25 days of joy, constraint, & my holiday brain: Day nine.

I got the window seat at the coffee shop on a snowy day…

Bite me, Mrs. Murphy!


Instead of doing what I “should” be doing, I’m looking at snow.

It’s a wintry vindication.

Being able to stare at snow in lieu of work is one of my most cherished activities. It’s been that way since the first day it snowed outside of Mrs. Murphy’s fifth grade class at Malibu Elementary in Virginia Beach.

That helmet-haired, pinchy-faced woman was probably the most damaging teacher I’ve ever had.

Exhibit A: During the state-mandated moment of silence after we swore our allegiance to Richard Stanz, she would make a point of opening up one of those Bibles with a floppy cover —not quite paper, not quite plastic. One the first day of class when she explained the moment of silence, as if we were unfamiliar with the concept of shutting up, she made a point of spittingly telling us, “…and if anyone chooses to open up the Bible and read, that’s their right. No one can tell you that you can’t.” So she would sit up there well after anyone’s definition of “moment” reading something from the New Testament. Always the New. And she read aloud. Soft enough to maintain plausible deniability of violating the separation of church and state, but in those long, long silent moments, you could hear her perfectly fine. If she had had a medieval illuminated manuscript (with floppy cover), I assume she would’ve held the book up and open, moving it back and forth so we all could see pictures of the one true savior.

I had just moved to Virginia from Long Island, and this was my first encounter with Evangelical Protestantism. In my school in NY, you were either Roman Catholic or Jewish… and then we got about our business of learning. My dad had a saying: “Put up a crucifix or a mezuzah, then shut up.” Religion is not for public display.

When she was done reading for our benefit, she would loudly shut the floppy covers, and then begin her own personal moment of silence. The kabuki would end with her crossing herself. The moment of silence sometimes would last more than three minutes. This wasn’t faith; it was political theater.

Exhibit B: Okay, read your Bible. I can zone out for three minutes if that’s what your politician/god demands. It’s early. I still need a little me-time before I can really start the day. But when you get in the way of my book-learning…

Three weeks into the new school year, we only had nine spelling words instead of the usual ten. Mrs. Murphy had banned the tenth. That word was “gay,” as in happy. (It was 1976, and the Virginia Beach schools sucked. So we were using spelling books from 1962.)

“You don’t have to learn THAT word. It’s a bad word. I won’t even dignify it by telling you what it means.” Did she want smelling salts?


We were ten, not stupid. We all knew what the word “gay” meant in modern parlance. Besides, it was a three-letter word. What sorry spelling textbook has you learning to spell three letter words?

Because Mrs. Murphy made such a deal over the word “gay,” and because my last name, Fay, rhymed with it, life became a living hell. And she just watched.

The last day of class, when mimeographed “awards” were handed out, she presented me with a certificate for HAPPIEST BOY. I’m queer; I know shade when I see it.

I would stay in the closet for the rest of the 20th century.

Exhibit C: That January it snowed for the first time that year. We were excited. It was snow fercrissakes! It was coming down so fast that there was no way we were having school the next day. We all spent the morning doing exactly what I’m doing now —watching the snow fall. It’s mesmerizing. All those little flakes, each one different, coming down randomly and chaotically. But it all added up to a glorious whole that was much more interesting than our one syllable spelling words.

Lunch came. About five minutes before it ended, Mrs. Murphy motioned to one of her toadies. She whispered something in the toady’s ear. (See, she was capable of whispering.) The toady left the combination lunchroom/gym/assembly hall. Something was up.

When we got back to the room, it was dark. Like we were going to see a filmstrip. She had the toady close the blinds.

There was grumbling.

Much grumbling.

“Maybe now y’all will pay attention. You’re here to learn, not stare out the window,” she said, stiffening her back, completely unaware of the nearly five hours since the beginning of the year we had wasted staring at her theatrically praying. How many one syllable words could we have learned in that time? 
Think about how much more enjoyable this piece would be with more one-syllable words? Her evangelizing is robbing you of quality words four decades on. You should be mad.

So, I’m watching the snow. Yeah, I have ‘better’ things to do. But every flake that falls is a minuscule “fuck you” to a hurtful woman.


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