Spring Valley Elementary School, circa 1950
Photo credit: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY
by Gloria Delgado
Author's Note: All names but mine have been changed.
I was 21, had earned my BA in Spanish at the San Francisco College for Women (aka Lone Mountain College), and was now working through my student teaching requirements with the goal of earning an elementary credential. Adding to the normal pressures and challenges involved, I was also overwhelmingly aware that, if successful, I would supposedly be the first Mexican student from Lone Mountain to earn a teaching credential. This made me a role model for some of my Latina lower classmates, who constantly questioned me about the realities of student teaching. They were trusting in me, relying on me to help them through the same experience.
I was also engaged, and planning a late December wedding.
Lone Mountain’s education department, although well-intentioned and nurturing in many ways, was still mired in the outmoded attitudes and mores of the 1940’s and false façades of the 1950’s. Our professors sometimes put more emphasis on proper appearance and demeanor, what we students called their “tea, hat and white gloves syndrome,” than they did in preparing us to deal with the actual education system. Student teachers had no written code of rights or duties, only unclear and nebulous obligations. One huge failing was that we had to complete our student teaching, one or more years at best, before even stepping into a classroom. Our entire education system was completely unprepared for the changing times and upcoming social turmoil of the 1960’s.
The first half of my student teaching had been a delight. I loved being part of that third-grade classroom of students from Grover Cleveland Grammar School. My master teacher, a warm-hearted and generous woman, had encouraged and advised me, giving me many opportunities to work with individuals or with the entire class, a chance to develop a rapport with the children. I was even assigned a special project, working with a young Chinese boy who refused to speak in school. At the end of my time this master teacher and other reviewers gave me an excellent evaluation, and she and the students said their goodbyes with embraces and best wishes for the future.
Enthused with how my experience had gone so far, I was eagerly looking forward to my second half of student teaching, this time in the middle of San Francisco’s Nob Hill and Chinatown neighborhoods. My next assignment would be Spring Valley Grammar School's fifth-grade classroom, and my new master teacher, Mrs. Butler.
Spring Valley School had a long and troubled history. The oldest existing public school in San Francisco, first established around 1852, then relocated and rebuilt at its current address after the 1906 earthquake, during its early years was reserved for whites only. When in 1885 a young Chinese girl, Maggie Tape, won a California Supreme Court suit for the right to attend Spring Valley, the San Francisco School Board simply kept her name at the bottom of a never-ending wait list, and built another public school to accommodate “other” races. The Tape family finally moved across the bay to Berkeley so Maggie could attend school there.
I knew something of the school’s history, but this was now 1962, and I was comfortable with the assignment and with the area. It was the neighborhood where my paternal grandparents had lived, met and married in 1904, and the narrow, steep streets and crowded neighborhood were familiar to me. Getting to the site involved a long commute, two buses plus cable car, then a stiff walk up and down hills all while wearing skirts and heels, as required by Lone Mountain’s strict dress code, which forbid the wearing of jeans or slacks and required high heeled dress shoes. Anything else would have been considered inappropriate or unprofessional attire.
Situated in the middle of the block, surrounded by old wood houses and stucco apartments, Spring Valley Grammar School was a several-storied brick and cement building with large windows and stone half-columns at the front entrance. Around the structure were narrow asphalt play areas barely big enough to hold all the students at recess or lunchtime. I don’t remember a cafeteria. Half a block up from the school on one corner was a small Chinese restaurant; at lunchtime both students and staff formed long lines outside, waiting to buy a plate of rice or noodles, vegetables and meat. For two dollars, one order provided enough lunch for several to share.
At this time the school population was about 98% Chinese; the principal, teachers, yard supervisors, secretaries were all white females. The only adult male at the school was the janitor, also white.
I signed the log-in book before meeting with the principal, Mrs. Mitchell. She welcomed me with a warm smile, escorted me to the fifth-grade classroom, introduced me to Mrs. Butler, my new master teacher, then left. Upon the principal’s departure, Mrs. Butler appeared somewhat imposed upon by this unwelcome intrusion, this interruption of her routine. She coolly, slowly looked me up and down with what seemed barely disguised contempt, then introduced me to her students. “Class, this is Miss—What did you say your name was?—Of course. Miss Colville, Miss Cavi—How do you pronounce that again? Oh. Yes. Miss Cal-vee-yuh, who will be with us for a few weeks. She wants to learn how to be a teacher.” Then, in an undertone, I was dismissed: “Go to the back of the classroom, take a seat, and just watch what I do.”
“Just watch what I do.” And that’s all I did, three half-days a week, for what seemed unending hours; I watched her do whatever she did—but without taking a seat. There was no chair, no stool, no extra desk for me to use, and none was ever provided all the months that followed. I was not allowed to speak with or interact with any of the students when Mrs. Butler was present. Banished to “the back of the bus,” as it were, I stood in uncomfortable high heels in a corner by one of the two doors to the cloakroom or leaned against the middle of the wall. These initial long hours of standing and watching did prove valuable. By moving casually from one side of the classroom to the other, I managed to get glimpses of the students’ faces, and in three days came to know them all by name and personality.
