Once when I was in the 5th grade, three of my friends and I were helping to set up for the Christmas program in the cafe-gym-atorium at Gladden Elementary School in Belton, Missouri. Basically we were roadies moving things around for the benefit of all the kids with actual talent who would be performing that night. I would be in the pageant too, but I was consigned to the back row of a couple of ensembles with all the other kids who made the music teacher wince whenever we tried to sing. We were instructed to just “mouth the words,” which was fine by me. My parents wouldn’t know the difference, and I could play “Who’s going to fall off the back of the open bleachers first?” with my talentless, trouble-making friends.

The stage crew job was really just an excuse to get out of class for a few hours by volunteering, which the four of us (and our exasperated teacher) normally took advantage of any chance we got. There wasn’t much to do, and we soon found ourselves goofing off in the hallway. The halls had colored tiles that formed two-way traffic lines for marching kids to and from class, and we were blocking one of them, when a teacher came up behind us with a line of 1st graders and politely asked us to make way.

“Excuse me, boys. Would you move please so we can get through?”

We all started to move, but I could not resist looking sidelong at one of my friends and saying under my breath, “No. We can’t.”

Well, apparently it was not entirely under my breath as I discovered when out of nowhere a pair of talons latched on to my earlobe and yanked.

I have known pain in my life. I have been kicked in the groin numerous times, broken my arm, separated my shoulder, and shredded my anterior cruciate ligament, but I have never experienced blinding agony equal to that of the basic “ear pull.” Mom regularly used the ear pull on me and my brother in church whenever we would play the “What Song am I Playing on My Zipper” game (where one of us would zip the fly on our pants up and down to a rhythm of a particular song, while the other tried to guess the song):

Zip zip zip… zip zip zip… zip ZIP zip… zip-zip…
Jingle Bells?”
“Yep. Okay, what’s this one?”
“Zip zip zip zip zip ZIP zip, zip zip… Zip zip zip zip zip ZIP zip, zip zip zip…
The Immigrant Song?”
“No, you goof! It’s In-A-Gadda-DaAAAAaaaaaastopmompleaseohgodI’msorryahhh!!”

Through trial-and-error, Mom eventually discovered just the right pressure to effect instant compliance while still protecting the people in the surrounding pews from our blood-curdling screams. The teacher currently locked on to my ear was completely unconcerned with such niceties. I was now a teaching tool for the other students; the louder – the better.

The next several seconds were a blur as the teacher swung me around by my ear while lecturing my friends on general politeness and civic responsibility. Of course she was forced to speak up in order to be heard over my shrill girl-shrieks, and every time she turned to address a different person, she dragged me right along with her as I flailed around on my tip-toes trying to reduce the pressure on my ear.

By the time she released me (and the entire event probably only lasted a minute), I was totally broken – both mentally and physically. I am of the firm belief that instead of waterboarding, interrogators could get more information from their prisoners by threatening them with an elementary school teacher:

“Where is the bomb, Vladimir?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Do you want me to bring in Miss McGillicuddy again?”
“Locker number 403 at the train station. Bottom row, third from the right. Cut the green wire to disarm it.”

Anyway, after I had dried my tears of shame in a corner, we were soon back to the sort of jerking around at which 5th-grade boys excel: thumping knuckles, trading shoulder punches, and sword fighting with our pencils until one of us got a piece of lead broke off in his arm. Boys forget traumatic pain much like mothers forget the agony of child birth… only quicker. We did stay clear of the hall for the rest of the day.

I don’t remember that teacher’s name, but I would like to thank her for what my Dad always referred to as a “character-building experience.” She did not cure me of my smart mouth, but she did teach me a very important lesson about volume control, a lesson which has served me well over the years in my marriage.

“David, if you’re going upstairs, would you get me a drink?”
“Do you have polio?”
“I said, ‘of course I’ll get you a drink.'”
“Thank you. I love you.”
“Oh yeah, you do.”
“I said, ‘I love you, too.'”

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