Finding my old fifth grade teacher on Facebook…

14 minute read

June 4, 2018, 2:30 PM

Recently, a very familiar name came up in my friend suggestions: “Sharon Payne Bradley”.  In other words, this person:

Sharon Bradley in August 1991, posing with me on the first day of school

That was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Bradley, who presided over what was, without question, the absolute worst year in my entire formal education, from kindergarten through my senior year of college.  I had not seen or spoken with Mrs. Bradley since May 29, 1992, when I completed fifth grade at Bonnie Grimes Elementary School.  And now, here I was, confronted by her photo on Facebook.  I declined to send a friend request to her, because in all honesty, I have no desire to have this toxic person, who was extremely abusive to me while I was her student, back in my life.

I suppose that our horrible year together was a perfect storm of sorts.  She had lost her husband to cancer in early 1991, which caused her to miss quite a bit of time late in the previous school year.  I believe that she was likely still coming to terms with such a major life change when the new school year started in late August.  I imagine that she probably should have taken a year off from teaching in order to sort through everything and make peace with her new situation, but I assume that financial considerations prevented that.  As it was, I’m pretty sure that she was just “phoning it in” that year, considering that the room had nothing on the walls aside from the evacuation maps and the bulletin board that didn’t change all year.  See for yourself:

Mrs. Bradley's classroom for 1991-1992. The walls are bare, and that bulletin board didn't change the entire year.

Meanwhile, I was coming into fifth grade following a fairly rough fourth grade year, where my parents and the school administration clashed pretty hard.  When the principal and the guidance counselor tried to blame my being the way that I was on a dysfunctional home life, my parents hired a psychologist who interviewed everyone involved and observed the school setting before coming to the conclusion, as a professional, that our family was fine, but the school had issues.  The school administration banned him from coming back to the school, which put an end to our work with him, because the doctor and my parents agreed that we had gone as far as we could.  I imagine that my being the way that I was came from some mild form of high-functioning autism, but this has never been formally diagnosed.

Then the school year itself was pretty rough.  For starters, we had creative writing on Friday mornings, and the first time that we did it, I had a major case of writer’s block.  I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t get the creative juices flowing that morning.  Perhaps it was a bad prompt.  I remember that the next week’s prompt was “the importance of rules”, so I imagine that the first one was probably similarly lame.  In any case, I remember getting pulled aside and being told exactly what sort of terrible person I was for not being able to come up with something coherent for whatever the prompt was.  And this was only the first week of school, and with the allegedly “nice” teacher.  Way to encourage people to write.  Nothing to help get me started. Just a berating.  A later instance of writer’s block within the first month of school during that creative writing session, where for whatever reason, I just couldn’t get the creative juices flowing, earned me a trip to the principal’s office where she berated me.  I was no stranger to getting yelled at by Mrs. Carmical, with five years of elementary school under my belt at that point, but nonetheless, this was not a good way to start the school year.

Seating arrangements were always a matter of contention.  Originally, all of our desks were arranged individually in a grid format.  Then shortly after the year started, our desks were rearranged into clusters of five or so each.  Mrs. Bradley called them “cooperative learning groups”, but in looking at various definitions of what cooperative learning actually is, this was not that.  This was just student desks arranged in clusters instead of rows, with no change in the teaching method.  One problem that we had in that arrangement was two girls who wouldn’t stop talking to each other.  I had eventually had enough of hearing Mrs. Bradley complain in class about these two girls who wouldn’t shut up, especially since that was a problem that was within her capacity to solve.  So I decided to try and help.  I designed my own seating chart and gave it to her as a suggestion for solving the problem.  This was viewed as the worst thing that I could possibly do to her, i.e. a direct challenge to her authority.  I suppose that it also said a lot about how strong of a hold she actually had on her authority if a mere ten-year-old could shake her to the core like that.  For this episode, Mrs. Bradley wrote “Openly challenges teacher” on my report card at the end of the first quarter:

"Openly challenges teacher" on my report card

I see no problem with challenging someone on a decision or a policy.  One of two things should happen when you challenge something like that.  Either you’re going to get a reasonable explanation as to why something is like that, or they’re going to say something along the lines of, “You know, he’s right.”  Then if you’re not going to even consider a suggestion, then the correct response is, “Thank you for your suggestion.  I’ll take it under advisement.”  In other words, give it a polite and cordial reception, and then ignore it if that’s what you want to do.

