The sixth grade class was quiet.  Preternaturally quiet.  Normally you would think twenty some odd kids trapped in a classroom would make some noise – but no.  You could just barely hear pencils softly scratching as students finished their assignments, but aside from that – nothing.  It was so quiet you could almost hear the dust settling.  Behind a huge slab of a desk sat the teacher, her long hair pulled straight back into a ponytail.  It was dark, like her expression as she glared at us with hawk like eyes that followed every move, every twitch.  We sat huddled, heads down, eyes rolled up, following her every move in turn.

This was Miss McManus, bane of the sixth grade; the hardest teacher in the school.  Not that her assignments were hard.  She was.  Hard as diamond, tough as nails, cold as ice, and hanging judge stern.  We were three months along in class – sixth grade English, if I recall – and we had learned.  She ran the toughest class in the school.  So strict in fact that we didn’t just fear her.  We were cowed.  After all . . .

Well, it wasn’t uncommon for her to send an eraser flying across the room – thrown full strength – at someone who was talking or disrupting her class.  These weren’t your wimpy old standard erasers – these were the real caboose, meant for lecture auditoriums – about a foot long, four inches thick, with a thick wedge of wood for a back.  Once she caught someone talking and sent that eraser flying – it hit the kid upside the head with a dull ‘thonk!’ and puff of white dust.  His head dropped like a sack of rocks and he didn’t move again until the bell rang – at which point she demanded he pick up the eraser and return it back to the front of the room.

We learned to duck well in that class – keep our mouths shut, scuffling and shuffling to a minimum, and our eyes on her.

Often she would walk around, a wooden ruler in one hand, her hawk-like eyes observing us, seeing what we were doing.  Pity the child who was misbehaving or not doing something they were told.  For the boys she would have you hold out your hand, knuckles up – and she would swat you across the fingers a half-dozen times or more.  For the girls it was palms up, and the slaps were in the palms, but I’m sure that stung as well.  Several were the times in the beginning when we would walk out of there – stifled tears streaming down our faces, knuckles sore, swollen, and red.

Eventually they fired her – but that was during our summer off from school.  They had waited that long, or were just that short of teachers “over there” (on the military bases in Germany) to decide she was insane – that she had suffered a breakdown or some sort of thing . . .

One day – it was early spring – and I had brought a small lump of clay in.  It was my ‘toy’ – I’d make small rockets and planes, then squash them flat – just a small thing, not much bigger around than my fingernail.

I had completed my assignment and she was walking around while I was flying my ‘toy rocket’ across the plain of my desk – preparing to smash it into the wall of books – when she suddenly appeared, right there! next to my desk she stood, sternly looking down.

“What are you doing?” she said flatly, tapping that ruler in her hand.

I looked down at the small clay ball I was holding.  It was formless and gray.  I looked back up at her, feeling my face draining.

“Playing,” I said, struck by a sudden intuition.  I put the little ball on the desk.

She looked at me for a moment, and it seemed a confused expression crossed her face.  I, one of her students, had admitted the truth instead of trying to cover up, lie, or make some excuse for something.

Her face softened somewhat.

“Well, put that up,” she said, pointing to the little ball on my desk.  “And stop playing.  You can be studying or something else.”

With that she walked off without saying a word.  And I just sat there amazed, bemused by my good luck.  Later on as we were walking out into the hallway some of my classmates were thumping me on the back and congratulating me – and asking me what I said.

“The Truth,” I replied, still somewhat amazed.  Not amazed that I had told it; I had learned the consequence of lying sometimes, especially when one is caught redhanded – but even more importantly I had learned – once again – sometimes . . .

Sometimes the truth will set you free.