Abusive Palo Alto Unified School District Teacher Causes Lifelong Trauma

This is rather a confession, you see, because for years now I’ve held these memories in and told no one. Recent attention about abusive teachers reminds me of when I was in 2nd grade at Palo Alto’s Greendell Elementary School in 1968, and about how much things have changed since then. All names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty, and minor details have been fudged for the sake of brevity. We don’t want to think that something like this could happen in a Palo Alto school, but it did.
Our teacher was “Mr. Griffin”. Whenever boys got too obnoxious, he grabbed them over his lap and spanked them.
The spankings were bad, but the worst incident by far happened one morning when Mr. Griffin was playing the piano. A short, skinny boy made disruptive noises. Mr. Griffin jumped up off the piano bench, strode over to the boy, hoisted him up under his armpits and shook him back and forth so hard and fast I’m surprised his neck didn’t snap. Mr. Griffin stopped and yelled something so loud I couldn’t understand his words, followed by, “DO YOU?!” Getting no response from the terrified boy, he shook him again. That shake/yell sequence went on for a minute until the boy managed to sob a response. It must have been the response Mr. Griffin wanted, for he dropped the boy back in his seat, strode back to the piano, muttering, “Excuse me” and finished playing his song. I stared in shocked silence.
Mr. Griffin never got physical with the girls; for me he had different methods. I have an eye condition called strabismus divergent, otherwise known as “lazy eye”. Unless I consciously forced my eyes to focus, my vision went double. After focusing for extended periods of time, however, a dull ache set in, followed by a headache so that doing schoolwork became difficult. Being the girl with the eye patch, everyone knew I had a lazy eye, but no one knew how it impacted me. I also had learning disabilities caused by Tourette syndrome, but no one knew I had that either. Wondering why I struggled in school, my parents had me assessed. For days, I met in a room off the office with a psychologist who put me through a battery of tests.
They discovered that I had a high I.Q., way higher than expected for such a mediocre student. As a result, Mr. Griffin got extra tough with me. One day when I had difficulty reading aloud, he scolded me in front of the other kids.
In fourth grade, I started out with an easy teacher. Life was good, and I rode home from school one day feeling a sense of well-being. When I got home, however, my mother broke the news:
She’d switched me to Mr. Griffins’ class.
“Please, not Mr. Griffin—” I cried and pleaded, but she wouldn’t budge.
I lagged behind all the other kids in math. I hated math. Who wouldn’t when the numbers seemed to move on the page from one place to another? Giving up on assigning me the same work as the other kids, Mr. Griffin tore off a stack of addition, subtraction and multiplication problems, stapled them together and handed them to me. I had to do them ALL as quickly as I could, he said, and hand them in when they were done. For days afterward, that horrid stack of math problems ruled my life. When I finished them and handed them in, thinking I was finally free, I almost cried when he handed me another stack. More followed.
One day, he ordered me to stand in front of his desk, with all the other kids gathered around behind me. For what seemed like forever, he balled me out. “Even the third graders are doing fractions,” he said, referring to the younger kids in our combined third and fourth grade class, “but you’re still only doing multiplication.” In his mind, he thought he was motivating me. He knew I was smart, and he assumed that if I only tried harder I’d be the Einstein that they expected me to be.
But that never happened. A friend I sat next to, who was actually a “frenemy” never let me forget it. “You’re half retarded, you know”, she said. “You know that? You really are half retarded.” At that moment, I believed her.
Other kids became Mr. Griffin’s victims. One day in fifth grade a girl in Mr. Griffins’ class sat on the bench during recess, crying. “Why is she crying?” Some of us asked each other as we played on the grass.
“Oh,” a classmate of hers said, “ Mr. Griffin gave us a spelling test, and he recited the words so fast that no one could keep up.” I remembered how upset I’d been the year before when he’d done that. In big letters, I’d scribbled in my yellow children’s diary, the kind that locked with a small gold key, “I hate Mr. Griffin!!!”
Another Griffin victim was a friend named “Ted”. The bane of his existence, Mr. Griffin gave Ted an especially hard time one day in ways I knew only so well. Sitting on the grass during recess, he’d put his glasses on the grass in front of him as tears poured down his face. Several kids stood nearby, picking on him. He didn’t relate to kids his own age, he’d told me, and preferred the company of adults. But he and I got along, and I liked him. His social inadequacy made him an easy target for Mr. Griffin.
Apparently, anyone who was someone wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Ted. One day the phone rang. I answered, and that same “frenemy” said, “There’s something for you on the telephone pole in front of your house,” and hung up. Going outside, I found a note. It said: “Ted and Liz, TRUE LOVE”, with a big heart drawn around the words. Although I didn’t think of Ted that way, it didn’t deter me from being his friend.
Ted confided to me how he’d dreamt he’d built a robot that had one purpose: chasing Mr. Griffin. No doubt, many of Griffin’s students also wished they’d had such a device, but the image, seared into my brain of him shaking that terrified, defenseless boy like a rag doll haunts me to this day.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, award-winning writer and author of the realistic fantasy The House at 844 1/2. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband, two children, two hyperactive dogs and a neurotic cat. She is on the Board of Contributors to the Palo Alto Weekly newspaper and can be reached at liz@funghi.com, or visit her at http://elizabethjohnsonlee.com.

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elizabethjohnsonlee

January 2015

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