Caution: Children’s book spoiler
Banana, our three year old, has a favorite story. The title is Miss Nelson Is Missing, written by Harry Allard and illustrated by James Marshall. In addition to its many virtues and entertainment value, the great part about this story is that it has appeal both for the child and the parent who is forced to read the book to the child hundreds of times. (Wish I could say that about more kids’ books.)
The upshot of the book is that Miss Nelson’s Texan elementary school classroom is a hotbed of childhood villainy and unruliness, and one day, she decides she’s had enough.
The next day, she doesn’t show up for class. Instead, a beaky, gothic-looking, foul-tempered slave driver named Miss Viola Swamp comes in her stead. Story hour—the least structured part of the day—is abolished, and the children are saddled with more homework than ever. They are commanded to sit still, be quiet, and fear for their lives if they transgress Miss Swamp’s new rules. Although they’re learning more than they’ve ever learned before, it isn’t long before they yearn for Miss Nelson, whom they had previously treated with contempt.
This is a schoolteacher’s "id" story. (I personally define id here as "relating or appealing to one’s basest, most essential inclinations or desires.") I remember my years as a teacher’s aide being dumped on mercilessly by some of my students, but returning after an absence to find that they’d developed a newfound appreciation for me after a few days with a substitute. The twist in the story (here comes the spoiler) is that Miss Swamp is actually Miss Nelson in disguise. Aaaahhh, thinks the teacher in me, to be able to inflict that kind of vengeance on the rottener breed of student and enjoy watching its effect! (Note: Since becoming a teacher in my own right, I confess I have never had students with quite the severity of behavior problems as I had when a teacher’s aide. Perhaps it’s that I’ve taught more disciplined kids, or perhaps it was the dramatic rise in authority and prestige that accompanied the certification process? Giggle snort!)
But vicarious pedagogical sadism aside, the point made by the author of the book is still a sound one. Naughty children sometimes get what they deserve. Slackers are occasionally faced with mandatory hard labor. And rudeness does not elicit kindness in others. But best of all, in this teacher’s opinion, a teacher always has tools, and dangling carrots in front of mulish schoolchildren is only ONE form of motivation.
Miss Nelson eventually returns to her classroom to the relief and delight of her students who welcome her with open arms (and much-improved behavior). Story hour is re-instituted, and all’s well that ends well. I wonder, though, if the students will learn as much when loved as when terrorized. (They told us in teacher school never to smile until Thanksgiving so the students would learn to take us seriously. It seems that even in the Real World, kindness is sometimes construed as weakness.) But the reader is shown an illustration of Miss Nelson’s boudoir at the end of the book, and sees that the coarse black dress, bulbous prosthetic nose, black lipstick and dead-cat wig are still readily at hand, should Miss Nelson deem it necessary.