The Sticker Weed Incident

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2019 by Sara Etgen-Baker
Photo of Sara' at 11 years old.
                        Sara age 11

This is a memoir and a true, biographical account of a sticker weed battle that took place at my elementary between a group of fifth graders.  Mrs. Parsons, one of our teachers, wasn't too keen when she found me, the lone girl, amongst the fifth grade boys throwing sticker weeds at one another.  Likewise, my mother wasn't too keen on Mrs. Parson's notion that I should serve detention for participating in the sticker weed battle. A battle between Mrs. Parsons and my mother ensued.  

Those of us who grew up in the 50s knew what the recess bell was. It was a bell—an actual giant red bell—that rang at the beginning of recess in elementary schools all across America. When it rang, kids lined up to go outside to play—disorganized, loud, dirty play. When the bell rang again, kids lined up to go back inside. We had morning recess, lunchtime recess, and afternoon recess. In between recesses we had class.

One day in 1962, the afternoon recess bell rang at W.C. Daughtery Elementary. My friends and I lined up to go outside and play; once outside we scattered like frantic ants on the first warm spring day and headed in all different directions. Some ran to the slides; others toward the merry-go-round, the swing set, the monkey bars, or the seesaws. But others, like me, didn’t gravitate toward the playground equipment. We had something else entirely different on our minds.

“Sticker weed battle!” yelled my friend, Tommy, as he ran past me. “I want you on my team. Come on!”

I’m coming!” I hurried behind him, my ponytail swishing back and forth. I followed him to the far edge of the playground to the notorious sticker weed battlefield. I was a tomboy at heart who lived in a house and neighborhood devoid of little girls to play with. So, I thought nothing of being the only girl joining Tommy and the other fifth grade boys in a rousing sticker weed battle. In my mind, throwing sticker weed spears at my neighborhood friends and classmates was the best way to spend recess.
Battle lines were drawn between two parallel rows of bushes, and each team hunkered behind the bushes and waited. A warm wind blew, rustling the bushes; but the battlefield itself lay quiet that afternoon, and every gaze lay resolute ahead. “Geronimo,” came the battle cry. “Geronimo!” Without hesitation, we sprang forward from behind the bushes and launched our spears, screaming, yelping, and chasing one another hoping to stab a sticker weed spear into someone’s arm or clothing.

Then from out of nowhere came a shriek. “You kids stop that right now!” yelled Mrs. Parsons as she bounded toward us. Everyone ran, but I froze like a deer caught in the headlights. Before I knew it, she had a firm grip around my arm. “Come with me, young lady! You’re in big trouble.”
Trouble? What kind of trouble?” I wondered to myself. I was a good student, and a well-mannered, polite little girl who’d never been in trouble before.

With her hand still firmly gripping my arm, Mrs. Parsons marched me across the playground and into Principal Ethridge’s office. She grabbed the office phone from the counter and handed me the receiver.

Do you know your home phone number?”

Yes, ma’am, I do.”

Call your mother and tell her you’re in trouble and to come to school right away.”

Yes, ma’am,” I said. I held the receiver to my ear; placed my trembling index finger into the rotary dial; and dialed the number, BR6-4684, and waited.

Hello.” I heard Mother’s soft voice on the other end.

Mama,” I all but cried. “I’m in the principal’s office with Mrs. Parsons. She says I’m in trouble, and she wants you to come to school right away.”

What happened, darlin’?”

I don’t know. But she says I’m in trouble. Hurry, Mama!” I said, my voice trembling with fear and embarrassment.

Okay, darlin’, I’ll be right there.”

I sat in the corner chair and waited, my feet dangling nervously. Mother arrived in record time, flinging up the door to the reception area. I ran into her arms and burst into tears. “I’m sorry, Mama. I’m sorry.”

There, there, darlin’.” She handed me her handkerchief and sat down next to me. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out.”

Minutes later Mrs. Parson’s emerged and escorted us into Mr. Ethridge’s office. Mother and I sat across from him with Mrs. Parsons at our side.
Your daughter’s behavior,” began Mrs. Parsons, was unacceptable and unladylike on the playground today. I believe she needs a few days of after-school detention to think about her unbecoming behavior.”

What exactly did my daughter do that was so unbecoming?”

She was the only girl involved in a sticker weed fight with the fifth grade boys.”

Was anybody hurt?” Mother continued.


Well, what’s the problem?”

Like I said, your daughter must be accountable for acting inappropriately for a little girl. She’s setting a bad example for the other little girls.”

Let me ask you this, Mrs. Parsons. Are any of the boys receiving detention?”

No, of course not. Boys will be boys. Having a sticker weed fight is okay for little boys but not for little girls.”  

I disagree with you, Mrs. Parsons. I won’t have my daughter singled out simply because you believe she was unladylike or unbecoming. She’s grown up around boys her whole life; she even has sticker weed fights with her brothers. There’s simply nothing wrong with her behavior. So I’m not agreeing with detention.”

Mother stood up, took my hand in hers, and with tension in her voice said, “Let’s go.” We stormed out of Principal Ethridge’s office.

We drove home in silence. Once home, I fully expected Mother to scold me for my inappropriate behavior and tell me to avoid activities that would get me in trouble with Mrs. Parsons. Instead, she sat me down at the kitchen table, leaned in towards me with her hand on one knee, and said, “You’re wonderfully different from other little girls. I love and admire you for who you are. So don’t take to heart what the world says you can or can’t do simply because you’re a girl. You can be who you are. Don’t conform to other’s ideas of right and wrong, even if that person has authority over you. Don’t be governed by outside authority. Be true to yourself and strong enough to question and follow your instincts even if others don’t understand you or agree with you. You decide what’s best for you. You understand, darlin’?”
Photo of Sara' at 11 years old.
             Mother Winifred Christine Stainbrook-Etgen 1944

Yes, Mama,” I nodded. “I do.”

I lied. I was only 11-years old and didn’t completely understand her message, but her words were powerful and supportive, awakening me to the power of being true to myself regardless of what others thought or said.
I returned to school the following day feeling rather jubilant and confident in who I was. During recess I happily joined my male battleground comrades at the back of the playground and engaged in yet another sticker weed battle. Mrs. Parsons watched me from a distance, her face wrinkling in contempt unable to deter or chastise me for being the only girl participating in Daugherty Elementary School’s sticker weed battles.

A life time has passed since the sticker weed incident, and Daugherty Elementary school has long since been demolished, a newer building replacing it. The playground and its sticker weeds, however, remain. I occasionally drive past it and park at the back edge of the playground. I close my eyes and pause, remembering the sticker weed incident, Mrs. Parsons, and Mother’s encouraging words—words that gave me the confidence to be the little girl I was and to eventually become the woman I wanted to be. Mother was, without a doubt, my champion and heroine that day giving me some life-defining lessons in personal heroism and courage.

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