And things only got worse.  There was an occasion in October 1991 where, for whatever reason – I forget why – I was instructed to move my desk one foot away from the other desks in the cluster that I had been placed in.  I remember that Mrs. Bradley had then questioned whether I had actually moved it a full foot, and so I pulled out my ruler (you know, the one that we were required to have per our supply list) to verify the distance in order to settle it definitively.  The idea was that it’s fine that you want me to move my desk a foot away, because that’s your prerogative as the teacher.  But if you’re going to then question how well I followed your instructions, I’m going to settle it, and verify my compliance with said instructions.  That was, in her mind, the worst thing that I ever could have done.  Clearly, by her logic, I was doing this as a personal challenge to her and her authority, and as the teacher, she had to win.  So I got sent to the office.  Mrs. Carmical was out that day (otherwise, I probably would have just gotten another lecture from her), and the assistant principal, Mrs. Compton, would not be in until the afternoon.  So she called my mother, with the intention of bringing her in to sit with me, in the office, until the assistant principal arrived.  My mother and Mrs. Compton both arrived around the same time, and then Mrs. Bradley came back and told my mother, in my presence, exactly what sort of terrible person I was.  It was the only time that I ever cried in school, and I was thoroughly embarrassed because of it, because I was not the kind of kid who cried in school.  Then after that, I was sent back to class, tear-stained face and all.

At the halfway point in the year, our desks were rearranged in rows of four or five, which was a tremendous improvement over the clusters of desks that we had before.  Around Valentine’s Day, I was instructed to move my desk away from the rest of my row.  I don’t remember why, but it happened.  I was told that I would be able to sit in a group with the other kids again if I demonstrated something or other, but it was a nebulous enough “goal” as to be unattainable.  I sensed that Mrs. Bradley’s goal was to ostracize me, and apparently it worked, because I sat alone for the rest of the year.  She rearranged the desks one more time for the final quarter, putting the kids in pairs.  In that arrangement, my desk was the odd one out, in the center of the room, looking like a misfit.  How humiliating.

Meanwhile, public humiliation was one of Mrs. Bradley’s usual tactics.  I couldn’t tell you how many times I was singled out and humiliated in front of the entire class for some minor transgression.  I remember one instance that related to the computer.  The unwritten rule was that we could go over and use the computer if we had finished our work.  I had finished my work, so I headed over to play whatever game was there.  A short while later, another kid decided that he wanted to use the computer, and asked me to vacate.  I told him no, that I was not finished using the computer, and to wait until I was done.  The other kid went straight to Mrs. Bradley and ratted on me, and she then made a scene in the classroom about it.  I recall that I was very publicly asked from across the room about what I had said and why I had said that, and then I was told, still from across the room, that I had just lost my computer privileges for a week.  How unprofessional – especially when she could have so easily handled it quietly amongst the two students involved without making a scene and disturbing the entire class to handle a minor issue, and disciplining a student publicly.  Public shaming really has no place in school, but that was one of her go-to tactics.  It’s also not a big stretch of the imagination to think that had the situation been reversed, and I was the kid who wanted to use the computer, that the situation would have gone quite differently, and that I would have been told to go sit down, or maybe get some ridiculous lecture on why I shouldn’t ask people to use the computer, and how terrible I was for even considering it.

Another one of Mrs. Bradley’s favorite things to do was whenever there was a disciplinary issue, of any kind, she would have the student involved write down what happened on a white, unlined index card.  However, this was not simply a matter of taking statements and evaluating them to determine the full picture of what happened.  Rather, she wanted us to write the story of what happened the way that she wanted it to read, i.e. to fit whatever narrative that she was trying to craft about us, and there would be consequences for not doing it that way.  I remember on more than one occasion, after having given a statement about what happened in a situation, being told that what I wrote was wrong, and that I needed to write it again.  On a few occasions, when I stuck to my guns on what happened, she isolated me from the rest of the class, moving my desk into the corner of the room, away from everyone else, because of the index card issue.  If I wanted to rejoin the class, I had to write my statement her way.  She would then use these cards, with the statements of questionable accuracy, as ammunition during parent-teacher conferences.