This was the era when the Asian school population, still labeled “the model minority” by 1950’s society, had names like Alexander, Lily, or William; none used a Chinese given name in school. All the fifth graders at Spring Valley School were attentive, polite, clean, neatly dressed, healthy, and apparently happy; that is, all except for one—Marcella, the only white girl in the class, the only white girl in the entire school.
Mrs. Butler was a slightly stout, imposing woman in her late 50’s with meticulously waved short dyed blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and perfect makeup. Not one for riding buses and cable cars, she rode to and from campus in a Yellow Cab, arriving and departing always on schedule. Impeccably, even modishly attired, she would sit unmoving behind her desk for long periods of time, on occasion rising majestically from her chair to write on the chalkboard or to lecture. Everything about her was carefully controlled—her appearance, her demeanor, her voice, her movements. Mrs. Butler never rushed, never raised her voice in excitement, joy, or anger; everything she did was dignified, reserved, calculated. Her teaching style, lectures, even her occasional compliments to the students acknowledging good work or a successful grade, were muted.
The fifth-grade classroom was attractive, a large turn-of-the-century style square high-ceilinged room filled with rows of wooden desks lined up in orderly fashion. On the left side of the room light streamed through several huge waist-to-ceiling stacked wood windows that had to be opened or closed against the changing weather with a long wooden pole, an iron hook on one end. Leafy green plants, cared for by the students, sat on the wide windowsills. On the opposite wall were two doors with transom windows. Black chalkboards covered the remaining space. A dark upright piano, apparently never touched, stood in one corner of the front wall. At the rear of the classroom was the cloakroom, a door at each end. Maps, globes, flags, some bookcases, a black clock hung high filled the space. The large oak desk presiding at center front was topped with neatly stacked books, notes, daily lesson plans. A slender vase by the handbell occasionally held flowers Mrs. Butler or a student would bring, pastel blossoms, a white camellia, or a sprig of the dainty pink sweet-fragranced Cécile Brünner roses that once flourished throughout all old San Francisco neighborhoods.
But the most notable article on Mrs. Butler’s otherwise nondescript desk, the only object reflective of Chinese culture in the classroom, was the reclining figure of a jovial Chinese god with a bald head and fat round belly. This large carved wooden figure was obviously valuable. Placed to the far-left front edge of the oak desk with his back to Mrs. Butler, the laughing god faced the rows of student desks.
“Who is this? Is this Buddha?” I seized the opportunity to ask the class one day when Mrs. Butler was called out for a moment.
“Why, he’s not Buddha, he’s the Laughing God, Budai,” the children, now surrounding me, eagerly explained, “the god who brings good fortune. His big bag holds everything we need for everyday life. He’s the happy god who protects all his children. Rub his belly,” they insisted, “it brings you good luck!” And so, I rubbed Budai’s belly daily, asking for protection and good fortune for the children; and for me, the strength to get through another day watching Mrs. Butler.
Later one afternoon Mrs. Butler and I were alone in the classroom when she asked, with no preamble: “Where were your parents born, Miss Cal-villee-yuh?” Knowing this was code for …what are you, I can’t figure you out, and not knowing really bothers me… and offended, not by the question, but by her manner, I deliberately and literally answered the question she asked, and not the question she wanted to ask.
“My father was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and my mother on Ewa Plantation, Oahu, Hawai’i.
“Oh, so you’re Hawaiian! No wonder you look so exotic!”
“My mother is not Hawaiian, she is Puerto Rican, born in Hawai’i because that is where her parents were living at the time; that makes me Mexican and Puerto Rican.” Then, still feeling the sting of her irritating use of the word exotic, in a not very subtle attempt to redirect the conversation I asked her about the figure on her desk, not revealing that the students had already introduced us.
“It was a ‘welcome to our school’ gift given to me by the Chinese parents when I first started teaching at Spring Valley.” Her bland, rote monotone response to my question lacked warmth, a sense of gratitude, enthusiasm, or sensitivity to what Budai obviously meant to her students and their families. They had given her part of themselves, part of their culture. Did she see Budai as more than just a block of wood, did she understand, did she even care? No. She had referred to Budai as it, not as he. Then she said: “You know, dear, you really should smile more; you would be so much more attractive.” I was put firmly back in my place. Mrs. Butler turned and sat down at her desk; the children returned from recess; lessons resumed.
