Black and white threat was cause for alarm

The arrival of the school inspector was almost as dreaded an occasion as a skunk making itself at home on the farm

Skunks made regular calls to our chicken house, cranky old clucks notwithstanding.

I went to gather eggs one day and as I approached, there was a black and white “kitty” we didn’t own looking out at me from the hen house. I beat a hasty retreat with my basket, while the skunk just ambled off across the farmyard.

I guess it figured if eggs were that plentiful, and little kids that easily intimidated, it should move closer. A few days later, the skunk crawled under our porch in the wee hours of the night. When we opened the back door in the morning, the odour was unmistakable. So were the black-and-white hairs sticking through the cracks between the porch boards.

Dad figured the skunk was in too close quarters to fire its ammunition, but nobody was willing to set foot out on the porch, least of all me. And now the school van was coming up the lane and my Grade 1 teacher said we had an important test that day and how would I get out of the house?

Through a window on the opposite side, that’s how. Afraid of alarming the skunk and triggering its defence mechanism, Dad very quietly slid open the window and I crawled out.

The big kids in the van were ready with their taunts and teasing.

“What’s the matter? Can’t get the door open? Taking a new shortcut? Ha, ha, ha.”

They grew respectfully quiet the minute I explained my dilemma. Nobody argued with a skunk — nobody, not even Dad.

When the van left that morning, he tied a rag to the end of a wire, lit it on fire, poked it through between the boards and smoked the villain out. As it scurried away from the house, Dad dispatched it to skunk heaven with one shot.

That afternoon at recess, the big kids in Grade 3 drew my attention to a black car slowly approaching the school.

“Oh no, the inspector.”

They ran to tell the teacher, leaving me with the impression that inspectors must somehow be on the same level as skunks.

An ominous foreboding descended upon the schoolyard. Baseball games were abandoned in the middle of an inning. A shouting match between two boys faded out. Hopscotch came to an end. When the teacher appeared at the top of the steps to ring the bell, she was visibly shaken.

The inspector had come.

We filed quietly into our classroom, first taking care to neatly line up our boots in the cloakroom.

“Now, remember, class, when you hear a knock at the door, rise from your seats and greet the inspector by saying ‘good afternoon, Mr. Brown.’”

I was so tense with fright I could scarcely concentrate on Dick and Jane. The big kids said the inspector sometimes asked you to read. The big kids said he sometimes asked you to do arithmetic on the board. The big kids said he was cranky. The big kids said….

The big kids didn’t say he had a shock of white hair and carried a briefcase. He acknowledged our greeting with indifference and walked straight to the teacher’s desk. They conversed in low tones about the attendance register, he walked around the room once, packed up his briefcase and left.

“Good-bye, Mr. Brown.”

I could breathe again.

Year after year the inspector’s spontaneous appearance produced the same feelings: panic, tension, yet grudging respect. Just after he had made one of his visits to our sixth grade, we were given an assignment in art class to draw any animal that came to mind.

I thought back to that skunk under our back porch.

A few months later, a new inspector was appointed. A tall man with thinning hair, his piercing grey eyes reminded me of a bald eagle. Peering around the classroom on his first visit, he fastened his gaze on the picture of skunks I had painted in watercolours.

“Would the person who did this please stand?”

Oh, no. He’s coming in for the kill, I thought.

I rose shakily to my feet, expecting my work to be torn asunder.

To my dismay, he commended me for my artistic endeavour and encouraged me to keep on. Then he smiled, a smile akin to a benediction.

It was such an astounding revelation that I stood there dumbfounded until told to sit down.

He had forever altered my impression of school inspectors.

As for skunks, they have not changed one bit. When one crossed the lawn last fall, I hoped it wasn’t toying with the idea of hunkering down under my front steps. At my age I don’t fancy the idea of crawling through a window to avoid being sprayed.

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