Miss Underwood

Miss Underwood had asked her fifth graders at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School to come to class the next day, ready to explain how to do something. It could be anything. The task and the explanation could be as simple or as complex as the student wanted to make it.

I had not prepared, but I thought I could wing it. The first volunteer explained how to peel a potato, as I recall. There was more to explaining it than I had realized. A girl described how to iron a shirt, something I had watched. That seemed easy. Someone told how to kick a field goal. A snap. Someone else explained how to do something related to fishing; bait a hook, maybe, or tie leader to fishing line. I could do this.

A girl explained how to roll out dough and cut biscuits from it. I think I recall that, though the fifth grade was a long time ago. Again, this was something I had seen done. A boy told how to wash dishes. He was short and got a laugh when he said he had to stand on a box. I had washed dishes, at twenty-five cents per evening meal, to “earn” my Boy Scout uniform.

The idea was to have the student think about and — if necessary — research the topic, so as to be able to explain how to do whatever it was, without leaving anything out. The more complete and understandable the explanation, the better. Preparation obviously counted. I’m sure she told us to practice on someone. The idea, looking back, must have been to get us comfortable speaking before a group. Miss Underwood was good with helpful questions, and she had a wonderful, encouraging smile. I thought she was beautiful, too.

But I had not prepared. I don’t know now whether I had even remembered the assignment. I don’t think I did. When we gathered that morning and other kids talked about what they were going to explain, I worried a little, but not much. I figured I could wing it, like the definitions for spelling words. Eventually, it was my turn. My father was in the automobile business, and I loved cars. So when Miss Underwood asked me what I was going to explain, I told her I was going to explain how to fix a car.

I think I had decided on that topic when I realized that others in the class were excited about what they were going to explain.  I didn’t even have a particular repair in mind. “Ask me anything,” I probably said. My ignorance knew no bounds, but I didn’t know it yet. I had heard a lot of explanations about repairs while hanging around my Dad’s garage, even at age ten. My Dad and Glen Mullins, a gifted mechanic who liked kids, would explain mechanical things clearly when I asked. The service manager and part-owner, Bill Marks, sometimes would too, though he was gruff. I had a good memory, and I loved to talk. What could go wrong?

Miss Underwood was skeptical, I could tell. Her reassuring smile changed and one eyebrow went up. “All right,” I remember her saying. “All right. It so happens that I backed my car into a tree and broke the taillight. The fender may be dented as well, just a little, around the taillight. I need to fix it. What do I do first?”

My confidence had started to evaporate when her smile changed. This was not a hypothetical fix, this was real. She trusted me, and was going to follow my instructions! Oh no!

“You did?” I asked, terrified. I had visions of Miss Underwood’s damaged car, and the mess she was about to make of it, with my help. She was really nice! And lived block and a half from the school, on my street. She was about to make a terrible mistake.

Of course she saw through me and smiled at my terror. That’s the way I remember it now, but at the time, instead of admitting I had forgotten the assignment, I began to dig a deeper hole. She let me dig. I think I told her she needed to take out the broken taillight first. She would need a screwdriver. That much was obvious, even to me, so I prolonged it. Now, um, she would find wires behind the taillight. I knew that much. But I knew nothing else. Auto body repairs take time, and I had only seen works in progress and asked about them. So I asked. Would the dent need paint? She didn’t know. The men who did body repairs used all sorts of hammers and braces to fix dents. I didn’t know their names, or how to use them. Sometimes they had to remove whole panels. I didn’t know how. Often they would crawl underneath. I knew that, but had no idea what they really did once they got there, much less how to explain it. I imagined my sweet teacher getting really dirty, probably cutting herself, and maybe getting a bad shock. I told her this might be very dangerous, very. Perhaps she should get professional help. No, she was going to do it herself, she said. So I told her she needed to be very careful, very careful, with the “D wire,” something I made up on the spot. Perhaps I had heard someone mention such a thing, though in what context I had no clue. I tried to stress the importance of not touching the D wire, and of not trying to do this herself, really, but she pressed on. When she asked how to recognize such a wire, my story completely broke down. “It depends,” I said, or words to that effect. “It’s hard to recognize. It’s red. But not always. Sometimes it’s gray. It depends.”

I still tried to sound like I knew what I was talking about, but that’s hard to do when you’re a fifth-grader and you know you have nothing to say. By then, my classmates were no longer as impressed with my assertions of automotive prowess.  The smart ones, anyway. Probably all of them. Miss Underwood blessed me with another smile, but it was a smile that showed she knew. She told me to sit down. This time I understood, and was properly embarrassed. My embarrassment did not last long, though. At recess a kind friend said he had heard something about D wires. He was still my friend. That was a relief.

I’m pretty sure Miss Underwood told me afterwards that I needed to be ready to explain how to do something the next day, and not to forget this time. I came clean to my Dad that night. I halfway remember him calling Miss Underwood, smiling as he talked to her. I may be imagining that. I do remember he took me outside, showed me the taillights on his car, and explained how to replace a burned-out bulb. The first question that had to be answered was whether the screws that hold the taillight lens were Phillips-head, with an X, or the regular kind, with a slot. He showed me the difference.  Be sure you don’t lose the screws, he said. Dad said the best idea was to put them back where they go, just not tight. Putting the screws back in and taking them out again is better than losing them, he said.

Once the lens is off, he said, take the bulb out. I think he took the lens out and showed me how the bulb either screws out, counter-clockwise, or has to be pushed in and twisted counter-clockwise, just a little, until it jumps out in your hand. He explained how you could find out by trying each way.  Don’t push or twist too hard or you’ll break the bulb and cut yourself, he said. If the bulb is rusted, he said, or if you break it, you might need pliers. Dad always carried a tiny pair of pliers in his back pocket, with his clean handkerchief. Then he explained that you could take the old bulb to the dealer, or an auto parts store, and get a new one just like it. The parts man would know how to give you the right one for your car, but matching them up, side by side, is always a good idea. You replace the bulb the same way you took it out, only backwards, of course. Same with the lens. Don’t tighten the screws too much, or you might crack the lens and make it leak. Make sure the rubber gasket gets put back where it was too, for the same reason. I recall explaining this to Miss Underwood the next morning, with enthusiasm.

At some point I asked her if she had talked to my Dad about fixing her broken taillight. She said she had. I told her that getting him to fix it would probably be a good idea. Fixing a dent is probably harder than replacing a bulb, I explained. She gave me a wonderful smile.