While Mrs. Prentiss reign of terror was deeply disturbing, so was the behavior of the adults around her, including myself. We were educators who had invested our lives in the welfare of children yet, we allowed her to continue the emotional and physical abuse of children. I'm sharing what I learned with you because there are many forms of Mrs. Prentiss in the world, both in and out of the classroom, and in rich and poor communities everywhere. It's important to unpack how these people settle in to power so that we can alter the dynamic and prevent abuse. This is my take:
Mrs. Prentiss had a strong ideology. She herself had broken from the cycle of poverty of her childhood and wanted the same for her students, however the methods she chose were questionable. As one of our fellow blog readers, writes, "The teacher must have felt that humiliation would pull [her students] out of poverty." This resonates with another ideology, that of the American Puritans who believed that the state of bring poor was a result of moral depravity. Perhaps Mrs. Prentiss believed that physical suffering would lead her students to their moral and economic salvation.
As a 27 year veteran teacher in the community, she had taught two or three generations of students. Parents weren't likely to complain about her because they themselves had "experienced" her.
The staff and administration were equally intimidated. As the teacher's union representative Mrs. Prentiss was actively involved with negotiations with the school district. If you were a teacher, you needed Mrs. Prentiss as your advocate. The principal needed her support so that he could work with his staff effectively and keep his job. And the district needed to be on her good side as she was a member of the union team that negotiated the teacher contract and salaries.
These systemic aids enabled her poor behavior, and there was one additional and important contributing factor that existed, a quality that most abusers share. Mrs. Prentiss was sometimes nice. Not fake nice, but really nice. This left her students and all the rest of us confused just long enough before the next wave of abuse hit, and the cycle continued. This is a hard lesson for adults to learn, nevermind children. How do you reconcile your definition of a monster when there are moments when they draw you in lovingly?
Mrs. Prentiss went on to teach for a total of 30 years and retired the same year I left the school. I went to her retirement luncheon where there were hundreds of people in attendance, no former students though. Speakers described her work as a teacher and all of the important advances that she had contributed to as the union representative, all valid in some way.
I lost touch with her after that, but looked her up last month only to find that she passed away from cancer a year ago.