April, 1966 – I was in 6th grade. I had only been in school for a few months, having moved to town in January. Anxious to gain entry into the “cool crowd,” I studiously played the part of the rebel without a clue. One day we had a substitute teacher covering for Mr. Rivers (not his real name), our absent teacher, who happened to double as the school principal. So, I commenced to push the envelope in a not-so-friendly game of “get the sub.” Before long she caught me chewing gum – perhaps quaint when compared with some of the things that go on in schools today, but a pretty big no-no at the time – and she also flagged me for being disrespectful. Before school ended for the day, she let me know of her intention to inform Mr. Rivers of my unacceptable behavior. Making like Brando for the benefit of my peers, I shrugged it off in the mid-60s version of “Whatever.”
The next day Mr. Rivers returned. Immediately after the Pledge of Allegiance, he proceeded to reprimand me in front of the class. Then he called me front-and-center and announced my disciplinary fate for all to hear: “Class… We are all aware of the penalty for chewing gum in class… aren’t we?” Given that it wasn’t really a question seeking a response, he wasted no time, reaching in his desk drawer and pulling out a fat 18-inch ruler. He then asked me to open my hand and bare my upturned palm. Then he brought the hammer… er, ruler… down. And he brought it down hard:
Thwack!… Thwack!… Thwack!
Three thwacks later, I strained to hold back the tears. (Ain’t no way you’re gonna break me!) My hand was on fire. Then I realized he wasn’t finished with me.
Next, he reached in his desk and pulled out what appeared to be a tin of Sucrets. (Remember those?) He raised the lid to reveal a few roughly cut-up sections of what appeared to be Ivory Soap. (Remember “It Floats?”) He then selected a piece, handed it to me, and instructed me to insert it in my mouth and chew. (“Malcolm, seeing that you like to chew things in class, I’ll give you something…”) Steeling myself to show no expression – especially in front of the cute girls in the front row – I did as instructed.
The first couple of chomps weren’t all that bad. Then the intense soapiness kicked in and before long – probably no more than 2-3 seconds – the fire transferred decisively and harshly from my hand to my mouth. Staying in character – class clown, that is – I forced a smile and mumbled to the class, “I’ll see you…” I then bolted out of the room and darted down the hallway en route to the water fountain where I tried in vain to wash the taste out of my mouth. I was there for quite a while.
My memory is a bit hazy after that, but I remember walking home after school and consciously choosing not to tell my parents what had happened. Not only that, I hoped they wouldn’t find out. Given our family’s standard of “trouble in school = double-trouble at home,” I wasn’t sure how they’d react. Meanwhile, my tongue burned for a good 48 hours after the incident. I remember eating a lot of Popsicles.
Next: My mother’s reaction
Onward, Malcolm Gauld