“The Pinewood Paddle Massacre,” Ensign, Apr. 1991, 65
In my little neck of the woods in northern Arizona, Mrs. Frost was somebody you just grew up knowing. Her physical appearance was quietly intimidating, her personality was as vivid as that of a cartoon character, and her reputation as education’s last stronghold had been passed down through at least two generations. One would expect a teacher to command respect from the children of a small town, but when Jayne Frost walked the aisles of Nick’s Market, even the mothers stopped their lollygagging and tended to business.
If the truth were known (and it usually was in several versions around our town), our moms had probably felt the whack of Mrs. Frost’s paddle on many unfortunate, misguided occasions.
If it’s possible for one woman to mold the character of a whole town, piece by piece, then surely she did.
No one left Mrs. Frost’s eighth-grade class sketchy on math, sentence diagramming, or “The Cremation of Sam Magee.” Likewise, she left no question in our heads as to the meaning of honesty, industry, charity, or any other virtue we were inclined to misinterpret. And, if we didn’t get the message on Monday through Friday, she stood before us like a human italic letter as the teacher of our Sunday School class. Perhaps it wasn’t what she taught, but how that has placed her voice in the conscience of two generations.
My day of reckoning came early in the year. The pinewood paddle still had summer dust on it when she took it off the wall to reinforce her point. “You are all on the honor system here. I will not allow you to mock your education by cheating. It is dishonest; it wastes your time and mine—and I’m too old to waste time. You may begin the test,” came the decree.
With the reverence of a pallbearer, she took her seat behind a gigantic oak desk. While we sweated, she immersed herself in the poetry book of her choosing, grinning while she read to expose a wide gap between her two front teeth. Eddie Seaton always said she used a two-by-four for a toothpick, which was as near blasphemy as we got in our little town.
I was only halfway down the first page and running low on steam when my friend Sara shoved a piece of sweaty paper into my hand. Egads! This had better be darned important. A quick glance toward the oak desk confirmed the transaction had gone unnoticed—the grin was still in place. Carefully, I unfolded the worn note. Somebody must have gotten kissed at recess. Still grinning? Yes, still grinning.
My eyes read the scrawlings on the paper, and my blood ran cold. Feeling much the same way as if I’d found the body of my worst enemy propped in my closet—shocked, but morbidly delighted—l realized that the secret note contained answers to the test straight from the teacher’s manual. Once again checking the grin, my heart throbbing in the ends of my fingertips, I began filling out my test. Sara and I were the first ones done and sat quietly until the bell rang. Mrs. Frost shut her book with a chuckle as if to punctuate the end of the grin, and we were all excused.
The longest weekend of my life followed. Friday night I woke up with the ultimate in nightmares. Mrs. Frost’s face was on all of my stuffed animals; it had replaced the faces of John, Paul, George, and Ringo on my bedroom wall; and worst of all, when I looked into the mirror, there was a big gap between my front teeth. Not wanting a rerun, I decided that the safest choice of a sinner is to stay awake. And, not wanting to be miserable alone, I crept out the window to Sara’s house where I found her in much the same condition. “I thought you were Mrs. Frost coming to take me away in the night,” she gasped.
“I doubt she’d throw pebbles at your window.”
“You’re right, she’d command the walls to part and just walk on in.”
Things got steadily worse. Saturday morning, Mrs. Frost phoned to ask me to help her out with her Sunday School lesson. She had to ask twice since my tongue was paralyzed the first time around. I thought I even heard her begin to chuckle as she hung up. No, it couldn’t be. She only wanted me to read and explain a scripture to the class. The next ring was Sara. She, too, had received an assignment. “Oooooh, we may as well reserve a cemetery plot right now. Face it, life is over.”
I laughed until I found that the scriptures we were to read were on honesty.
Our plan to ditch Sunday School and hide in the alley behind Myrtle’s Flower Shop was set aside as an obvious admission of guilt. So there we sat, face-to-face with our would-be accuser. Judgment Day seemed weak in comparison. But somehow, Mrs. Frost seemed softer on Sundays. Oh, she still taught with the same fervency, but she looked at us with a different kind of look. Sometimes I even thought she was about to cry.
We counted how many times she looked at us during the lesson—three for me, five for Sara. Both of us managed to hit the doorway on the “A” part of “Amen.” “Girls”—she paused until we turned around—”thanks for helping me with the lesson. I can always count on the two of you to come through.”
Neither of us had much to say on the way home. “Did you see that?” Sara whispered. “I think she did have tears in her eyes when she thanked us. What are we gonna do?”
“What choice do we have? We either die of guilt or the pinewood paddle.”
Everybody cheered when the bell rang on Monday afternoon, signaling freedom, but the sound held dread for the two of us. Before we could stop hyperventilating, the room was cleared and we were alone: Mrs. Frost and the sinners. Sara said she’d do the talking, because I jabber uncontrollably when threatened with death and other nerve-wracking events.
“We cheated on the test Friday,” I blurted out, “we felt like dirt, we’re so sorry, we’ll never do anything like that again for the rest of our lives, that is, if we’re allowed to live the rest of …”
Sara stepped on my foot. “Please forgive us.” Mrs. Frost was slow to answer. Finally, she spoke in her Sunday voice, which relieved us both since we knew the commandment about murder came before the one about honesty.
“I’m so glad you came to me with this, girls. That took courage and shows a great deal of integrity. But you have made a sad mistake and must suffer the consequences.”
With that she picked up our test copies (which just happened to be paper-clipped together on top of the stack) and dropped them in the army-green trash can by the side of her desk. “Not only will you lose the scores from these papers, but also the opportunity to learn from taking the test on your own. And, of course, the punishment for cheating in this classroom is a paddling.”
She reached for the pinewood paddle. The horror stories of a generation of blistered bottoms flashed across our memories. Mrs. Frost escorted us to opposite sides of the big oak desk. Staring across at Sara was like looking in the mirror at my own guilty, terrified face. “Now both of you close your eyes and keep them closed. What’s about to happen is not a pretty sight.”
She commanded us to bend way over the desk. We did. I wondered if Sara’s legs were shaking as badly as mine. Bobby McKinney always said it hurt worse if you tensed up. Would she spank me first or Sara?
WHAP! It was Sara. Sara gave kind of a delayed little whimper which made me start to sniffle. Sara started to cry. I wanted to look, but dared not. I tried to relax for my swat.
WHAP! Sara again, and that one sounded just wicked. Sara was sobbing by then. I joined in, out of sympathy or anxiety, I knew not.
WHAP! Another to Sara. This was unmerciful. We both were wailing. I could take no more. “Please stop, Mrs. Frost! Sara, are you all right?”
Simultaneously, we both looked up at each other across the big oak desk. Red faced and soggy, Sara answered, “What do you mean, am I all right? You’re the one getting hit.”
As we stared at each other in confusion, WHAP! Mrs. Jayne Frost took one last swing and unloaded her padded desk chair of a decade’s worth of dust. There she stood—paddle grasped in hand, hands resting on hips that were made for the job.
How many of these mock massacres had taken place in the last thirty years? We would never know, for at that moment we joined a silent society of loyal admirers who guarded her secrets well. And then, speaking as she moved toward the door, Jayne Frost penned this line upon our memories forever: “I guess you might say this paddling was a lot like the knowledge you could have gained by taking the test on your own—neither one of you got it in the end.”
With that, she replaced the paddle upon the hook and left the room.