Memories of Mrs. Clovenhoof, my seventh-grade English teacher


Sometimes I think I managed to get an education and become a writer despite my teachers, not because of them.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t blame them.

I was never excited about my education growing up.

I wasn’t a good student, I didn’t study, and I often failed to do my homework.

And for the most part, my teachers put up with me.

They always told my parents I had potential and could do much better if I applied myself.

I just never wanted to. Because they could take even the most interesting topics and make them, not just dry, but Sahara arid.

I didn’t apply myself until I got to college. That’s when I discovered that school could be interesting, especially if I took classes I enjoyed.

I was annoyed that people had kept this information from me.

What the hell, teachers? Why didn’t anyone tell me learning was fun? Or that if I applied myself, I could do a lot better?

(Shut up.)

Most of my teachers were pretty good and had the patience of saints to put up with class-loads of students, hour after hour, day after day.

They didn’t get paid a king’s ransom back then, but the salaries and the kids these days — and their parents — have only gotten worse. It’s a wonder anyone wants to be a teacher in the first place, let alone those who taught for decades before retiring.

Still, I had a few teachers who were downright horrible.

Especially my seventh-grade English teacher, Mrs. Clovenhoof, who enforced the rules of English — and McKinley Middle School in Muncie — with an iron fist and a wooden ruler.

While most teachers wore an expression of resigned defeat, Mrs. Clovenhoof was born with Resting Disapproval Face. No matter who you were, no matter what you had done, no matter how many puppies you saved from the orphanage fire, Mrs. Clovenhoof wasn’t happy about it. Not happy about it at all.

Imagine one of those grumpy-looking fish, the grouper, has just swallowed a lemon, and its own head is about to be sucked into its giant puckering mouth.

That was Mrs. Clovenhoof in a good mood.

I never liked Mrs. Clovenhoof and do not think of her fondly, if I think of her at all. My spellchecker doesn’t even recognize the word “Clovenhoof,” and I refuse to add it to my user dictionary out of spite. I will let the little red squiggle live under all instances of her name and live with the resulting anxiety.

She was a pre-Karen before there ever were Karens. She was the proto-Karen. The Karen from which all other Karens were formed.

She was quick with a smile whenever a kid fell down. And she thrilled at the prospect of sending students down to the principal’s office or, more likely, dragging them down by the ear.

Once, when I was trying to learn how to use a to-do list, my mom gave me a novelty notepad that said “Dumb Things I Gotta Do” on it. I had written my class schedule on the list.

Mrs. Clovenhoof saw it and raged at me in angry shock and wrathful dismay.

“Dumb things you have got to do?” she demanded, enunciating each word carefully. She would not say “gotta” to save her life.

“Do you think English is a dumb thing you have got to do?” she said, fully intent on embarrassing me before class.

“Sure,” I said because I was nothing if not slow on the uptake. When I looked up and saw how her face had turned purple, I tried to save myself. “At least I put it after Math class.”

That did not help. And I couldn’t use to-do lists for years after that without feeling guilty.

But my real beef with Mrs. Clovenhoof comes from the time we were supposed to do a book report. We went to the middle school library to pick out a book, and I quickly found the one I wanted: “All Quiet On the Western Front,” a book about a group of German soldiers in World War I.

“That’s too hard for you,” she said dismissively.

Too hard? I had been reading far beyond my grade level for years, and I wasn’t some gap-toothed, mouth-breathing idiot who needed to read a Judy Blume book for pre-teens.

“But I read it last year in the sixth grade!” I protested.

That didn’t help. “Then you really can’t do it. You need to pick a book you’ve never read.”

I stomped off, found a second book, and then checked both of them out. I even read the verboten book a second time before starting my book report.

I sure showed her!

I didn’t have the guts to do the report on the book I wanted to read. I chickened out and did the other one. But it did stir up my desire to read books I wasn’t supposed to, which is why I read Catch-22 when I was 16.

And why I write books and columns that make fun of bullies, tyrants and seventh-grade English teachers.

I sure showed her! Again!

In the days of book banning by pearl-clutching fear-mongers who want to shelter children from knowledge and ideas, I’m reminded of Mrs. Clovenhoof. And in a way, I feel almost grateful for her Dickensian spitefulness because it led to me becoming a writer and a contrarian.

Then I think back to the year I spent in her classroom until the feeling goes away again.

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