June Cleave and the Toothbrush Painting

My mother mentioned yesterday that June Cleave had died.

June — Mrs. Cleave to me — was a grade one teacher at Balaclava Elementary School which I attended for grades 2 and 3. She was never my teacher, but she taught all of my little brothers.

Which is not to say that she didn’t touch my life: I was in Ms. Abrams class in grade 2 and, one day, our art activity was to make “toothbrush paintings”: take an old toothbrush, dip it in paint, and spritz the paint onto paper making an interesting-looking patterns.

Except that, for me, the notion of mixing toothbrushes, clearly intended for brushing your teeth and painting, clearly nothing to do with brushing your teeth was anathema.

I refused.

And refused.

Feet may have been stamped.

And thus I was placed at a desk in the hall as punishment (that’s how schools rolled in the 1970s).

Mrs. Cleave, bless her heart, happened to walk by while I was in toothbrush prison, and she took a moment to ask what was happening, and spoke to me like a real person and acknowledged that yes, perhaps the notion of toothbrush painting might actually be distressing. She wasn’t a rebel, she didn’t try and bust me out nor break ranks with her fellow teacher, but she showed compassion when compassion was needed.

It was one of those seemingly-insignificant little moments that stick with you, and it’s an episode that I return to often in my idle moments: every interaction matters, and when you can extend a hand, you should.


Steve's picture
Steve on March 18, 2014 - 10:54 Permalink

Great story about a greta person. She was very kind to me too.

MC's picture
MC on April 27, 2017 - 22:28 Permalink

I googled June Cleave and found this lovely story. Thanks for posting it. She was my teacher for grade 1 and 2. I don't remember much from those years but do recall how often I'd mistakenly call her "mom" and how she nurtured my interests in writing and science fiction. A great teacher.