Mr. Barton Remembered

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

When we saw the young girl pushing her bike up the hill most locals call “Little 6 Points,” I had a curious tightening in my throat.

I looked around. Except for an old couple bouncing along in their golf cart on their way home from church (that would be us) there was no one else in sight. Her wide-eyed expression told me she had been taught to avoid strangers. She was taking no chances, hence the distance and the caution. She said nothing, kept on pushing.

Surely it was my imagination. She looked to be about 10 years old, and scared, and I was grateful once more for the safety in which I grew up, able to wander free within a one block by one block area.

One day on a walk through the city park across the street from our house, Mom snatched me by the shoulder and spun me off the well-trodden path and away from a man in a raincoat. I didn’t know what she had seen that I hadn’t, because the phrase “exposed himself” meant nothing to me, and Mom obviously wasn’t going to spend too many words to describe what had just happened.

We moved out of Harrisburg, crossing the river into rural Cumberland County, when I was in 4th grade. Shaull’s Consolidated School was the latest in education when I arrived there one fine morning in autumn. It had four classrooms, large enough to accommodate two grades and one teacher: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8.

There was no Kindergarten in public schools in those days, at least not in Cumberland, and smart teachers kept the older and brighter students from being bored to death by having them give the younger kids extra instruction.

Apparently my school in Harrisburg was at least a grade ahead of Shaull’s and I became so bored and such a nuisance that Mrs. Moyers (the 3-4 teacher) petitioned Mr. Barton (the principal and 7-8 teacher) to move me up to 5th. It would be two more years before that decision came home to bite him. He taught the 7-8 grades, you see, and we spent two years hating each other.

Homer Barton was a piece of work. I’m still not sure what that means, but you hear it a lot in the South. I think it means a unique character, in a good way.

It was obvious that Homer Barton was recently separated from the U.S. Army and was torn between letting it go or perpetuating a military demeanor. He was only a little bit taller than I was but stood ramrod straight, tucking his chin between his collar bones.

Memory says he wore a khaki uniform, but I don’t think that would have been the case. He walked back and forth pontificating, flicking an imagined swagger stick in front of him.

The oddest thing about Mr. Barton was his penmanship, large and white on the blackboard. Each down-stroke was perfectly straight and stopped as soon as the chalk reached the bottom line. Then it swept up to start the next letter, then down straight, to proceed that way until the chalk broke or wore out.

I had started taking piano lessons before we moved out of town. My lessons were at the north end of Harrisburg, Mom didn’t drive, and Daddy worked in a town in the other direction.

Distances were daunting: Six miles or so by school bus from home to school; probably 10 from Shaull’s to northern Harrisburg; waiting there while my dad battled traffic from Steelton. He picked me up as soon as he could, and when I told him I had a really good lesson, he’d stop on the way home for a drugstore hot fudge sundae, dinner be hanged.

Daddy could not have ice cream; he had diabetes.

We found out that Mr. Barton lived in Harrisburg, and would take me from school to downtown where I caught the bus for northern Harrisburg. If it was raining, he sometimes delivered me straight to Mrs. Stroh’s ivy-swathed stone house.

On these days, I had to listen to war stores (honestly) although I loathed the stories and the story-teller. BOORRRING!

Afraid? In a car alone with a man I barely knew? No one ever suggested that harm could come from this arrangement.

And it never did.

The only time Mr. Barton ever hurt me was the day he summoned me to his desk and, in a low voice, asked me to find a more ladylike laugh. The loud cackle I was using since I was born sounded artificial.

Artificial? I thought being artificial meant pretending to be something – or someone – you were not.

I was hurt, of course. What 7th grader wouldn’t be? Then he compounded his grievance even more by accusing me of lying. That was the lowest blow. I don’t lie. Maybe I exaggerate a bit for the sake of a better column, but I don’t lie.

“I don’t lie,” I averred.

“Yes, you do,” my tormentor insisted. “Do you know how I know? I watch you. You rub your nose with your hands. Every time.”

You don’t think that made me self-conscious, do you? At an age when girls need confidence most? Ssshhsh.

“How did we turn out normal?” my daughters say.

“Who says you did?” we reply.

login to post comments | Sallie Satterthwaite's blog