A NOTE: While I changed her name and a few minor identifying details, this is essentially a true account. I know it sounds strange — because it was. This is not a comprehensive account of my experiences with “Crazy Barb,” of course. I barely know where to begin with her, much less how to resolve all the bizarre details. Nevertheless…
Crazy Barb taught 3rd grade in Room 11. I taught 4th grade in Room 13, right next door. On the first day of school, I could usually guess which students had been in her class the previous year. They had a nervous energy: wide eyes and jittery hands. Crazy Barb left a lasting impression.
I don’t know who first started calling her Crazy Barb, but the nickname stuck, likely for years. “Did you see Crazy Barb waltz in at 8:30 this morning?” Jill, her third grade colleague, would ask. School started at 8am. Crazy Barb ran on her own time.
She often called in one of her favorite parents to “babysit” the class while she was away. Lynn, who seemed to babysit long after she had a child in Crazy Barb’s class, looked like a human cigarette, and played movies for the kids every Friday so that Crazy Barb could “beat the traffic” to the Cape. When Lynn the Human Cigarette wasn’t available, Tina the Cutthroat Little League Mom might pinch hit. Or the kids would be left alone. My class always knew when this happened, because we could hear the third graders next door laughing and screaming and throwing things against the back windows. Plus one-third of my class had been in that situation the year before. They knew all about being left alone.
Every time we heard the kids next door acting up, I would leave my class alone for a minute to check on the third graders next door. Sometimes I gave them tasks to do. Sometimes I yelled. I learned quickly not to call the office, or do anything that may be perceived as “tattling.” Crazy Barb held a grudge.
When a student fell out of favor with Crazy Barb, she literally turned the class against them. I saw it happen with a boy named Mike Myers (after the comedian). Barb moved Mike’s desk into an open closet. The third graders were then trained to tell her when Mike was doing something ‘annoying,’ like tapping his pencil too much, or making a face, or spilled his water bottle. When this happened, Barb would close the door on him. Crazy Barb didn’t seem to suffer consequences like the rest of us. She seemed invincible.
Crazy Barb and I had recess duty together twice per week. I dreaded it. It was just me, Barb, and about 150 elementary school kids running amok. She insisted we stick together to chat– when she bothered to show up. She would tell me about her infamous husband. They had met at our school — he used to teach gym. He left his first wife for her. Then, after a few years of success at a local state university, he made it as an assistant coach in the NFL. Every year, he seemed to be with a different team. Crazy Barb lived alone.
I am not sure exactly what I did, but, about six months into my first year teaching, Crazy Barb seemed mad at me. She swore at me in front of our students. She called me a “stupid bitch.” I was 22. She was 3 years from retirement. She gave me the cold shoulder at recess duty, and announced to my students that they had a “dumb teacher.” I was bewildered, so I turned to several other people for advice.
“Tell her off,” my then-boyfriend suggested. Nope.
“Buy Barb her favorite candies,” Jill the third grade teacher suggested. “She may seem rich and snobby, but she can’t resist skittles.” That sounded degrading. Next.
“You should report her to the union,” Linda, my mentor, suggested.
I decided I would start with our principal.
I scheduled a meeting with her, and nervously showed up with my notebook in which I had detailed specific incidents: times Barb used profanity. Times she told my students not to trust me. Times she looked like she was gossiping about me with parents. She would point at me and laugh.
My principal… chuckled. “That’s classic Crazy Barb!”
Yes. My principal, too, called her Crazy Barb.
“You know, she’s a little LD herself,” my principal continued, using an outdated acronym meaning learning disabled. “Have you ever seen the class newsletters she sends out? They’re totally incoherent. The spelling errors alone…”
“What? I mean… but none of this is okay?” My voice nervously ticked upwards at the end of the sentence, betraying both my youth and my complete inability to handle a belligerent senior colleague.
“Oh, no, this is terrible,” my principal continued. “But Crazy Barb is about 2 years away from retirement. Can we please just let this ride out? We’re so close. You don’t know, I’ve been wanting to get rid of her for years, but… I can’t tell you exactly why she’s still here. She knows people, and, please, let’s not make any trouble. Okay?”
I didn’t have professional status (aka tenure) in my district yet. I definitely didn’t want to make any trouble.
My principal smiled warmly, and placed the palm of her hand on the table near mine. “You know what? Crazy Barb has a real weakness for skittles. I bet if you buy her some, and maybe some chocolates or some flowers, this whole thing will blow over.”
“But I… I… I don’t even know why it started!” I stammered.
“Skittles. Trust me.”
That evening, after relaying poignant stories about Billy and his classmates to my boyfriend, I told him about the disappointing conversation with my principal. He couldn’t believe that I would even consider debasing myself with the Skittles Plan.
“You aren’t seriously going to do this, are you? The woman should be fired,” he protested.
I was tired. It took most of my energy just to make it through my teaching day, and I did not have any reserves for dealing with someone that our principal called “crazy.” I had already spent countless hours detailing the situation to my father, my friends, my undergraduate advisor… it was all too much.
So I bought her a giant bag of skittles, and some flowers, and a blank card depicting a tree at sunset. I wrote some vague sort of apology that never once mentioned what I was sorry for — because I didn’t know. I left the gifts on her desk chair the following morning.
At morning recess duty, she embraced me. “Thank you so much! You’re so sweet!” Barb kissed me on the cheek. I am certain I looked confused. I probably looked to the students for support.
At lunch, Crazy Barb drove to the liquor store, and brought back a bottle of wine, which she left ceremoniously on my desk while I was in the staff room. I was glad that I stopped by my room before picking up my students. I hid the bottle in my bottom desk drawer, next to my collection of stickers and colored staples. While I had done my research about Barb, and knew all about her love for skittles, she had clearly not asked anyone about me: I don’t drink. Never have. I regifted the wine bottle to my boyfriend’s parents.
The next day, Barb hugged me again, and asked me to help her with her computer trouble. “You’re so good with technology,” she gushed. “And with kids. Omigod, all the kids love you so much. You’re so smart and pretty. They all talk about you.”
Teaching is exhausting — and first year teaching exponentially so. I was working until midnight, waking up at 5, and thinking about my class for almost every minute in between. I was obsessed. Maybe I had my own brand of crazy… and while I was indulging in my own crazy, I did not have the energy to process the crazy of Crazy Barb.
I don’t think this particular experience helped me learn about people, except that people are unpredictable and perplexing. It did help me learn about how I function under stress. I… froze. I overthought the situation. I asked lots of people for advice, likely with no intention of following most of (or any?) of their suggestions. I used all that energy I didn’t even have to fixate on something that was difficult to change — something I was not able to control.
Sometimes, I need to let go. It’s okay if not every problem is solved with the most elegant solution. Sometimes, I just throw skittles at the problem so that I can devote my energy to something more worthwhile. It’s fine.