Reflecting later on our exchange, I had the strong overwhelming intuition that Miss Butler intensely disliked the figure of Budai, finding him too exotic, too foreign—like me. But the figure was something she could not easily dispose of, not if she wanted to keep her job and the approval of the parents. Budai and I both might be thorns in her side. One thought followed another. Did she dislike her job? Had society changed too quickly for her, made her feel trapped at Spring Valley, helpless, unwilling, unable to adapt or cope? Did she even like her students? I already knew, even after a few days, that she intensely disliked, possibly even hated me. Did she, deep inside, dislike her students? But why? For being unworthy of her talents? For being different, exotic, Asian? These unwelcome intuitions of mine were sickening and ugly; and I tried to suppress them. Still stunned by their impact, stomach churning, thoughts and speculations reeling, I took up my usual post standing at the back of the class.
Some of the other teachers would occasionally talk with me when I spent time in the faculty lounge; for the most part I was ignored. “Oh, so you’re the new student teacher” was the comment I heard most frequently that first week. “Hmm… You know, of course, that she didn’t want another student teacher. You were forced on her, just like the previous one, that young black woman. She didn’t last long either, poor thing.” And when Mrs. Butler walked into the lounge the conversation instantly shifted, and I became invisible.
With time enough to reflect on what had been said, I realized that Mrs. Mitchell’s accompanying me herself to Mrs. Butler’s classroom, and her introduction of me to Mrs. Butler in the presence of the class, was not the generous, friendly gesture I had initially taken it to be, but was the outcome of a clash of wills between the two women. And Mrs. Mitchell, as principal, had won that particular battle. Mrs. Butler could not easily dispose of me if she wanted to keep her job and the goodwill of her employer.
On my way home one afternoon that same first week I was headed to the front entrance when the janitor, still carrying the mop and bucket he had just used to clean the floors, called out to me. “Miss! Say, Miss! You the new student teacher?” he asked, turning his head back and forth, apparently checking the hall to see if anyone else was around to hear. I nodded, uneasy, unsure where this was going. “Watch out for her, that damn bitch, she’ll try to do something to you, she’ll try to hurt you.”
“Who will?” But I already knew the answer.
“Butler, of course, who else!” He smirked, looking me up and down, appraising me almost as coolly as Mrs. Butler had done that first day. This one won’t make it, either… Shaken, but attempting to conceal it, I only nodded, gave him an icy “Thank you,” knowing that a new student teacher shouldn’t be seen alone in conversation with a janitor. I left for home, thinking: I know she dislikes me, but what could she possibly do to me, and why should she bother? I’m nothing but a very small temporary thorn in her side.
At first, in an attempt to bring down the barriers between us, I tried to engage Mrs. Butler in conversation during the breaks in the teachers’ lounge. I assured her of my willingness to tutor students needing assistance with math problems or reading, to help with anything, anything at all. But the days went by; nothing worked, nothing changed. She terminated any thought or suggestion of mine with the same admonition: “No. Just watch me and see how it’s done.”
Two weeks into the semester, while in the office signing the attendance book, I was surprised to see a familiar face. Mary Henley and I had been through grammar and high school together. “I’m the fourth-grade teacher now,” she told me, and after learning I was the new student teacher, she whispered: “I’ve got to leave now, I don’t want to be late, goodbye,” then abruptly turned and went off down the hall to join her class. What was that all about? Although we were not friends, we had always been on friendly terms, and there was still plenty of time remaining before the first bell. Mary was a shy and quiet person, but to witness this timid, even fearful behavior of hers was unsettling. Was it the mention of Mrs. Butler as my master teacher? I never spoke with Mary again, and only caught occasional glimpses of her across the auditorium during school assemblies. Mary never joined the others in the teachers’ lounge, never lined up for lunch at the corner, never seemed to leave her classroom. I wondered what, or who, she was avoiding besides me. It would have been nice to have someone to talk with, to see a friendly face, to have an ally. It was all so strange; Mary too had almost disappeared, become invisible. Was Mary afraid of Mrs. Butler? I would never know. Something was very wrong here; was it the school, was it Mrs. Butler, or just me?
“Just watch what I do.” And so, I continued. Standing, I watched her for days, then weeks on end, gradually learning that something was indeed wrong, but it was difficult to describe at first, difficult to put into words. Yes, something was wrong, and it seemed to begin here, in this classroom. I watched and learned. Mrs. Butler did nothing overt, nothing that would ever leave her open to criticism. Her interactions with the students were to the casual outside observer always pleasant, mellow, full of compliments. She was not one to lose her temper. She was always so subtle in her methods, in her cruelty. Mrs. Butler’s particular type of cruelty was new to me, and difficult to describe. It was not what she said or did, but how she said or did things, with an ease far beyond my experience. Most of the wounds she inflicted were quick tiny jabs, like mosquito stings, almost invisible on the surface, but nevertheless capable of leaving behind deep and festering infections.
Mrs. Butler pretended not to notice the effect her hints and insinuations had on the students; but I noticed; I watched. She always said and did things deliberately, never carelessly, or half-way, or by accident. Her techniques were not as effective on the boys who, at this still mostly innocent age of nine or ten, more easily managed to ignore them or shrug them off. Anyway, Mrs. Butler seemed to prefer to manipulate the girls.
