Palmer the Embalmer

by Judith M. Williams

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    He never seemed to have any human emotions.

    If you had asked me on the first day of school last year (my senior year at Central High), I would have told you that most teachers were actually mutants. Especially Mr. Palmer.

    “Palmer the Embalmer” we called him. He never seemed to have any human emotions. He’d stand up there and lecture to us. And when he’d ask a question, which was rarely, we’d all be afraid to answer it even if we knew the answer and could quote it right out of the book. Somehow, whatever you said was never quite what he wanted to hear, and he would ask someone else or rephrase your answer so that it made you feel dumb. I guess he must have wondered why we knew the answers on the tests when we never knew them in class.

    New kids in school would answer his questions a few times, and then they would wise up and keep their hands and eyes down when he asked a question. One thing about old Palmer—he never had any messing around or noise in his classes. We were all too scared to try anything funny.

    Personally, I figured if I worked hard, turned in my assignments, and kept out of trouble, I’d somehow get through my year with him. There was one problem, though. I had Mr. Palmer for chemistry third period, and drama was second period. The drama department was next to the auditorium so that we could use the stage, and it was clear over on the west end of the campus. Chemistry was on the third floor at the east end of the main building. With ten minutes between classes, there was just barely enough time to gather up your books, run to the main building and hurry up those two flights of stairs and down the hall to chemistry.

    That year Danny Lewis was in both drama and chemistry with me. We weren’t buddies or anything, but we always got along okay. He’s cool in spite of the fact that he walks with a really bad limp. I’ve always been the athletic type and, of course, Danny had a hard time with sports, so I guess that’s why we never got to be good friends. But everybody likes Danny. He never complains about his problems and always does his best to keep up. He’s got a kind of shy, crooked smile and … well, Danny’s just cool.

    Anyway, the first day of school Mrs. Dawson was a little disorganized and kept us a couple of minutes late in drama class. I grabbed my books and ran as soon as she let us out.

    I raced into chemistry just as the bell rang, which earned me a dirty look from The Embalmer, but he didn’t say anything. He had just started to tell us about how often we would have labs when the door opened and in came Danny.

    Mr. Palmer’s eyebrows knitted themselves together in the middle and he said, “Well, if it isn’t the ten o’clock scholar. You’ll have to do better than that if you want to pass this class.” And then he sort of laughed, like it was a big joke, but I didn’t see anything very funny about it. You could tell Danny didn’t either. He limped over to an empty desk and sat with his head down all through class.

    We talked about it at lunch, and we couldn’t figure out how come the school board would let a guy with no more feelings than that teach school. Joe Nelson said that his dad said that the school board are a bunch of bozos, so we figured that must explain it.

    Well, that was just the beginning. Mr. Palmer didn’t say any more to Danny. But there was that time that Kris Johnson forgot to put her name on her test paper and Mr. Palmer said he thought she must be trying to hide something, like maybe her grade. It would have been okay if it had been Matt Garcia’s paper because Matt is a brain and always got A’s. But Kris had a really hard time with anything like math or chemistry.

    The Embalmer was famous for his quizzes, too. He’d assign some pages in the textbook and maybe some problems to work out. And then, the next day, before you had a chance to see how you did on them, he’d give a quiz. And if you hadn’t figured them out right it was just tough luck. He’d always say, “That’s the way life is. You don’t always have time to check out your answers before the test.”

    By the time Christmas vacation came, we were all ready for two weeks away from Palmer the Embalmer. Even the Christmas spirit didn’t seem to help his disposition any. We read A Christmas Carol in English and we all decided that Dickens must have had Palmer in mind when he made up Scrooge.

    Two days before Christmas I was in Miller’s Department Store buying my mom’s Christmas present. I saw The Embalmer over in the sporting goods department, but I pretended not to see him and went on. When I got to the cashier to pay for Mom’s scarf, I reached into my pocket for the money. But as I pulled my hand out of my pocket, out fell the new Cub Scout knife that I had bought for my brother Jimmy the day before.

    On the way home from buying it the day before I had dropped the bag in a puddle, so I had taken the knife out of the bag and put it in my pocket and forgotten all about it. It still had the red price tag on it and, of course, the sales slip had gone into the trash with the bag. Boy, did I feel dumb for a minute, and then I felt scared because I realized what the cashier was going to think and there was no way I could prove what had really happened.

