She was diminutive and stout. If I had been a girl, I would have looked like her. Wore her hair in a stretched bun with a decorative comb and large pin to hold everything together. She dressed in full length dresses and wore nun shoes, and you noticed the thickness of her leg hosiery because the thick tan fibers were holding up something strong.
Central to her teaching method was a strict discipline. Latin mass catholic strict. You did not always understand it, but when it came down on you, you felt it. She taught math or history. I can’t remember which, because I just flirted with girls and played a game with a triangle shaped paper disk that we pretended was a football.
Every time Mrs. McMahon faced the board, we whipped out the disks and kids held their fingers apart like football goal posts and others set the corner edge of the disk down on the desk and used their pulled back middle finger like a foot kicking a ball. We would pantomime a cheer when the disk went through the center of the fingered goal posts.
Mrs McMahon was, however, no fool. She would sometimes turn her back and then quickly turned back around. Invariably, she would catch at least one of us with a set disk or focused on a concentrated finger flick follow through as the disk went into the air. I was caught often, doing this or something else that bothered Mrs. McMahon. Which meant I spent many afternoons cleaning chalk erasers, walking home with white dusted nostrils, and imploring my mom to see that Mrs. McMahon had it out for me.
After about five days of detention, Mrs. McMahon called me to her desk. I was the only one there for detention that day.
Mrs. McMahon to me: The thing that troubles me is that I know you are smart boy. If you are going to spend time in detention, I need you to use your brain. Here is this book, Les Misèrables, I want you to write it.
Me to Mrs. McMahon: You want me to read this book?
Mrs. McMahon to me: No, I want you to write it. I want you out open the book and write out on a piece of paper every word in the book during your hour of detention.
I scratched my head and went to my desk with a few pieces of papers and opened the book and started writing.
So, I wrote:
Chapter I No. 62, Rue Picpus
Half a century ago nothing more resembled any ordinary cochère than that of No. 62, Petite Rue Picpus. This door, generally half-open in the most inviting manner, allowed you to see two things which are not of a very mournful nature—a courtyard with walls covered with vines, and the face of a lounging porter.
And I would continue to write Les Misèrables through most of my seventh-grade year. I got to liking the writing and the way it calmed me down. I sometimes asked Mrs. McMahon if I could come in after school, even when I did not have detention, to keep writing. At the end of each session, I gave the paper I had finished.
She would ask if I knew the meaning of certain words and I told her I did not. She gave me a dictionary and told me to look up every word I did not know, but even when I looked the words up, I still did not know what they meant. I was an eleven-year-old Mexican kid caught between two languages and hard words I never heard of or anyone I lived with had heard of were just noise to me.
The words I did understand in Les Misèrables kept me wanting to read more and I even told my classmates that they should read it. They all looked at me as if I was an outer space alien. Throughout all this, Mrs. McMahon did not warm up to me. She would ignore me most of the time and when I gave her the finished papers, she treated me with straight faced assessment, no emotion, no encouragement, just engaged with me as someone who had completed a task given to them, nothing more, nothing less.
At the end of the school year, I had gotten about half-way through writing Les Misèrables, and I knew I would not have Mrs. McMahon as a teacher the following year. As the school year was ending one-day I stayed behind to speak to Mrs. McMahon. I walked up to her desk and she asked what I needed. I did not need anything. I told her that I appreciated what she did and that I learned much from her. She looked at me as if she were about to break out of character. In the end all she said to me was: next year be better behaved.