This morning, Louise was her focus, her tool. “Look, everyone, Louise is so pretty today in her new dress! Louise always looks so nice, her clothes are always so beautiful!”
All eyes turned as one to gaze at Louise, who, head down, hands clasped together in her lap, smiled modestly, basking in the compliments. Subtly made conscious that Louise had …something… that they lacked, the other girls’ eyes, glazed and clouded, went blank for long silent seconds. The girls were still too open-hearted to actively dislike Louise, or Celia, or Sara, whoever was singled out to be complimented for the wrong reasons, whoever happened to be Mrs. Butler’s chosen focus, her tool, the target around whom she created and fomented negative feelings within the group. They didn’t actually dislike each other, not yet; but I could sense dislike and jealousy and hubris building and growing, little by little, created, cultivated and maneuvered by Mrs. Butler.
Louise in particular didn’t need to hear such frequent compliments. The treasured daughter of a comfortable family, Louise was a nice girl, a beautiful child who always arrived at school wearing expensive new dresses, her long straight gleaming black hair carefully arranged and tied back in bright ribbons. Excessive praise, and being singled out for her attractive appearance day after day could only do her harm—but could this really be Mrs. Butler’s goal, to cause harm to Louise, to the children? I was stunned, ashamed of my suspicions. They filled me, nevertheless, and couldn’t be ignored.
Marcella, the only white child remaining in the ever-shifting class, was Mrs. Butler’s most frequent target, the daily recipient of twisted compliments. Mrs. Butler hardly bothered to disguise the scorn and contempt she felt for the girl. Perhaps she considered Marcella to be too simple, too easy a target, and unworthy of her subtlety? The daughter of a poor family, this clumsy, gangly girl was never complimented on her dresses, never came to school wearing ribbons. With her blonde hair chopped off just below her ears, ends carelessly pulled back in a rubber band, she was always dressed in clean but threadbare old clothes. She spoke, when pressed, with a soft southern country drawl. Apparently still in the awkward stages of early puberty, a full head taller than her classmates, Marcella lacked the easy grace and charming manners of her quicker, more coordinated, more sophisticated classmates.
Mrs. Butler began: “Look, everyone, Marcella has finally managed to—finish her work on time—make only three mistakes on her test—skip rope for one minute before tripping—get a C—catch the ball and only drop it once…” Every day brought fresh opportunities to single out Marcella in this negative way. Today it was a class game of basketball. “Look, class, Marcella finally threw the ball into the basket! She found the basket! Let’s everyone clap for her. Yeah, Marcella!”
“Yeah, Marcella!” the class parroted Mrs. Butler, clapping in unison, in bored, orchestrated applause lasting only a few seconds. The unfortunate girl, hair coming loose from the rubber band, strands flying out in all directions after her strenuous efforts, and horribly embarrassed at this additional reminder of her general ineptitude, looked down at the ground, her body writhing, her mouth twisted into a caricature of a smile, the toe of one worn shoe grinding into the ground, as if digging an imaginary hole in which to hide.
The bell rang, the children gathered to return to the classroom. Marcella paused, hanging behind, waiting to take her usual place at the very end of the line. Angry thoughts filled my mind: Marcella will bloom at her own time, but this woman just won’t let her alone. Why does Mrs. Butler hate her? Does Marcella remind her of herself at that age? Is it because she is the only white girl in the school, and Mrs. Butler is ashamed of the girl’s poverty, of her shabbiness? Could it simply be that Marcella’s hair is naturally blonde? It was cruel of her to constantly single out Marcella this way, and exceedingly painful to watch it being done. I could do little about it but gently touch the girl’s shoulder, smiling at her after everyone else had turned away. “You did very well today, Marcella,” I whispered. She lifted her head and looked straight into my eyes. My reward was one of her genuine, sweet smiles.
My time at Lone Mountain was becoming more and more stressful. I felt tremendous pressure, receiving little help and even less guidance from an unsympathetic and clueless education staff. When I tried to describe the poisonous atmosphere at Spring Valley to my supervisors, they thought it was mere complaining. They didn’t even hear me. After all, Mrs. Butler hadn’t done anything wrong, not really. No one had done anything to me, not really. “We’re sure things are fine, dear. She’s your master teacher after all, she must be happy with you; if she weren’t we would have heard. There’s still plenty of time left for your evaluation. Don’t worry so much. Just be patient, cooperate, do your best.”
Platitudes, empty platitudes, with no insight, no empathy, no understanding. I was sick of it. During my two days a week back at college, the younger Latinas questioned me relentlessly. They wanted to hear the truth, not platitudes, not empty phrases. They needed to know exactly what I was experiencing. It was all up to me to tell them this truth, that it wouldn’t be easy, that many people were out to block us in any way possible. My goal, my future, my classmates’ futures and hopes were at stake; and everything was slipping away. I was their symbol, their apparent leader, and I was about to fail.
