Miss Napolitano was my fourth grade teacher. She was tall, very pretty and had a “That Girl” hair style. She had a beautiful smile, when she used it. She was also very strict, some might say mean. Somehow, as meek as I was, I appreciated her no nonsense attitude. I loved going to school and learning and didn’t appreciate class clowns or bad behavior. Needless to say, we didn’t have any of that in her classroom.
Even though I had her back in 1964, I do have a few vivid memories that stand out in my mind to this day. One day, early in the school year, Miss Napolitano decided to check our penmanship. She printed a couple of paragraphs on the board that we were supposed to copy in cursive writing. I had not learned cursive writing in third grade, like I was supposed to, because my teacher was sick and absent a lot. So I tried to recopy the assignment using the cursive alphabet posted above the blackboard. I thought I did a pretty good job too, for my first time. Then Miss Napolitano called us up, row by row, to check our work. I might have been in the second or third row to go up. When she takes a look at my book she says, “What the heck do you call this?” I looked down and was horrified to see that halfway through I had switched over to printing, it was all I had known. I apologized and said I hadn’t learned cursive writing last year. She told me to get a notebook and practice at home.
As it got close to November, Miss Napolitano announced that we were going to put on a Thanksgiving play in the assembly. I was horrified. There was no way I could speak in front of an assembly full of classes, teachers and parents. I quickly skimmed the script to find the smallest speaking part to volunteer for. Since I never volunteer or raise my hand, the chances of my getting picked for what I wanted were always good. I got the part. It was two or three short lines, the last one being, “The turkey’s burned to a crisp!” I never considered that there were a ton of non-speaking parts for the play, so I shot myself in the foot.
One day, one of the boys, John, wasn’t wearing a tie, which was required of boys for assembly days. Miss Napolitano took out her spare clip on tie from the closet and gave it to him. He must have said something insulting, because the next thing we knew, she slapped him across the face good and hard. It’s things like that. That kept us all in line.
Then there was the day I went home to have lunch, as usual. While I was there I complained to my mother about an itch on my back. She took a look at it and said to me, “I don’t know if this is prickly heat or German measles? I’ll send you to school with a note.” When I got back to the classroom I promptly walked up to the teacher’s desk and handed her the note that read: Dear Miss Napolitano, my daughter came home for lunch and I checked her back. I’m not sure if she has prickly heat or German measles.” Sincerely….. Miss Napolitano read the note quickly and turned to me and said, in a very annoyed voice, “Is she for REAL?” Then she called on a girl to take me down to the nurse immediately. Needless to say it wasn’t prickly heat.
As fourth grade was coming to an end I was already sad that I would not be having Miss Napolitano as a teacher any more. Then I got a brainstorm. I decided to pray the whole summer and through fifth grade that I would be in her sixth grade class. And I did pray and pray. At the end of fifth grade we got our report cards with our new teacher’s names for sixth grade at the end. It wasn’t Miss Napolitano. I was devastated because I had convinced myself that she would be my sixth grade teacher. I went home very disappointed and yet I still prayed for a miracle that whole summer.
The first day of sixth grade arrived. Our class all got to the designated room, but there was no teacher there. There was a lot of whispering going on and then suddenly, Miss Napolitano blew into the room as if pushed by a strong wind. She looked at us and we at her and she said, “I know, I am just as surprised as you are!” Apparently, the teacher we were supposed to have was pregnant and decided to take maternity leave sooner rather than later, and Miss Napolitano was assigned our class at the last minute! I was overjoyed to say the least. My secret prayers were answered after all.
I already knew how Miss Napolitano operated, but most of the students did not. One day Rosalia was sucking on a cough drop for her cold. Miss Napolitano asked her what she had in her mouth, and she answered a cough drop. Miss Napolitano told her, in a very stern voice, to get up and spit it out. First of all she did not ask permission to have a cough drop and second of all there was no eating in the classroom. She confiscated the box of cough drops too. Even I thought that was a bit harsh.
Another day we were learning Roman Numerals in math. Miss Napolitano assigned a group of us to put the answers up on the blackboard. She gave me the last and hardest problem. Of course, I got it wrong. So she says, “That’s wrong, try again.” I was certain I would not be able to get it with all this pressure and 30 pairs of eyes on me. I got it wrong a second and maybe a third time too. She was relentless and wanted me to stay there till I got it right. Thank God for Barbara, who was sitting very close to where I was working. She showed me her answer which I put up there as fast as lightning, because I had nothing to lose. Miss Napolitano says, “Finally!” I go sit down or rather collapse in my seat. That was an ordeal I will never forget.
There came a day when Miss Napolitano was absent. We were all waiting in the hall for a long time and then the reading teacher, Mrs. Taft, came to tell us that Miss Napolitano would not be in and she would wait with us until the substitute arrived. Hearing that news, the class broke out with glee and laughter, as this meant we would have a day off from class work and homework. Mrs. Taft restored order and made us take out something to read. However, the next day she made it a point to tell Miss Napolitano how happy we were that she was “sick” the day before. When Miss Napolitano entered the room the next day she was even more serious than usual. After taking attendance, she says she didn’t realize how happy we would be at the thought of her being sick. We could see her feelings were hurt, she wasn’t just angry. Of course, we weren’t happy about her being sick at all, we were just celebrating a work free day. Rosalia, who was by far the smartest girl in the class, had an idea. She said she would make a big heart at home that night and we could all bring in letters apologizing and explaining our behavior the next morning. She would put them all in the heart and give it to Miss Napolitano. The next morning Rosalia had her big heart, which she constructed like a folder, to hold all our letters. She stuffed them all in and then managed to get another teacher to call Miss Napolitano out to the hall while she placed the heart on her desk. When Miss Napolitano walked back into the room she was taken by surprise to see this huge heart carefully placed on her desk and asked what it was for. Rosalia explained that we were sorry for what had happened the other day. Miss Napolitano seemed touched by our efforts and took the heart home with her, never mentioning the heart or the incident again.
It was getting to the last couple of months of sixth grade. I knew we were all going on to junior high school and there was no amount of praying that was going to keep me in the safe haven of elementary school. I had to be happy with the fact that my prayers were answered and I had Miss Napolitano for a second year.
One day Miss Napolitano came into to the room grinning from ear to ear. It was unusual to say the least. She looked like she would burst from happiness. The answer soon became clear when another teacher came running into the room to congratulate her and look at her ring. There on her hand was a large, sparkling diamond! She had gotten engaged! She was so happy and it was so unlike her, but I guess she could contain it. We were all happy for her and congratulated her.
We finished out the school year together. It was time to move on in our lives. We with our education, Miss Napolitano with her wedding plans and new life. I never saw or heard of her after graduation. I think of her often. I wonder why she was so stern and yet always had a such soft place in my heart? I hope she had a happy life and children of her own.