by Rod Smith

I have told quite a few lies in my life. One from a long time ago was to my fifth grade teacher. Her name was Mrs. Hornsby. She definitely had horns. When I studied her face I could see them. If she was calm, they boiled and bubbled beneath the red blotches of her wide forehead. When she was angry, which was nearly always, they’d burst accusingly from her face. One day, she was really angry with me. After that, I didn’t matter to her. Most people who knew Mrs. Hornsby will know what I mean. Some will run to her rescue and say she had a good heart and say she was the best teacher that they ever had and all that kind of nonsense. I stand by my description. Mrs. Hornsby was a nasty, horned, witch.

Every day for weeks, she gave us tiresome lists of rules about how and when to use her favorite thing: a dipping pen. We had to chant in unison while standing next to our desks, following her hand motions as she danced trance-like with a giant dipping pen only she could see:

“Dip gently in the ink well,
Press down below the line,
Long curves lightly lifting,
DIPPING PENS are very fine.

Dip gently in the ink well
Lightly press to dot the ‘i,’
Cross your ‘t’s with little effort,
DIPPING PENS are very fine.”

After the slow and deliberate chant we had to take a vow, almost drawing blood that we would never use ballpoint pens in our composition books.

“Never, ever, ever!” as we all nodded our heads in a silent wide-eyed chorus of fear.

Hornsby said, with her face twisted in disdain, ballpoint pens were messy, even evil. She said only common people used them. Her voice flattened every time she saw a ballpoint pen on a desk. Even when she said, “dipping-pen” I could tell she love them. It brought a lilt to her voice. This passion for dipping pens confused me. Dipping pens smudged far more easily than was ever possible with ballpoint pens. Ballpoint pens were neater and much more practical as far as I could tell. I preferred ballpoint pens. But that’s the way she was—with a fixed opinion about everything, she alone, knew everything. To every question, she alone had the correct and complete answer. If we ever had the correct answer, she added to it to prove no ten-year-old could quite get it. The final word always remained securely in the hands of Mrs. Know-It-All-Hornsby-Witch.

We couldn’t relax around her even for a moment. It was “forbidden.” To “keep us on our toes,” questions flew from her in all directions about any of the subjects she taught us. She would stand back after a volley of fire and look at us with contentment when she confirmed our ignorance. Often she’d expect us to repeat our promises about where to write the date and when to leave a line and how to rule off our work. She taught these rules as if lives would be lost on distant battlefields if one of us ever did something different from what she commanded.

One day when it came time to do my homework, I used a ballpoint pen in my composition book. When I handed in my book after walking to the front of the classroom, I slipped my book to the bottom of the pile. I did this so she would get to it when she was at home rather than discover my crime while I was within reach. My whole afternoon was ruined as the ramifications of my transgression plagued me. I imagined her opening my book and seeing the worst possible thing any boy could do. I could see her staring at my work in utter disbelief. She would shriek in anger and goose-step up and down her house. She would break valued possessions as she ranted and raved about the evil child who would dare use a ballpoint pen in his composition book.

I don’t know what she did at home when she read my composition book. I do know that the next day, while the whole class was working quietly she shrilled, “Rodney Ernest Smith, come to my table!” and startled the whole building. She might as well have used the megaphone the school had for fire drill. Everyone looked up from his or her work, passers-by peered in at the windows and all eyes were fixed upon me taking the long, dreaded, slow march towards her table.

“Did you use a dipping pen in your composition book?”


She held the book as far from her eyes as her arms would allow. She looked through her thick glasses. She looked over her thick glasses. She screwed up her face. She pushed her back against her chair. The chair screeched on the wooden floor. She got even further from the book. She rose from her chair and her shoulders turned towards me. She doubled in size and volume:

“Did you use a dipping pen in your composition book?”


I shifted my weight side to side. My knees always looked so small in my ridiculous short school pants. My ears were too large. I hated my shaved haircut. I hated the striped tie that was always too short with a fat and bulging lopsided knot. It crunched my collar around my skinny neck. My protruding eyes were red and inflamed. They declared my lie. My eyes couldn’t focus on her. Tears watered down my cheeks. I longed for small, dry and clear eyes. I longed for a reasonable haircut like every other boy and wished I had a small neat knot in my tie. Heat swirled about my face. My legs wanted to climb each other. I wanted to urinate. I corkscrewed. I made my body rigid. I swayed nervously. With her face twisting and in a voiceless whisper, I heard the sounds of dry air scraping against the wall of her throat. It wheezed through her flaring nostrils. My throat dried instantly:

“Did you use a dipping pen in your composition book?”

“Yes,” I gasped with no intent to mimic her.

She didn’t ever blink. She had no eyelids. She huffed and blew up her cheeks. Blue protruding veins pushed her horns together on her forehead until the big red, glowing, wet and slimy horns pointed at me. I felt the walls move. Windows shattered. Traffic halted. Phone lines jammed. Bridges collapsed. Airports closed. Governments tumbled. Oceans drained.

She looked again in my direction, this time gazing ten feet over my head. She breathed deeply. Held it. Sighed, long and slow. She swallowed from the middle of her chest to lubricate her convulsing throat before she asked again:

“Did you use a dipping pen in your composition book?”


She stood up, turned to face the door, held my book with both hands, stretched out her arms, leaned her body forward, thrust her head back and was gone down the hallway. Swish!

Pressure eased. The world economy settled. The class twitter began with quiet squeaks and giggles. I thought of the air force, the infantry and the navy gearing up for war against a neighboring nation. I thought of urgent peace treaties and dignitaries deployed to foreign countries because I used a ballpoint pen in my composition book.

Distant rumblings returned the class to silence and the barometer burst into a million pieces. She flew through the door and howled, with the evil echoes of an eerie cave:

“Did you use a dipping pen in your composition book?”


“Sit down.”

I did. So did she.

My crime was never referred to again. To Mrs. Hornsby, I was the worst liar in the world. I became invisible to her and not deserving of her efforts.

While I was on the way out of the school grounds and somewhere between the last of the red brick building s and the first of the trees which lined the long road to the school gate, I discovered I had learned a new way of walking. I moved forcefully forward cuffing my black shoes purposefully against the curb with each step marring the polished finish. I pulled the knot in my tie from my neck so the tie dangled untidily at my second shirt button. I pulled my brown school cap, with its noble badge and Latin idiom, off-center. Then, casually, in front of many other boys in their gleaming white shirts and green and brown striped ties and caps displayed proudly on their heads, and girls in their white dresses and green trimmed hats, as if I had been saying it for many years, for the very first time in my whole life, out loud, fearlessly, I said F#@K!

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