It came to pass one cold day near the end of my elementary school career, that our teacher was struck down by a serious illness, and was replaced by a substitute for the remainder of the term.
I do not advocate violence, nor would I wish to make the job of any teacher more difficult. I merely relate these events in the interest of the historical record.
Mr. Swanson was a popular teacher. Year after year, his classes performed well, and were happy. Discipline was maintained not by punitive threats, but by positive reinforcement, and his students responded.
He was known for his parties, and we worked hard to earn the right to celebrate on these occasions. The highlight was the annual Christmas party on the last day before Christmas break.
The joy went out of our room the day Mr. Hoffman took over the class, and not just because we missed Mr. Swanson.
Mr. Hoffman (or Herr Hoffman, as we came to call him), was strict, authoritarian, and never smiled. It would have been difficult to find a greater contrast to Mr. Swanson if one had tried.
Our once happy class was thrown into turmoil.
Where harmony had reigned, confusion took over as we struggled to satisfy the new teacher.
Instead of positive reinforcement, Herr Hoffman reveled in punishment for any little mistake. Instead of kind words and humor, he spewed a steady stream of derision and sarcasm.
Where once there had been cooperation, petty squabbles among the members of the class began to emerge.
My comrades and I often commiserated about this after school, and wondered what could be done about it.
The deterioration of our morale increased with each passing day.
The pressure cooker of Herr Hoffman’s tyranny reached its peak the week before Christmas break.
Herr Hoffman had grudgingly agreed to allow us a small shell of a party, but only during the last hour of the last day.
Throughout the morning Herr Hoffman’s abuse continued.
We returned from lunch and began the afternoon’s exercises. When a student made a mistake in answering a question, Herr Hoffman threatened to cancel the Christmas party on the grounds that we were not applying ourselves.
The downtrodden class felt that this was going a step too far, and it was almost as if the fuse on a powder keg had been ignited.
He continued to threaten to cancel our last hope for happiness, and was even more sarcastic than usual.
The revolution came during our history lesson, and it began with a piece of chalk.
Herr Hoffman had been punctuating his lecture by writing notes on the board in his usual aggressive style when he chanced to drop his chalk.
He bent down to pick it up, and the sight of his ample backside, no small one by any means, was too much to bear.
The weeks of abuse came flooding back, and it would have taken a stronger man than any of us to resist the target presented by that vast expanse of checkered trousering.
It may be said, therefore, that what happened next was inevitable.
A sturdy rubber band was produced from inside a desk, a heavy duty paper clip was bent and fitted onto the band, and the class held its collective breath as the projectile was slowly drawn back and released.
The missile hit home while Herr Hoffman was still at maximum stoop. He leapt into the air, emitting a wail like a banshee, and whirled around to confront his attacker.
We did not reveal the identity of the perpetrator then, and I won’t reveal it now. I don’t know what the statute of limitations is for assaulting fat German substitute teachers with paper clips, but I am honor bound to protect my comrades.
Although only one of us pulled the trigger, as it were, this unnamed hero was carrying out the will of the people.
Like Lech Walsa, who led another solidarity movement that originated at the Gdask Shipyard years later, this young rebel stood up and led the fight against oppression.
A remarkable change took place in our class that day.
Herr Hoffman predictably flew into a rage, his red face turning an even deeper shade of crimson, and tried everything he could think of to uncover the identity of his assailant, but the class closed ranks and protected its own.
What had been a disorganized group had in that brief moment of civil disobedience suddenly been galvanized into a team, and we were drawn closer together than we had been even under Mr. Swanson’s gentle guidance.
Our Christmas party was cancelled, of course, but none of us minded. As we sat doing extra assignments through the end of that December day, we exchanged winks and smiles, and enjoyed a new level of camaraderie.
What Herr Hoffman failed to realize was that he had created a monster.
We returned from Christmas break with our newfound solidarity intact, and we made his miserable existence even more unpleasant through the end of the term.
He was no longer able to bully the class as he had before. A man who has shrieked like a frightened girl after being pegged in the posterior by a projectile in front of the whole class naturally loses some of his authority.
Our solidarity gave us strength, and we used this to our advantage.
After that term, we heard that Herr Hoffman left the district, never to be heard from again.
We never got our Christmas party that year, but it was a Christmas to remember, just the same.