One of my favorite teachers at Sandy Ridge High School was Mr. Warford Spencer, my eleventh grade English teacher. Mr. Spencer, an excellent teacher, was one of three male teachers in the entire school (grades 1-12). He really cared for his students. He always handled any disciplinary problems himself because the principal did not help much with student discipline.

Mr. Spencer was a tall, elderly gentleman. He was usually soft-spoken and easy going, but also strict when discipline was necessary. His most frequent means of discipline was administered with a long, hickory switch that he kept concealed in the right sleeve of his shirt. Mr. Spencer always wore long-sleeved shirts and concealed the switch up his sleeve by cupping the opposite end of the switch in his hand. Oftentimes offending students thought they had gotten away with being disruptive, only minutes later to feel a severe lash from Mr. Spencer’s hickory switch across their backs. Mr. Spencer did not argue with students; he simply “got even!”

Mr. Spencer was loved and respected by almost all students. But because he did not hesitate to mete out “appropriate punishment,” students frequently attempted to get back at him by playing pranks on him.

One popular prank involved a student “paper clip concert.” A group of mischievous students would bend large paper clips into an “L-shape.” They then put one end of the bent paper clip under a desk leg and hid the other part of the paper clip with their foot. The “concert” began with a student seated opposite of Mr. Spencer plunking his paper clip with his foot. Immediately following this plunking, a student on the opposite side of the room would plunk his paper clip as well. The “concert” continued in this fashion across the classroom. As Mr. Spencer approached an offending student, the student would cover the paper clip with his foot, while making sure to keep his head lowered, as if to pore over his class work. Sometimes the “concert” lasted several minutes before an offending student was eventually discovered and received a lash across his back from Mr. Spencer’s hickory switch.

Another frequent prank occurred when a student from another class passed by Mr. Spencer’s classroom door and found him at the front of the room away from the door. The student would then take a nearby large trashcan and lean it against Mr. Spencer’s classroom door. He would then knock on the door and run down the hall out of sight. As the door opened inward, when Mr. Spencer opened the door, the trashcan and all its contents would spill into the classroom floor at Mr. Spencer’s feet. This trick was probably the favorite trick among the students. A similar trick involved opening the top of a filled carton of milk, leaning it against Mr. Spencer’s door, knocking on the door and running away. These two tricks almost always ended with the same results.

Probably the most memorable prank played on Mr. Spencer involved one with firecrackers. Mr. Spencer’s desk was located at one end of the classroom. At the opposite end of the room was a small area partitioned from the rest of the room. Behind this partition were coat racks and a long shelf for books and miscellaneous items. It was normal for students to enter the classroom and go behind the partition to hang up their coats.

At the time, smoking was permitted during the morning break in an assigned area for male high school students. Most students spent their morning break in this area, even if they didn't smoke. Purchase of most firecrackers was illegal in North Carolina. However, on this day, one daring student had visited South of the Border in South Carolina and brought a pack of firecrackers to school; he was boldly showing the firecrackers to friends during the smoking break. With persuasive prodding from his classmates, this young man was eventually coaxed into to playing a prank on Mr. Spencer with the firecrackers. Just as the bell sounded to end the break, this student lit up a new cigarette and concealed it by cupping it in his hand as he re-entered Mr. Spencer’s classroom and continued behind the partition. He then laid the lit cigarette on the shelf and placed the fuse of the pack of firecrackers just below the burning end of the cigarette. During this time all the students were on their best behavior so as not to arouse suspicion as to what would ensue. Suddenly, after about three minutes of class work, terrifying explosions and plumes of smoke erupted from behind the partition as the firecrackers exploded. Of course, all students in the classroom cackled thunderously. Mr. Spencer, however, did not say a word. He walked calmly behind the partition, picked up and discarded a few remnants of the firecrackers and the cigarette, walked back to his desk and administered an English grammar test. Apparently, as far as Mr. Spencer was concerned, the matter was concluded; he never mentioned or discussed the firecracker concern. I was absolutely amazed at how Mr. Spencer remained so calm and cool! Instruction in our eleventh grade English class simply resumed as usual.

Since I taught high school for almost 41 years, when I now reflect back on my eleventh grade at Sandy Ridge High School, I can somewhat understand the difficulty Mr. Spencer must have experienced with the lack of administrative support he received from his principal. Over the span of my teaching career, I worked with at least eight different principals. Fortunately, most of them were very good and supportive. I learned a lot from Mr. Spencer and am extremely appreciative and grateful to him for his instruction, dedication and understanding of students.

Gil Bowman is a previous contributor to The Readers Write.