Parent-teacher conferences were another source of contention (but then again, what wasn’t a source of contention when dealing with Sharon Bradley?).  My father is a very smart and organized person, and is and always has been on top of his game when it comes to matters of business.  My father would bring a notepad with him when my parents went for conferences.  That was seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the teacher, the principal, and the guidance counselor, and, if you haven’t figured it out by now, they just couldn’t have that.  I assume that they didn’t want to later be held accountable for what they said, and thus they didn’t want anyone to document anything that happened in those conferences.  Their “solution” was to ban my father from parent-teacher conferences, much like the way that they banned the psychologist the year before.  I don’t remember what the resolution was on that, but my parents, in hindsight, at one time indicated that they probably should have initiated legal action based on that.  These were the same people who also told my parents that I was “at risk”.  When my parents questioned them on what I was at risk for, since I was doing fine academically, they responded that I was at risk of going to prison.  Okay, then.  Thank you for your suggestion. I’ll take it under advisement.

Then there was the time when I was told how inadequate I was compared to the other kids as far as art skills went.  We were doing this drawing assignment, where we were supposed to draw something related to our social studies material (some period in American history).  I don’t remember what my drawing was about specifically, but it was clearly not up to fifth grade spec.  When Mrs. Bradley saw my drawing in progress, she took me out in the hall and chastized me for it, told me that I drew like a first grader, and then showed me allegedly how much better all of the other students’ drawings were, which were posted on the hallway bulletin board from a similar assignment, compared to mine.  Way to inspire someone to work towards greater heights.  I’m sorry that my artwork didn’t please you, but I was doing my best.  And my best had just gotten trashed by the teacher.  And this was at a school that provided no art education of any kind, so it’s not like they were teaching me to be a better artist or anything.  Ultimately, I never submitted anything for that assignment, and Mrs. Bradley never pressed the point.  Just as well, because clearly, I was incapable of completing that assignment to her preferences.

I also recall several occasions where Mrs. Bradley would tell the class one thing and then do something else when it came to dealing with me.  On one occasion, she told the class that embarrassing a student was the last step that she would take after a series of other methods failed to correct an unruly student before sending them off to be paddled by the principal (Rogers at that time was one of those backwards school districts that still practiced corporal punishment).  I couldn’t believe my ears, because I knew of several occasions where public humiliation was the first step that she took to address a situation, and not as a last resort.  It took great strength on my part not to call her a liar right then and there.  Then there was another time where she told the class that she never made students stand out in the hallway, and that she was more inclined to isolate a student in the room rather than send them out.  Fast forward to a social studies lesson.  I had spaced out, and then was called on for something.  I had no idea where we were because I had spaced out for a while.  When asked why, I told Mrs. Bradley that I didn’t find the lesson interesting.  That was it: go stand out in the hallway.  I was surprised, because based on her previous statement, she wouldn’t send a student to go stand in the hall.  But there I was, standing out there for what felt like an eternity.

As an aside, my mother, also a teacher, put it best about why you should never send a student to stand out in the hallway: the child is completely unsupervised out there.  You have no idea what the kid is doing while they’re out there, or even if they’re still there at all.  A child could conceivably leave the school building entirely while being disciplined in such a way.  I only lived a mile away from school, and so just walking home was not outside the realm of possibility.  And the teacher would likely be held responsible if anything happened, because they were the one who put the child in that situation in the first place, rather than keeping them in a supervised setting where they belong.  It kind of makes me wish that I had thought of doing that as a child.

My best times in fifth grade were when Mrs. Bradley was out of the picture.  We had science with another teacher, and I got along with that teacher really well.  No problems of any kind.  Then we had a student teacher for about eight weeks in the middle of the year, and the atmosphere was noticeably less hostile while the student teacher was running the show.  However, when the student teacher was away, Mrs. Bradley was back, and it was back to the old hostile environment again.  I was very sad when the student teacher’s time with us was over, not only because she was awesome in her own right, but also because it meant that Mrs. Bradley, and all of her abusive behaviors, would be back for good.