Tired of watching Mrs. Butler, suddenly one day something within me snapped; it all became too much to bear. No more! I’ve had enough, now it’s my turn, you will start watching me! I did nothing overt, nothing disrespectful that would leave me open to criticism, but I would not give up, crawl away or hide. Too much was at stake. I would not become her focus, her target, another Mary Henley. Now, my father’s favorite saying again came to mind, and I took up the challenge, followed his imperative. “Jalisco, no te rajes! Jalisco, never give in!” Now, I crossed from one side of the room to another, moving only when Mrs. Butler’s attention was elsewhere. It was petty and childish, but I did it anyway just to annoy her. Before, I had always entered the classroom by creeping in the back door like an intruder, rubbing Budai’s belly only when there were no witnesses. No more. Now, entering by the front door, I deliberately crossed the classroom directly in front of her desk, now I wished her a cheerful “Good morning,” now I greeted Budai with a quick rub of his belly before taking my usual place in the back. The students may or may not have noticed, but she certainly did.
Ignoring her glares, subtly daring her to admonish me, I started greeting and addressing the students by name when we lined up for recess, gathered in the playground, or made trips to the assembly hall. In spite of knowing she would ignore me, nevertheless several times a week I would politely ask the same questions: “When will I be allowed to teach a lesson, to help the students? And my evaluation, when will it be scheduled?” I began writing in a small notebook while Mrs. Butler lectured, jotting down nonsense things, random thoughts, anything to keep from going insane, to keep the classroom walls from closing in on me. That little notebook would become my refuge, a safety net. My stomach would hurt once in a while, but I ignored it.
One morning, in an excess of boredom, I grew careless. Standing at my usual place beside the back wall, I was writing some nonsense in my notebook, eyes focused on the paper, when Mrs. Butler suddenly appeared in front of me. It was dizzying and disorienting to see her any place other than the front of the room, as though the earth’s axis had tilted. “What do you keep writing in that book of yours? What do you have in there that’s so important?” she demanded. Yes! Finally, I had gotten to her!
“Oh, nothing really important,” I coolly, glibly lied, “just random thoughts that occur to me. I note down good methods or techniques you use to teach, ideas for lesson plans, things you do that are effective, stuff like that. Would you like to see?” I offered her the open notebook, certain she would refuse it. Mollified, she shook her head no, returned to her proper place in front of the classroom. Oh my God, I knew it! She believed me! She won’t ask about the notebook again.
But maybe I was watching and learning too well. The idea of beating her at her own game for a moment had felt strangely challenging and appealing to the ego. Hubris? And what about my classmates who were depending on me? Being in the same room with Mrs. Butler was changing me into another person, into a liar, a sneak, someone I didn’t much like. It was making me sick, emotionally and physically. That ball of discomfort in the pit of my stomach kept growing larger.
So, I jumped at the chance when Mrs. Butler unexpectedly asked me for a favor. The aide who usually supervised the playground at lunchtime was out on sick leave and would be missing for about one week. Would I be willing to take her place? “Of course, I’d be happy to help!” From then I spent every lunch period in the schoolyard. It was a relief to be outside interacting with students, removing wood splinters from little fingers, mending petty squabbles, wiping away tears. I could breathe again. The only problem was missing lunch; there was no time for me to eat.
Two weeks went by, then three. I asked, but was told: “No, the aide is still out.” And like a fool I believed it, until one afternoon I happened to see the supposedly ill aide chatting comfortably in the lounge. I don’t remember who told me that the aide was still getting paid for the work I was doing; but by this time playground supervision had become my regular responsibility on the three half-days a week I spent at Spring Valley. I wondered if the aide and Mrs. Butler had colluded to get me to take her place for free? The principal must have known about this, must have approved this. What would Mrs. Butler get out of using me? Power? Revenge? Secret satisfaction?
One morning around December 7th, Mrs. Butler’s stone façade seemed to crumble. Having just finished a regular lesson on the significance of the date, the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, she remained seated, uncharacteristically still. The silence continued for long moments, disturbed only by the ticking of the large black clock on the wall. Out of the silence she burst out: “I hate the Japanese! I hate them! They killed my brother!” The class sat stunned, mouths open, eyes darting back and forth. I looked on anxiously, feeling another huge lump forming in my stomach. Her body shaking, hands trembling, face ashen, Mrs. Butler then graphically recreated the bombing of the battleship Arizona, ending with a detailed description of the 1,100 bodies remaining behind entombed within the ship, among them her brother.
Her account finished, Mrs. Butler slowly rose from her chair and walked out the door—just as the bell rang for lunch. I forced myself to move to the front of the class and dismiss the children, who had remained frozen in their seats, shocked into uncustomary stillness. What should I do? Should I report this episode to the principal? Report what? It was horribly wrong for a teacher to expose young pupils to such strong personal emotion. It was a terrible abuse of her position! What was my own responsibility here? Confused, sick with anxiety, already late for yard duty yet truly concerned for her well-being, I quickly checked the halls, lounge, and restrooms, but Mrs. Butler was nowhere to be found. I gave up the search and went outside to the playground.
