It was April/May like it is now. I remember I was thirteen, the shy, awkward years I want to forget. Of course it was art class. Our teacher was a woman, Welinda Irwin. A graduate of Hood College, a prestigious school for women in Maryland, she viewed herself as sort of smarter than many of the art teachers who had gone to IUP and Cal, both teacher’s college’s in Pennsylvania. Welinda was sort of a scary character in the eyes of children. She wasn’t Miss Nelson but more or less Miss Viola Swamp.
Mrs. Irwin had dishwater blonde hair with a sort of green tint. It was not the typical beauty shop dye job or number seven in some hair product, but more or less that she had crawled out of the creek behind the high school where students went for cray fish. Her skin was leathery and wrinkled, and her glasses, crooked, were always pushed to the edge of her nose. The clothes she wore were frumpy, looking like they had been stolen from a corpse she had probably killed for dinner, shaken out, and stuck on her person. Her eye makeup, a nightmare, was drawn on as if Stevie Wonder had done the honors. As for the lipstick, I have seen drag queens on crystal meth make a straighter line.
One thing about Mrs. Irwin was that she was passionate about her pottery and her kiln. My brother used to tell me she cooked students in there, or he swore she did. The two were seemingly mortal enemies. When drawing his cartoons, a form of therapy, my brother drew her twice and cast her in the role of witch. Upon getting my brother’s report card and seeing a C my brother explained his case. My mother sighed. It was seventh grade. There was no class rank…..yet.
My first encounter with the witch of Independence Middle School was when I was walking to Home Ec late. I had heard stories about her, and some of the kids even swore she turned students into toads. “Get to class!” She yelled.
I sauntered there, the latest note my best friend Erica had written in my hand. It was scoop about Justine, our friend who was quite the slut. Yes, Justine who messed around with upperclassman boys. Why would we say any of this to Justine’s face? The gossip behind her back was so much more fulfilling.
So I went to the bathroom, figuring I was late. Why not?
When I got out of the bathroom I remember being two steps away from the Home Ec room when Welinda Irwin popped out. “I told you to get to class.” She snapped.
“I am two steps away.” I informed her pointing to the door.
Welinda was not accepting that. On the war path she countered, “When a teacher gives you an order you take it.”
I nodded. “What’s your name?” She asked.
“April Brucker.” I said honestly.
Welinda nodded. “I had your brother for class. We didn’t get along. Hopefully you will be better when I get you next semester.” She hissed.
When I got home I told my brother about the encounter and he told me to laugh it off. My brother assured me to laugh Middle School in general off. I hated the whole place, the social ladder. I dreamed of leaving the whole mess and doing big things with myself. Gone would be the scorn of the all too popular girls. Gone would be the scorn of the all too popular guys. Little did I know I was about to make a friend though.
The next semester I got Welinda Irwin for class. The first week she proved to be a hot mess. She made one of the popular girls cry, which I sort of liked because this girl was mean to me. Then she failed some guys that asked me out as a joke because they were goofing off. In between there she went on tangents in between the lesson, muttering, about her husband who was out of work and her children whom were “ungrateful wastes.”
Our second week of class we began a pottery project. Mrs. Irwin was telling us how to make a coil. “As a visual, just picture the worms you see this time of year. They come out in the rain. Unfortunately when the rain dries and the sun comes up, it bakes the worms and they die.” She explained coldly. “So think of those dead worms when you need a visual.”
There was a moment of awkward silence. “That’s disgusting.” I whispered to my friend Erica. “And disturbing.”
“Yeah.” Erica said. We were both standing in the back of the room. As two misfits, we were experts in not participating and making sure our voices never carried.
“But they do April!” Welinda Irwin shouted. The class turned and looked at me. I turned white with terror. How had she heard me?
I asked Erica this question as we left class. Dressed in black with too much makeup, much like me, she said, “April, she’s a witch. How else?”
“Yeah, a total witch.” Diana Hermann said. She was a popular girl but I liked her. The three of us nodded.
“I think she levitates.” I said.
“I think her head spins around.” Trevor Green informed us running up to us. While Trevor was usually mean to me, most everyone had taken sympathy on me during worm gate.
I was pretty much quiet for the rest of the semester seeing that Welinda Irwin had supersonic hearing. The class itself was interesting, especially since she knew so much about Frick and Carnegie and the architecture surrounding their homes. However, the instructor scared the living crap out of me. I remember doing my pottery project with little to no drama. Some of my classmates had meltdowns when she yelled. Others had their parents complain to the principal. I knew it was useless, she had voodoo dolls of all of us. The best thing to do was to stay on her good side.
One girl, Jennika Gray, the pretty kid in all the commercials, complained about how the dust was staining her clothes. I really didn’t like Jennika. To me, she was just a stick in the mud who thought she was Marilyn Monroe when really she was closer to trashy ten cent hooker by the bus station. “I don’t understand why I have to do this. I am going to be a famous film star.” She exerted.
“It’s class. Everyone has to do it.” I informed Miss Attitude.
“Well rejects like you do. Face it April, you are ugly, guys ask you out as a joke. You can afford to get dirty.” She sneered.
As I was about to cap the skank Welinda appeared. “You have the depth of a baby pool. I wouldn’t want to see what you do on any stage or screen.” She said flatly. “Art is art, and those who can’t appreciate it have no place in any of it’s facets.”
My jaw hung open. Welinda gave me a knowing smile. Jennika, crushed, ran into the bathroom with her blonde curls bouncing behind her. She cried her eyes out, and I didn’t feel bad. Actually, I felt good.
“Your house looks good. Get back to work.” Welinda said and then left.
Towards the end of the semester, there was a chance to do an extra credit project. It was on our favorite piece of Pittsburgh art. Being a teacher’s kid, I have always jumped on an extra credit project. So I did it. I remember dropping it off, gingerly going into Welinda’s room. She wasn’t there. Thank God. “You need help April?” She said.
I turned around spooked. How had she appeared out of no where? It was like Lo Pan in Big Trouble In Little China.
I nodded. “My report.” I said.
Welinda looked at it. She said nothing for a minute. It was an odd minute. Then she informed me, “Well good for you. You were the only one to do it.”
I stared blankly. “You have a great mind on you. You need to focus it more and need to hang out less with those idiots Erica and Justine, but you have a good mind and you can do a lot with it. Just continue to be yourself and don’t let those morons tell you otherwise.”
A smile came over my face. This lady had been the witch of the Middle School. Children ran in fear of her. We all believed she perhaps flew on a broomstick. Now here she was this villainous, the one the children feared, being a friend to me. I thanked her and left her room, happy that I had an ally. Perhaps she had been a misfit and still was. That is why we spoke the same language.
Years later, when I was the Wicked Witch in the production of the Wizard of Oz, she made my costume. Welinda had told one of the high school sponsors what a good kid I was when she had me for class, and how she was glad I was finally finding my way, my niche if you will.
These days when spring comes, I think of my seventh grade self,gawky in her stride. I laugh when I think of all the boys that asked me out as a joke either working at the mall kiosk or pumping my gas, and now writing to me trying to make overtures for real now that my face has been on television. I think of the popular girls determined to make my life hell, but now determined to tell everyone they know me. Jennika Gray, I believe, even went so far as to go on to an online message board to bad mouth me. Of course, she was shot down making herself look like the obvious hometown harpie.
I also think of dead worms, my coil visual if I ever want to do a pottery project.
More so, I think of Welinda Irwin. Yes, she probably flew on a broomstick and was a witch. But she was my witch, and if you make fun of her broomstick I will turn you into a toad myself.