Towards the end of the year, we had a substitute for two days.  I was always excited to have a substitute teacher in fifth grade, because it meant that I would get a break from Mrs. Bradley and her abuse, and would have a normal person teaching us for a change.  In this particular case, our sub was someone that went to the same church as me, so we already knew each other really well, and got along really well.  Those two days were awesome, having a teacher who liked me.  The first day that Mrs. Bradley was back, I was out all day for a field trip with the gifted program.  While I was gone, Mrs. Bradley had all of the kids write statements about what went on in class while she was gone.  The day after that, I got called up to her desk.  There, she read me some of these statements, and told me how terrible I was because, according to her, almost all of the statements mentioned me.  I considered that whole episode to be extremely unfair because it was done behind my back while I was away, and thus I never was able to give my own statement.  Of course, considering what she did with the statements, I wasn’t supposed to be allowed to do one by design, since it was clearly intended as an attack on me.  I remember that Mrs. Bradley even went so far as to say that she might ask my parents to keep me home on future days when there would be a substitute.  She wasn’t out again for the rest of the year, but I could imagine that such a request wouldn’t have gone over well with my parents.  Something about denying a student their education, especially when the teacher in question was a mental case to begin with.  You know.  Of course, considering that this happened around early April, I had grown tired of her nonsense by that point.  Yeah, okay, you think that I’m an awful person.  Great.  I’m happy for you.  Now leave me alone.

Then I did have my shining moments: I won both the spelling bee and the geography bee that year.  For the spelling bee, that meant that I would go on to represent the school, along with the second-place winner, at the county spelling bee.  I did respectably in the county bee, and had quite a few people cheering me on.  Then for the geography bee, I scored well enough on the written test given after the school’s bee to advance to the state geography bee in Little Rock.  You know that Mrs. Bradley, Mrs. Carmical, and Mrs. Burns (the guidance counselor) were just dying over the fact that the student that they despised most of all had won both the spelling and geography bees, and was out representing their school in some pretty big competitions.  I absolutely loved it.

However, the encounter did make me wonder what I might say if life brought our paths together in such a way that interaction was inevitable.  Now that our business relationship has long since ended and neither can formally affect the other anymore, plus with the benefit of hindsight, as we’re both older and (hopefully) wiser, one can be more candid and more frank about what went on way back in 1992.  I suppose that I might have had a few questions about things:

Why did you single me out and treat me differently than everyone else in the class?

Why did you take any questions about how things were run as unacceptable challenges to your authority?  Can’t we all learn from everyone?  Or did you consider yourself so perfect that you knew everything that there was to be known, and therefore couldn’t learn anymore?

Considering that my fourth grade year was also rather rough, were you warned about me by other staff prior to the beginning of the year?

That last question makes me wonder.  It makes me wonder if she had been warned about me by Mrs. Carmical or one of my teachers from previous years.  I wonder if that colored her perception of me before we ever met, and if that poisoned the well when it came to our working relationship.  After all, a new school year is a new start.  Every year, it’s a new setting with a new teacher, and I can set aside any differences with the previous teacher, because this is a new person to get to know and form a working relationship with.  If a previous teacher is warning the next teacher about a student, that prevents that fresh start.  It’s why, when my mother would be offered warnings about some of her upcoming students by other teachers, she told them that she didn’t want to hear it.  She wanted to form her own relationships with the students without any remnants of past relationships to color her perception of them.  Besides, the reason that a past teacher had a problem with a student may have had more to do with the teacher than the student.  A warning to the next teacher implicitly says that the student is entirely the problem, and that the teacher was perfect.  And we know that no one is perfect, teachers included, and you’re only harming the student by warning another teacher about their students before they ever have a chance to meet them and form their own opinion about them.

All in all, I’m glad that I never have to see Sharon Bradley ever again.  I’m glad that she is now retired, because it means that she won’t be able to inflict her emotional abuse on or otherwise harm any more students like she did to me.  I do, however, hope that she has made peace with her personal life, but I do resent that her poor mental state at the time affected her ability to be a good teacher.  In the end, I definitely learned a lot of life lessons, and it’s that people with a little bit of power will abuse it, and that teachers can be far worse bullies than other students could ever be.