After lunch Mrs. Butler was back in the classroom as usual, her composure and demeanor normal, showing no sign of emotional trauma. I approached her, told her how sorry I was for the death of her brother. She ignored me, making me invisible again. I walked back to my customary place and position at the rear of the room, just like Marcella always at the end of the line of students.
Once again watching Mrs. Butler, with time enough to reflect on what had transpired, the intuition struck me that this whole episode was a cold, calculated performance--but to what end, to what purpose? What kind of sick, twisted person would use her brother’s death this way? …and it was twenty years after the fact …and her exit had been so perfectly timed… Did her brother really die at Pearl Harbor? Did she even have a brother? Did she do this every December 7th? Was the performance, if indeed it had been a performance, solely for my benefit, to see what I would do about it, to see if I would report her? She could easily deny the whole episode, turning me into this suspicious, libelous student teacher trying to draw attention to herself. Or was I becoming cruel, mean-spirited and evil, daring to suspect the worst of a severely traumatized, unfortunate woman? Or was I being manipulated, like Marcella, like Louise? Were the children being manipulated and victimized out of her sadistic need to inflict cruelty and pain? But why? Because she hated me? Because she hated them? Because they, like the Japanese, were Asian, and easy targets? Nothing made sense. I tried to suppress my suspicions and my intuitions but failed. I didn’t want to have such thoughts about anybody, not even about Mrs. Butler, but they existed, and couldn’t be ignored. I didn't know what to do.
After hours of inner turmoil and confusion, still unsure and uncertain, I decided to wait, to keep quiet about the whole event in case I was being manipulated. Again, my stomach hurt.
Shortly after my assignment to Spring Valley I had informed Principal Mitchell that I would be getting married during the Christmas break and would like to take off one extra week in January for a honeymoon. She had agreed, as long as I fulfilled my hours. It was settled; after my return I would be at school three whole days a week until the end of my school term and would continue with yard duty, more than fulfilling the number of hours of my obligation. No mention was made of pay.
It was now mid-December, time for Christmas vacation. The children showered me with gifts, boxes of candy, brightly colored tins of tea, and cards. When I reminded Mrs. Butler that I was getting married soon, she coldly told me to announce it to the children myself. For the first time in all those weeks at Spring Valley School, I was allowed to stand in front of the class. Telling the students that they were all invited to my wedding at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Broadway Avenue, just a few blocks away, I jotted down the address, date and time of the ceremony on the blackboard. When I glanced at Mrs. Butler out of the corner of my eye, she was frowning. Once again I had gone too far, had overstepped a boundary. But it didn’t matter, I didn’t care, I was getting married, and getting a welcome break from watching Mrs. Butler. With a rub of Budai’s belly, I asked him to watch her and to protect his children.
They remembered. They came to our wedding! It gladdened my heart to see a group of fifth graders sitting quietly together in the rear pews. Unaccompanied by any parent, confident, dressed in their best, the children had come to the church together, and had patiently sat through the whole Mass and ceremony, in spite of it being celebrated in Latin and Spanish! When my new husband and I stepped outside after the recessional, we saw more fifth graders gathered together across the street from the church, jumping up and down in excitement, waving and calling out “Miss Calvillo! Miss Calvillo!” We waved back, honored by their presence.
When I returned to Spring Valley it was the middle of January. I had the same lengthy commute—two buses, a cable car, a long walk—but now my first bus ride started in Berkeley, our new home, and took even longer. The children seemed glad to see me again, and I realized how much I had missed them. “We saw Miss Calvillo getting married,” I overheard several students whisper to their friends the day I returned. Mrs. Butler now addressed me as Mrs. Delgado and seemed to have no difficulty pronouncing my new name. Otherwise, things continued as before, but now I had entire days, three whole days a week to watch Mrs. Butler. She had not changed. She continued to evade the issue of my evaluation and kept me to my usual place standing at the rear of the room, still without a chair. That ball of pain at the pit of my stomach came back larger than ever.
The following weeks seemed interminable, a blur of quickly passing memories; only one small incident stands out. Mrs. Butler announced: “I want to share some good news with you, class. I just found out that we will all be together again next year. I’m going to be your sixth-grade teacher! Isn’t that wonderful?” There was a long, long pause while the children took in her message. “Yeessss… Mrs. Butler,” slowly came the ragged, unenthusiastic, not quite in unison response. My heart sank. One more year of this, of her? I would be free shortly, but the poor children…
It was mid-afternoon, almost time for the music lesson, when Mrs. Butler beckoned me up to the front of the class. “I need to go to the restroom, Mrs. Delgado; I’ll be back shortly.” Mystified, I stood there watching the children as they talked quietly among themselves. Was she sick? She didn’t look sick. What is going on, what is she up to now? With a tremendous jolt to my stomach, I understood: My God, this has to be my evaluation! And with no advance notice, no chance for preparation! She was about to prove me to be this incompetent, unreliable and unstable student teacher, the one she had said all along couldn't handle the pressure, poor thing, the one who fell apart at her evaluation.
