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In this year of mercy, memories of a clean slate

By Alma Barkman

09/07/2016

Miss Heaman, my Grade 5 teacher, usually wore plain navy dresses styled to minimize her heavy build. At a time when most young women her age wore curls, Miss Heaman twisted her long black hair into a bun and secured it at the nape of her neck with hairpins. They sometimes inched out of place when she reached up above the blackboard for the large map that rolled up and down like a window blind.

Despite Miss Heaman’s stern appearance, she was a highly sensitive person whose tenderness occasionally surfaced when she read the Bible to us during opening exercises, or when she taught us music. Instead of incurring anger, discipline problems grieved her deeply. I remember the tears brimming in her eyes the day Larry, the worst troublemaker in class, boldly badgered her to sing a solo. She stood looking out the window a long moment as if to gather her composure, and then in a rich contralto voice, she sang “Safe in the Arms of Jesus.”

Larry’s bad behaviour was strangely subdued after that.

A combination of fear and respect made me work diligently to earn Miss Heaman’s approval, but the day did come when she caught me whispering in class. I knew it was forbidden. I knew it carried a penalty, but I could not help myself. I talked to my friend across the aisle and Miss Heaman caught me.

Fifty years later I can still remember the grieved look on her face. She had hoped for better and I had let her down. From the viewpoint of justice, all my efforts, all my good grades, all my good works on Miss Heaman’s behalf could not cancel out my moment of transgression. Picking up her chalk, she slowly and carefully wrote my name in the corner of the blackboard reserved for offenders

I was doomed.

I just knew I had forever alienated myself from Miss Heaman’s good graces, and the consequences were unbearable to think about. Students whose names appeared on the “sinners” list were often teased by their peers at recess, chastised by their parents at home, sometimes even banished to the principal’s office for corporal punishment. For the first time in my life I knew what it was to be subjected to the full penalty of the law, and there was no escape. Morbid fear welled up within me. I hung my head in shame as hot tears coursed down my cheeks, blurring the blue lines on my page of foolscap paper. I dared not look up, for my sensitive conscience could not stand the sight of my name screaming “Guity!” for all to hear.

But then in her mercy, Miss Heaman did a strange thing.

She reached up and pulled down the map of the world just far enough to cover my name. It was still there, of course. Miss Heaman and I both knew that, but did she sense my repentant heart?

As the hands of the big hexagon clock crept toward the hour of reckoning, I could hear Miss Heaman’s heavy footsteps moving slowly and inexorably down the aisle. In dread of what was about to happen next, I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I could see Miss Heaman’s sensible black oxford shoes right close to my desk. The next minute I felt her big strong arm around my shoulder as she knelt beside me.

Speaking barely above a whisper, her pale grey eyes piercing right to my soul, Miss Heaman kindly but firmly confronted me about my transgression. Did I understand that I had broken the rules?

I nodded. Yes.

Was I sorry? Definitely.

Would I try to obey her in future? As best as ever I could.

“I believe you,” said Miss Heaman, and walking back to her desk, she reached behind the map and discreetly erased my name. Until then it had just been covered up, to be revealed at that awful moment of judgment. But now it was wiped away, blotted out, gone. Thanks to Miss Heaman, I was pardoned, absolved, forgiven, set free.

The great sense of relief and gratitude I felt welling up within me must have washed over my face, and Miss Heaman reciprocated with a knowing smile. Shortly thereafter the bell rang, and when the map of the world was rolled up, my potential accusers, much to their chagrin, found they had no grounds for condemnation. My slate was clean, my conscience clear.

I literally skipped toward home, unaware that my steps that day were the first along a path that eventually led all the way from Miss Heaman’s classroom to that other Teacher whose book is truth. From him I experienced in full what I learned in part from Miss Heaman: in dealing with a repentant heart, God in God’s mercy covers our transgressions; in God’s grace, our sins are wiped away.

Barkman is a freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg (almabarkman.com).