Mildred Mahoney—what a mundane life she led. She never married. When the local elementary school first opened its doors, they hired her as the secretary. She was barely beyond her teens.
She was not what you might call attractive. Plain best described her. Hardly anyone knew she was around. One might say a picture on the wall; eventually, it goes unnoticed.
About five years after being hired, the school janitor, Fred Seymour, asked for Mildred’s hand in marriage. She thought about it for a month. And when she told him, yes. He informed her he was going to marry the third-grade teacher, Tilly Yoeman.
Mildred quietly did her job. There was not a student’s name she did not know and the same with their parents.
When in the fourth grade, I was all lined up to receive a paddling. It was to be administered by Miss Crowley, the principal. She was a brutish woman who wore a scow like men wear a mustache—permanently.
I sat in the chair next to Miss Mahoney’s desk. It was like sitting on death row—waiting, waiting, waiting. Wonder about the hurt. And promising myself, no matter how it hurts, I would not cry. Truth is, I already started to cry.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Miss Mahoney said.
That was the first time I heard her voice. It was sweet and tender. I thought it was an angel.
“No,” I sniffed and pouted.
“It will help,” she said.
“I just don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
“It will take your mind off things,” she said.
“No it won’t,” I said.
“What happened?” She said.
“I hit a kid,” I said.
“Who?” She said.
“Tommy Baldridge,” I said.
“He’s older than you, isn’t he?” She said.
“He’s in sixth grade,” I said.
“Yes, I know,” she said.
“You know everything, don’t you?” I said.
“Not everything,” she said, “except about everything that happens in this school.”
“Yeah, nothing gets by you,” I said.
“Can I tell you a secret,” she said, “and you promise not to tell no one else—not ever.”
“I suppose,” I said.
“No, I suppose,” she said, “you got to promise and never tell anyone. If you do, I could get fired.”
“I don’t want you fired,” I said. “You don’t talk much but you’re nice to everybody.”
“So you promise?” She said.
“Swear to God and hope to die, poke a stick in my eye.”
She looked around as if to make sure nobody was within earshot. “Miss Crowly won’t do a thing unless she clears it with me.”
“You make all the decisions?” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then you’re the boss,” I said.
“Not exactly,” she said, “but she thinks she is.”
“Can you help me out?” I said.
“Tell me about your scrap with Tommy?” she said.
“He’s been pushing me around all week,” I said. “He shoved me down and kicked me in the butt. When he walked away, I picked up a rock and clunked him on the head. He started crying. I really felt bad. I didn’t want him to cry; I just wanted him to leave me alone. And that’s the truth; swear on a stack of Bibles.”
“I know,” she said. “I heard some of the other kids talking about it.”
The clop of Victorian lace two-inch heeled shoes echoed from the hallway outside the office. I swallowed. My fate was sealed.
“Don’t worry,” Miss Mahoney said. “I got this. But look terrified.”
“I am terrified.”
“Look more terrified.”
I began to shake and whimper. It was easy to do.
Miss Crowley walked into the office. I felt as if in the presence of a corpse. She frowned at me so tight I thought her face might cramp.
“Fetch my paddle from the wall,” Miss Crowley ordered.
“The boy has heaved a few times waiting on you,” Miss Mahoney said. “I’m afraid the board might cause him to go into convulsions.”
“I think it should bring him out of it and bring him to his senses,” Miss Crowley said.
I walked over to the wall and removed the paddle from the nail it hung on. It was shiny and smooth with three rows of holes.
“You know what the holes are for?” Miss Crowley said.
“No,” I said.
“Well it’s not to make the sound of a whistle during the swing,” Miss Crowley said. It’s there to sting.”
She grabbed it from my hand.
“Bend over and grab your ankles,” Miss Crowley said as if she were about to enjoy something.
“Miss Crowley,” Miss Mahoney said, “Did you not understand what I told you about the boy’s condition.”
“Yes, and did I not tell you my position,” Miss Crowley said. “His conduct must be addressed.”
“But you haven’t heard him,” Miss Mahoney said.
“I saw a boy with a gash and stitches,” Miss Crowley said. “That’s all I needed to see.”
I was holding onto my ankles waiting. It seemed as if all my blood ran to my head. I thought I might faint.
“Oh, by the way, Miss Crowley,” Miss Mahoney said, “your housemate, Miss Carmichael said to pick up some sherry before coming home.”
“Stand up,” Miss Crowley said to me.
“What!” Miss Crowley said to Miss Mahoney.
“I think you heard the first time,” Miss Mahoney said.
Miss Crowley squinted cruelly at Miss Mahoney. “My personal life is no concern of anybody.”
“So far, since you have been principal at this school,” Miss Mahoney said, “you have paddled twenty-one boys and no girls. One might think you favor girls over boys.”
She handed the paddle to me. “Hang it up.”
“Miss Carmichael and I are friends,” Miss Crowley said.
“It’s nice to have friends,” Miss Mahoney said. “And I tell folks Miss Carmichael is a cousin you have promised to see after.”
“People talk?” Miss Crowley said.
“Yes, they do,” Miss Mahoney said.
Miss Crowley nodded toward me. “What about him? What will he say?”
“He is a good boy,” Miss Mahoney said. “He knows how to keep secrets.” She turned to me. “Isn’t that right?”
“Do you mean, you want me to tell kids I got the board but I really didn’t?” I said.
“No,” Miss Crowley said.
“Oh,” I said, “you don’t want people to know about your cousin—she can’t make it on her own.”
“Come to think of it,” Miss Mahoney said. “If anybody says something about Miss Crowley and the woman living with her, set them straight.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Run along,” Mrs. Crowley said.
For the next few years, I was confused about the events of that day. Everyone found out about Miss Crowley’s and Miss Carmichael's relationship. I kept my word. Everyone else just thought I was naive.
So here I am, fifty years later, walking up the sidewalk to Miss Crowley’s little house a block from the old elementary school. She sat on the porch in a wicker chair. Older now but I’d recognize her in a crowd.
“Hello, Miss Mahoney,” I said walking up the steps to her porch. “Do you remember me?”
“Sure I remember you,” she smiled. “Come here and have a seat and tell me what you’ve done with your life.”
I sat on a wicker chair next to her. I smiled and said, “No one in my life had greater influence on my life than you have.”
“Oh come on now,” she chuckled. “What happened, did you just make parole?”
“You don’t know how many times I wanted to tell Miss Crowley’s and Miss Carmichael's secret, but I never did.”
“So for a boy who keeps secrets so well, what did you do, work for the CIA?” she joked.
“I became a lawyer, a good one,” I said. “A good lawyer keeps secrets.”
“Whatever happened to Tommy Baldridge?” She said. “You remember him, don’t you? A good lawyer has to have a good memory.”
“Strange you should ask,” I said. “He came to me early in my career. He was up for manslaughter. I got him off, not guilty. I owed it to him. After all a kick in the butt is hardly equal to a gash and stitches in the head—still had the scar.”
“Was he guilty or innocent?” Miss Mahoney said.
“I can keep a secret.”