Our tiny school in Grassy Creek, Indiana, had two kids we called the stinkers. They were the Gulkers, who lived on a gravel road three miles out of town. Once in awhile, Dad drove past their cinder block home on our way to Grandpa’s; it was dark and scary. The father was in prison, and we heard he wouldn’t be out for twenty years. People said the mother was alcoholic and a prostitute. It was 1959 and maybe we weren’t as tolerant as we might be.
Pamela Gulker was in our fourth-grade class. She sat right behind me, but we never talked. Actually, she never talked to anyone. The other girls didn’t ever play with her at recess, and she just stood on the edge of the playground. She wore the same filthy short-sleeved dress all week, even in the winter, and she smelled. Whenever our teacher, Mrs. Divers, talked to her, it was in a very stern voice.
One morning as school was starting, I happened to turn around in my seat. I noticed that Pamela had kind of a pretty face, round and freckled with brown eyes, and even a nice, shy smile. She didn’t cause any problems, really, she just lived in her own dirty bubble.
But one day Pamela got into trouble. We had a bookshelf in the back of the classroom, and when we had our work done we were allowed to go get a book. All of a sudden one day, Pamela was holding a torn page from a book of Norse myths I liked. Mrs. Divers was walking past and saw the page in Pamela’s hand. She spoke slowly:
“Did you tear that page out of the book, Pamela?”
“Don’t you lie to me, missy. Why did you tear it out?”
“I don’t know. I just did.”
Mrs. Divers grabbed the book and glared at Pamela for a moment. Then in a voice lower and more measured than usual she said, “You don’t lie to me, girl. Go to the principal’s office right now.”
Mr. Black was known to be especially harsh with girls, and Pamela turned pale as she left. The rest of us went quietly on with our work. Mrs. Divers shoved the book of myths back on the shelf.
Maybe five minutes later, Pamela stepped back in the room. She looked small and skinny as she closed the door. Mrs. Divers’ face tightened; her tone of voice was the same as it had been when she sent her to the office. “You weren’t gone long, Pamela. What did he say?”
“He wasn’t there, so I told the secretary we were out of paper; she went and looked for some, but she didn’t find any. So I came back down.”
Mrs.Divers rocked backward on her feet and her back bowed slightly. Her face turned a quick red, like it did when she was mad at us. She stared for a moment, silent as midnight in winter. Then, with her voice low as a man’s, she said, “Go to Mrs. Goddard’s room, please, and ask if I may borrow her paddle.” Then, she added, “And don’t forget to say please and thank you.”
Pamela left the room again, quietly and slowly. Mrs. Divers stood next to her desk. We sat still, knowing what was coming. I heard the faint breath of the girl beside me.
Pamela came back with the paddle. It was wood and almost an inch thick; it was one of those paddles that had air holes that made it sting all the more. Pamela’s head was down as she walked slowly to Mrs. Divers and handed it to her. “Thank you, Pamela,” Mrs. Divers said in that low, frozen voice. Pamela said nothing, but stood looking at the floor.
In an instant Mrs. Divers swung Pamela around. She bent her forward against her desk, and started the paddling. She whacked her hard three times. “Stop, please,” Pamela cried, “I won’t do it again.” She tried to block the paddle with her hands, but it smashed her knuckles and she pulled them away. She couldn’t get any words out after that, she just cried, loudly and persistently, as Mrs. Divers continued to swing the paddle.
Then, suddenly, she pulled up Pamela’s dress and shoved it into the sobbing girl’s left hand. I put my hand over my mouth and stared.
We gasped at what happened next. Mrs. Divers stopped hitting Pamela for an instant, grabbed her gray panties and pulled them down around her knees. She hit her again,then again, and again, shouting “liar” at every swing; Pamela would have fallen face forward on the floor if she didn’t have her hands on the edge of the desk. Not one of us made a sound. I looked down but couldn’t keep myself from watching. I started to count, but I lost track.
Mrs. Divers was panting the whole time. Her face was as red as a giant pimple. I could hear the paddle swish through the air, and I saw the fat under Mrs. Divers’ arms flapping like underwear on a clothesline. I wanted to yell at her to stop, but I didn’t dare.
It was a long paddling, very long, very hard. Mrs. Divers now was grunting, louder with every swing. Gradually, she slowed down and finally stopped. Pamela cried and cried like a baby girl left for the wolves on a mountainside.
Mrs. Divers took her last deep breath and said, “Pull your pants up, Pamela, and please sit down.”
Pamela ran past me to her desk. I smelled a trail of pee on the floor.
None of us had ever seen anything like this before.
Pamela laid her head on her folded arms and kept sobbing. I turned around and looked at her, but looked back quickly; Mrs. Divers scowled at me for a second.
Mrs. Divers pushed aside a small pile of spelling papers on the edge of her desk and laid the paddle down. Her flushed face paled. She slowly got her breath. She put on her teacher smile and spoke in her teacher voice: “We don’t need to talk about this outside our classroom, do we, boys and girls? We wouldn’t want to embarrass Pamela, would we?” After a couple of more breaths she said, “Now, let’s get to work on our spelling.”
I was scared, but I turned around again. I forgot about the smell. Then I whispered what were probably my first words ever to Pamela: “Don’t worry about that book.” Then I said to her, “Divers is just an old sow.” I turned back to my spelling fast. I was scared Mrs. Divers would hit me, too, but I was pretty sure she wouldn’t. I was the coach’s step-son. Mrs. Divers would hurt Pamela and her kind, but not me and mine.
Pamela was the only kid she paddled all year.