“If I had only taken that job at the Montgomery Ward’s at the mall,” Miss Winnie mumbled aloud as she stood outside the girl’s lavatory of the Piney Fork Elementary School, impatiently waiting for her student, Karen Henkel, to emerge. “I wouldn’t have to dye the gray out of my hair every month.”
That morning Karen had brought all of her Halloween candy collected the evening before; in to share with the rest of the small second grade class, but, unfortunately, candy sharing was not permitted.
Karen spent the morning at her desk in the corner by the turtle tank, quietly, eating piece after piece of Milk Duds, candy corn, cheese popcorn, Lemonheads and many other sugary treats, until she could indulge no more. About noon, she slowly left her seat and placed herself alongside Miss Winnies metal waste can, where she deposited most of the candy eaten that morning.
Miss Winnie had taken Karen Henkel to the girl’s lavatory to clean herself up, along with Karen’s only friend, Zelda Riggolio, who was still dressed in her Grandma Walton Halloween costume from the night before. Miss Winnie had instructed her remaining students to continue reading chapter three of their social studies books. She had chosen Linka, her best student, to watch over the class from her desk in the front of the room.
Miss Winnie pulled back the sleeve of her worn brown sweater and glanced at her wristwatch. “Twelve fifteen,” she thought, “I can get home in time to catch the second half of “Secret Storm” and be back before the brats are through with lunch. And take that ground meat out of the freezer for meatloaf tonight-“
Her thoughts were interrupted by the loud opening of the steel and frosted glass girl’s lavatory door. A second later Karen appeared, looking pale and worn, the front of her Casper costume damp and stained. Her thick eyeglasses were teetering at the edge of her nose.
“How are you, Karen?” Miss Winnie asked, disinterested. “Ready to back to class?”
Karen coughed heavily, and then cleared her throat. “I still don’t feel so g-g-good…I wanna go home. I may be sick again”
Miss Winnie knelt down, wincing at her pupil’s pungent breath. “Karen, you told me that no one is at home to come and get you.” She touched her small shoulder and smiled weakly. “You wouldn’t be trying to get out of a spelling test this afternoon, would you? Ruin your perfect record of gold stars?”
Behind them the heavy door swung open again, Zelda boldly pushing it aside with one hand and carrying a bunch of wadded paper towels in the other. Water from the sink had apparently sprayed all over her Gramma Walton costume.
“She’s good as new, Miss Winnie.” Zelda announced for all to hear. “A little castor oil and she’ll be fine in no time. Fine enough to head down to Walton’s Creek and catch us a few crawdads fer dinner.” Karen choked loudly. “And you little lady, stay away for the hard stuff. “ Zelda waved a nagging finger at Karen. “Save some for the boys who are fighting for us in Europe!”
Miss Winnie stood and sighed, her knees cracking. Zelda’s obsession with Gramma Walton was amusing for the first few days, but that was back in September, when the recent season premiere of The Walton’s had been broadcast. But now, over a month later, Miss Winnie was sick of her homespun tales, tired of the ratty grey wig she wore so school every day and generally irritated by many of her other newly acquired habits, including wagging her fingers at those who ran on the playground, clicking her tongue when one of the other student got the wrong answer. Miss Winnie was most annoyed when Zelda spied her behind the cafeteria, smoking, what she called, “sticks of the devil”.
“Let’s go back to the class room, girls.” I’m sure the others are worried about you, Karen.” Miss Winnie led them down the echoing hall. “I’ll see if Mrs. Gunning can call your mother.”
Mrs. Gunning was the principal of Piney Fork Elementary School, and was feared by most of the students and a good number of the teachers. Her harsh tone and negative attitude were off putting to all who encountered her, even her husband, the school’s custodian.
“She’ll put me in the basement and I’ll never get out!” Karen stopped in her tracks and began to whimper. “No one will ever see me again! I ‘don’t wanna be g-g-gassed!” Recently a student had brought a sick kitten to Mrs., Gunning’s office, claiming to have found it under a tree in front of the school. The principal ordered her husband to keep it in the cold dark basement, in a box next to the furnace, whose gas fumes were no match for the little animal, and was buried under the very tree that she was found under the next day. Unfortunately the windows of Room Two overlook the same area, and Karen, witnessed the entire event, from her seat by the turtle tank.
Karen tugged at Zelda’s faded blouse.” Don’t let them bury me in the front of the school, Gramma Walton!” She began to cry uncontrollably.
A few moments later Miss Winnie opened the heavy wood door of Room Two, and was surprised by what she saw and heard. Linka was banging away at the worn, out of tune, painted upright piano in the back of the cramped classroom, and the entire class was standing on their chairs, singing at the top of their small lungs:
Zee beets zee beets. We love zee frozen beets…
Zee beets, zee beets are on zee stick.
Miss Winnie rapped on the wood door, interrupting their sing-song chant. “What is going on here, children? Get off your chairs and sit down. Linka, get back to your seat!” Linka quietly obeyed, as the rest of the students sat down. “I put you in charge and look what happened!” Karen and Zelda returned to their seats as well.
“Linka is teaching zee class zee cheer of my home country, Bulgaria.” Linka explained, once the scraping of chairs had stopped and Miss Winnie was back at her oversized metal desk in the front of the room. “We sing see song of zee favorite food of Bulgaria…frozen beets on zee stick.” She smiled proudly. “Zee Bulgarians do zee cheer before every day at zee school.”
At her desk, Karen Henkel clamped her hand to her mouth. “Ugh, I’m gonna be sick…” she mumbled. Behind her Zelda loudly clicked her tongue.
“You have something to contribute, Zelda?” Miss Winnie snapped, leaning on her desk and patting her sweater pocket for a loose cigarette. “Something else to share with the rest of the class?”
Zelda sat upright and arranger her grey wig. “The names Walton, Gramm Walton. And that ain’t no way to cheer. Them Bulgarians don’t know nuttin. Back at Walton’s Mountain, we cheer like this!” She stood, faced the class and pointed at Linka.
“What do we like?” Zelda called out.
“Zee beets!” Linka replied.
“How do we like em?”
“Frozen!” Linka called out heartily.
“How do we eat em?”
“On zee stick!” Linka clapped her hands. At her seat, Karen began to choke.
Zelda waved to the rest of the class. “Everybody! What do we like?”
“Beets.” the class replied.
“How do we like em?”
“Frozen!” the class called back.
“How do we eat em?”
“On a stick!” the class cried. With that, Karen quickly rose from her seat, ran past her classmates and stopped next to Miss Winnie’s metal desk, where she proceeded to deposit the remainder of her partially digested candy into the smelly waste can.
“If I had only taken that job at the Montgomery Ward’s at the mall,” Miss Winnie thought, rapping her thin knuckles on the metal desk, to no avail. “Maybe I’ll look them up in the Yellow pages after Secret Storm.
The class continued their cheer, drowning out Karen’s crying, as Miss Winnie glanced at the clock on the wall. “Almost time for lunch…almost time… If I had only…”