    The cashier called the manager and, of course, he didn’t think much of my story. I didn’t know the clerk who had waited on me the day before, and with the Christmas rush there wasn’t much chance she’d remember me. Besides, she didn’t seem to be working that day.

    The manager was just calling the police when Mr. Palmer came up to the counter. Great, I thought. With him as a character witness, they’ll put me away for life.

    Mr. Palmer asked the manager if he could talk to him for a few minutes first, and they went off together to the manager’s office. I must have lost five pounds in sweat while I waited. There was a stool by the counter, and I sat down on it to wait. My knees were shaking so hard I couldn’t have stood up. I thought about how Mom would cry and how Dad wouldn’t say much, but would get that funny pinched look around his mouth. I thought what kind of example this would make for Jimmy, the Cub Scout. I wondered if I would be expelled from school and if any college would accept me now. I had just resigned myself to scrubbing floors for the Foreign Legion when Mr. Palmer and the manager came out of the office, smiling. Oh, sure, I thought, you can smile. It’s not your life that’s being ruined.

    The manager just looked at me and said, “You can go home now, son. After what your teacher has just told me about you, I think we can forget about this, but I hope that we won’t have any reason to regret this decision in the future.”

    Well, you could have knocked me over with one of Mr. Palmer’s chemistry exams. I don’t quite remember what happened next, but I guess I paid for Mom’s gift and walked home. I was sort of in a trance all the next day. In fact, I didn’t come out of it until Christmas morning when I was watching my family enjoy Christmas and thought about what it could have been like that morning if Mr. Palmer hadn’t taken my side at the store.

    I realized then that I hadn’t even thanked him for what he’d done. I just had to call Mr. Palmer to thank him and to apologize for being so late with my thanks. But there was no answer at his house. I tried all day and all the next week with the same results. I found out later that he had gone out of town for Christmas.

    I didn’t see him until third period on the day school started again. He didn’t seem any different, but I couldn’t forget what he’d done for me and I kept wondering why. After school I stopped in at the chemistry room to thank him.

    He was in the back of the room cleaning out the caustic chemical cupboard and didn’t see me come in. Seeing him there when he didn’t know anyone was around, I thought he didn’t look like such a bad guy. He was humming “Clementine” off key and a lock of his blond hair had fallen down over his forehead. I realized suddenly that he had freckles. You know it’s funny, but I had never noticed those freckles before. I guess I’d been too busy hating him to think of him as a real person.

    “Mr. Palmer, I came to thank you.” I could hear a tremble my own voice. “I don’t know what you told that man at Miller’s, or why you would do that for me, but I wanted to thank you. I’m sorry I didn’t sooner. I guess I was kind of shook up, and then when I remembered you were gone.”

    “Why, David, I didn’t hear you come in. Sit down.” I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it. Mr. Palmer’s eyes were wet.

    “You don’t have to thank me,” he said. “I just told Ernie what kind of student you are and that I had never known you to be dishonest in any way. I told him about that time when you had been absent for the chemistry exam and I forgot to have you leave when I started to hand back the papers. Remember? You reminded me so that you wouldn’t hear the answers. I know that some of your friends have tried to get you to help them cheat by leaving your answers uncovered during the exams, but you won’t do it.”

    I swear, I don’t know how he knew about that, but he did. Suddenly I felt a little braver. “Mr. Palmer,” I asked, “Why did you do it? I mean, I never thought you cared …” That wasn’t the right thing to say. I stopped, embarrassed.

    “Oh, David.” There were those wet eyes again. “You’ll never know how much I care about all of you. It’s hard for me to show it, but I do. I really want what’s best for you. That’s why I’m so hard on you sometimes. I don’t mean to hurt anyone. I guess I do, but please believe me, most of the time I don’t even know what I’ve done unless someone tells me.”

    When I left Mr. Palmer’s room that afternoon the sun was going down and the halls were deserted. I had learned a lot in that time. I found out that when he was a kid Mr. Palmer stuttered because he was so scared of everything. I found out that one of the ways people hide their feelings is to act like they know everything. I found out that Palmer the Embalmer had gone to Danny Lewis and apologized last September, because he hadn’t known until he saw him walk across the room to his desk that Danny had a problem. Danny doesn’t talk about his triumphs any more than he does about his problems.

    Mr. Palmer is still called The Embalmer by the kids at Central High. And I guess a lot of them still hate him. I know better now. I’m in the honors chemistry class at the university and doing well, thanks to Mr. Palmer’s chemistry class.

    Lettering by James Fedor

    Illustrated by Richard Hull