Moments passed. Wearing a wide, triumphant smile, Mrs. Butler grandly entered the classroom, trailed closely by Principal Mitchell and two unfamiliar women. Too stunned to hear their names, I managed somehow to smile as we all shook hands and introduced ourselves, but I never heard a word beyond “We are here for your evaluation.” My thoughts reeling, stomach churning, I tried to formulate a lesson plan, any plan, out of nothing.
Then Budai, the protector of children, the bringer of good luck, smiled on me. I needed a lesson plan. Laughing, he opened his sack, the bag that holds everything his people need for everyday life, pulled out a lesson plan, and placed it, complete, into my hands.
Ignoring the evaluation team and walking directly to the piano in the corner, I focused all my attention on the children: “Class, most of you know something about baseball, and know that San Francisco has a baseball team called the Giants. Well, the Giants are in the playoffs to find the best team, to win the championship. There’s a new song about the Giants called “Bye-Bye Baby,” you may have heard it on the radio. Who knows what “bye-bye baby” means?” The children hesitated, unsure of what to do; this was not their usual music lesson.
Franklin timidly half-raised a hand. “It means to hit a baseball so hard that the ball goes over the wall, and the other team can’t catch it, and your team scores.”
“Yes!” Thank God for Franklin.
“Now, imagine we’re all at a baseball game together, this whole fifth grade class is sitting together in a huge stadium full of people. It’s a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, somewhere there’s an organ playing. We’ve got hot dogs for lunch, peanuts for a snack. We’re wearing black baseball caps with orange initials ‘SF’ in front, we’re cheering for our team, and our singing is going to help the Giants hit those baseballs over the wall!” I lifted the piano lid, and standing, played the tune. “Listen to the melody, remember how it sounds, and we’ll sing it together. It’s easy!”
When the Giants come to town, it’s bye, bye baby! Line by line, I played and then together we sang those simple verses, haltingly at first, then confidently, then with real team spirit. Every time the chips are down, it’s bye, bye baby! I called out: “Now the boys!” They sang. “Girls only.” History’s in the making at Candlestick Park! Cheer for the batter, and light the spark! I pointed to one row, then another. “Row 5… row 3… Odd rows only… even rows only…. Now, I’m going to trick you.” I switched rows back and forth, in the middle of a line, in the middle of a word. If you’re a fan of Giants baseball, sing bye, bye baby! All eyes were attentive, sparkling, eager, and glued to me; we were on a roll! “Boys again.... Girls now... Handsome boys only....” That stopped them—but just for a second. Laughing, the boys sang the next line together. If you want to be in first place, call bye, bye baby! The girls waited eagerly, giggling in anticipation. “Pretty girls only!” More giggles; all the girls sang. “Smart students only…” But they were ready for anything now; they all sang out. “Dumb stu… ah no,” I pretended to stop myself, “I’m sorry, I forgot, there are no dumb students in this fifth grade!” And the whole class cheered! Listen to the broadcast on KSFO, Turn up the volume, and hear them go! “Children with black hair!” I called. All but one sang. “Children with blond hair!” I held my breath, but yeah, Marcella! Her sweet, clear voice rang out. I felt so proud of her. “Girls with two ears… Boys with three ears… what, no boy here has three ears? You’re sure?” More laughter. “Everyone together now!” With the San Francisco Giants, it’s bye, bye baby!
Loud, soft, and in between, the children’s voices answered my raised or lowered hand as if following a conductor. A quick glance at the clock showed just enough time to close the music class with a rousing version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” our voices at full power, our song rattling the walls, windows and cobwebs of old Spring Valley School. We were the Kingston Trio, we were the Shirelles, we were Peter, Paul and Mary! With perfect timing, our song ended just as the bell rang; the children spontaneously clapped and cheered. “Class dismissed.” Cries of “That was fun… That was really great…” floated in the air as the children filed out, still laughing. I felt wonderful, elated, the pain in my stomach gone.
Only then did I remember the evaluation team at the back of the room. Words of praise came pouring out from Mrs. Mitchell and the two other evaluators. “That was excellent! That was so well done. You did a wonderful job, congratulations!” The three shook my hand, then departed, following the children down the hall. I closed the piano lid. But where was Mrs. Butler? Had she slipped out, unnoticed, had they left her behind? I glanced around the room; Mrs. Butler, her back to me, was at her desk, gathering her things, preparing to go home.
