not Letting Kids Go Potty So That They Are Forced To Go In Their Pants.” This was her own version of “Hooked On Phonics.”

In our tiny schoolhouse there was a set of bathrooms conveniently located in the back of each classroom. But for some reason whenever I, or anyone else, would ask to relieve myself of a little chocolate milk, Miss Bryson would reply (do your best to imagine this coming from the craggy face of a child-hating woman who should have retired when electricity was invented), “No! You should go see a doctor if you have to go to the bathroom so much!”

See a doctor? Clearly she was pioneering the field of early prostrate problem detection.

One day she had stepped out of the class when Nature decided to dial number 1, and I felt obliged to take the call. However, I was so fearful of Miss Bryson that I dared not go to the toilet without permission. So I sat there in my desk and, as my mother used to say, “tinkled my Levis.” This was a first for me, but certainly not a first for her class.

Ahhhh. Life was pretty good for a moment, but eventually the sense of relief faded and only the telltale cool dampness remained. Whatever plan I may have had for getting through the day undetected was soon thwarted when a girl walked past my desk and noticed what I now like to call the “Bryson Stain.” Reminding you once again that this was in rural Arkansas, here’s what that little girl said as she pointed to my Bryson Stain: “Oooo-wee! That boy done peed his pants! I’m gawn tell it!”

I’m sure that she made good on her promise to “tell it,” but I have gratefully repressed whatever humiliation came next. I suspect that it ended in a note being pinned to my chest, though. These things always did.

What else do I remember about Miss Bryson? Hmmm … oh yeah, there was that time she gleefully rendered me incapable of ever being a secure, well-adjusted adult.

One day my mom was late dropping me off, so the day’s dissertation on Spot running was already in progress when I arrived.

“Smith!” she scowled from her toadstool. “You’re tardy!”

Yes, she actually called me “Smith.”

I had never heard the word “tardy” before, but I was sure that it was short for “retarded.” I had recently seen people at the zoo, acting strange and eating the peanuts that you buy to feed to the elephants. I was fascinated, but my mom told me that they were “retarded” and not to stare.

So clearly what Miss Bryson was saying was that I was retarded and that it was high time I knew it. None of my classmates would tell me this because their moms had told them not to stare. But Miss Bryson would never play along with such a charade. Nope, I was “tardy,” and it was high time I knew it.

My 6-year-old brain was forced into a mode of self-realization that it had never experienced before: The “retarded” people at the zoo didn’t show any signs of knowing that they were “that way.” Therefore, I could easily be “that way” too and not know it, right? I mean, by what standard does one really know oneself? Is, as Socrates once posed, the fish aware of water? And speaking of water …

I raised my hand.

“Miss Bryson, can I go to the bathroom?”

Barry Smith’s column runs in The Aspen Times on Mondays. His e-mail address is, and his very own Web page is at

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