It all comes down to this... I focused on her, my glance turning into a stare, my stare into a contest of wills. You lost, you failed. Now you're going to look at me, I’m going to make you look at me, you're going to look me in the eyes. Mrs. Butler turned to face me with that same icy, stone-cold look of contempt as the day we first met. We silently stared at each other for what seemed interminable seconds, her look of contempt turning into one of pure hatred. I almost laughed aloud. I’m visible, we’re all visible now, deal with it, deal with us. I can look at you forever, I’ve had practice, you lost, you failed, you’re nothing but a bigger, older, meaner, playground bully. Mrs. Butler dropped her eyes, turned, and left the classroom without a word. She never spoke to me again, never looked at me again.
Just before the end of my last day at school Mrs. Mitchell called me into her office. Once more she congratulated me on my presentation, and on my outstanding evaluation. “I would like very much for you to work here at Spring Valley. I’m sure you would do an excellent job for us.” She paused. “I’m offering you a job, Mrs. Delgado.”
At that moment time stopped, something within me shattered, split in multiple pieces. Thoughts, memories, decisions, conversations—all recurred simultaneously in my head.
Part of me remembered the feeling of being poisoned, the gnawing ball of pain in my stomach growing larger daily, all the unrecompensed extra hours I had spent in playground duty, being used, lied to, gossiped about, going hungry for lack of time to eat. All were minor issues, really, in comparison to the multitude of random wrongs and injustices suffered by so many teachers, and students, who deserved better.
Part of me wanted to boast, to brag to Mrs. Mitchell that the entire presentation had been spontaneous, unplanned. It was extremely gratifying to imagine Mrs. Butler, in spite of all her efforts at sabotage, squirming when reminded of my success. But that lesson plan had not come from me, it was a gift from Budai. To claim otherwise would have been hubris, and another lie. But who would understand these reactions, who could I have spoken with? Immediately I knew the answer to my own question; my peers, my companions, the other Latina underclassmen, they would listen, they would understand.
Another part of me had come to a surprise spontaneous decision about the job. From a far-off place I heard my myself answer: “Thank you so much, Mrs. Mitchell, it’s an honor to be offered a job at Spring Valley. I’ve enjoyed being with the children and have come to love them. But I’m sorry, I can’t accept your offer, it wouldn’t be good or healthy for me to work here. But I appreciate it very much; your offer means so much to me.”
Platitudes, all platitudes. I didn’t trust her, didn't want to work there, and wasn’t about to tell her the truth—except for loving the children—that was true. Then I waited, whole again, no longer in pieces, curious to hear what she would reply; but after all these years, I no longer remember the rest of our conversation.
When I returned to the classroom, it was empty; the school day was over, Mrs. Butler and the students had gone, my chance to say goodbye to the children was gone. I suddenly felt unsteady, emotionally drained, hollow. Something important, something of great value had ended, gone out of my life forever. Looking around the classroom for the last time, I gathered my things for home.
But the room wasn’t empty; there sat Budai, still on duty. Rubbing his belly, I bid him goodbye, asked him to continue to protect the fifth graders…. No! That wasn’t good enough, he deserved much more. I tried again. Palms pressed together, respectfully bowing my head, I formally thanked Budai for the lesson plan, gave him credit for my success, and told him that now, with my credential secured, I would look for a job elsewhere.
Then I just stood there, waiting for …something… I didn’t know what.
Out of a long silence broken only by the steady ticking of the classroom clock, once again I heard Mrs. Butler’s words: “It was a ‘welcome to our school’ gift given to me by the Chinese parents when I first started teaching at Spring Valley.”
Budai was smiling ...our school.... Oh, I’m so slow sometimes, it can take me ages to figure things out. Clever, clever people, those parents. And subtle. They had known exactly what they were doing. Budai, disguised as a gift that could not easily be disposed of, would be a welcome resident in the classroom of a loving teacher, a thorn in the side of any other. Welcome or unwelcome, he would be there, doing his job.
Budai was laughing. Again, I heard the class tell me: “He’s the Laughing God who protects all his children and gives them what they need.” …All his children… In my narrow mindedness I had been thinking only of the young students in the class; but hadn’t I, for a short while, been part of this fifth grade? He had always been there helping me. For I too was Budai’s child. … but then, so was Mrs. Butler. Budai, the Master Teacher, had provided us all with what we needed.
Gloria (Calvillo) Delgado, born and raised in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Hawaii-born Puerto Rican mother. She and her late husband David lived for many years in Albany, California, where they raised their family. One of her stories, “Savanna,” was included in the Berkeley Community Memoir Project's recently published collection, “A Wiggle and a Prayer.” She has had four stories printed in Somos en escrito, including “El Parbulito,” a first-place winner in Somos en escrito’s 2019 Extra Fiction Contest and included in El Porvenir, ¡Ya! - Citlalzazanilli Mexicatl - Chicano Science Fiction Anthology. Recently widowed, she now resides with family in a rural community outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she has resumed writing.
Memories of Juan Bobo