I have always been fascinated by words. Before I was old enough to go to school I'd stare at the newspaper as I'd seen my dad do. Once, as I sat holding the Journal at arms' length studying the pattern of type, I heard my mom whisper to my dad, "Look--she's pretending to read!" Pretending! I was hoping some of it would magically make sense! I couldn't wait to get to school to fix that problem.
I quickly discounted Kindergarten as real school because everything we did was so babyish. I was instantly bored with all the enormous circles and squares we had to color in with the fat red crayon or the fat blue crayon. "No imagination allowed," I learned instinctively. What was valued was self-control and following directions. We brought mats with us to Kindergarten. To sleep on. As IF I wanted to spend my time at school sleeping. Wasn't I in school to learn to read?
By the time I got Kindergarten out of the way, I was chomping at the bit to read some real words in actual readers. Imagine my shock when I got to first grade and opened the book lying on my desk: PICTURES! It was filled with PICTURES and NO WORDS. I was thoroughly disgusted and ready to be done with school right then and there. I slumped in my chair filled with disappointment. Within the next few weeks, the teacher had divided us into reading groups and I was put in the Blue Group. By giving the groups names of colors, teachers hoped students wouldn't catch on that they were actually LEVELS, but everyone knew the Blue Group was for the best readers and the Red Group was for the medium readers and the Yellow Group...well, maybe the Yellow Group should have spent more time in Kindergarten.
I was impatient with the whole business of school and I didn't attempt to hide it. There was too much standing in line, walking in line, holding hands in line. There was too much sitting at desks and working quietly. I rocked back on the hind legs of my chair to burn off energy while I waited for others to finish their seatwork. The teacher asked me not to rock back on my chair. I remembered what she said for about three minutes and rocked again. Eventually, I tipped the chair over backwards with a bang. Mrs. E didn't even ask if I was hurt. She just walked over and took my chair away and made me stand the rest of the day.
Standing gave me a better view of those around me. When I noticed that other children were having trouble with their work, I took it upon myself to go from desk to desk and politely offer help. Mrs. E didn't appreciate that either. She didn't think she needed my help, apparently, since from the looks of her she'd been soloing on this teaching thing for a hundred years already. She gave us 9x12 drawings of the American Flag to color. I started out strong, coloring in the red stripes heavily, but grew tired and flat of crayon by about the third stripe. So I finished Old Glory in light red stripes and was the first to turn my flag in. "When you start something in dark crayon, you have to finish it in dark crayon," intoned humorless Mrs. E, returning me to my desk with my paper. I learned it is not smart to over-commit with your first attempt. The rest of the year I was low on red and had to borrow from the public box of broken, paperless crayons.
Nothing smelled like a box of new crayons. I loved the feel of their perfect, pointy tips and smooth papers and was sad when I had to tear the papers back. I also loved my paste container with the orange spreader/lid and was fascinated by the huge pail the janitor brought around for us to refill our little jars when they got low. What would it be like to have a whole gallon of paste all to myself? I had a special pair of shoes that never got to leave school all year; my gym shoes, joined together by knots, which hung clean and white on a hook in the cloakroom. My shoes were kept company by one of Dad's old dress shirts which was on standby just in case we were ever allowed to paint. I was itching to use my new scissors, anxious to paint and paste. But mostly, we did seatwork. We learned (again) about colors, and shapes, and traced the same letters over and over. And we had reading groups where we memorized lists of sight words. We "read" endlessly about Dick and Jane who never fought and Spot who never chased Puff and Mother and Father who never did anything interesting.
I looked forward to eating Hot Lunch at school in the old gym. We were greeted every day by good old Myrtle, who did double-duty on the weekends as our Avon Lady. She always served up the main dishes, like macaroni hotdish and scalloped potatoes with ham. At the next lunch window, Tillie was stationed. Like Myrtle, Tillie had blue hair and a grandmotherly smile. She always served dessert--Peach Betty and Jell-O "with or without whipped cream." Our teacher sat with us at lunch to make sure we ate all our food. Some kids tried to hide the food they didn't like in their milk cartons, but the teacher always shook the carton to be sure it was empty. They were on to those kinds of tricks, unfortunately. When you finally cleaned your plate, you could go out to recess.
Recess wasn't exactly what I'd imagined it would be either. We were sent outside, unsupervised, for an hour after lunch each day. We little first graders were scared of the big third graders and the sixth graders looked like giants next to them. But we were all lumped together on one big playground that had tall slides with no safety rails, and merry-go-rounds, and swings. Adjacent to the playground, and down a steep bank, was The Woods--deep, dark and mysterious. I was sure it was filled with animals and birds' nests and places to build forts. The big kids scared us and told us there was a haunted shack in the middle where you couldn't see it. The high-schoolers went there to smoke. It was a bad place. I wanted to go and see. In the winter, we slid down the big hill and onto the football field. We needed to bring our own sleds from home and extra snow pants. We were warned that if any of us got our pants wet, we'd have to wear a big towel "like a diaper" the rest of the day while our pants were in the Home Ec dryers across the hall getting dry. That served to dampen excessive enthusiasm for snow play.
Second grade was my best year in school. My teacher was Mrs. T and she loved me. She was soft spoken and kind and so good that she made me want to be good, too. I loved to be first in line so I could hold her hand. I began wearing my sweater draped over my shoulders like a cape with just the top button fastened--the way she wore hers. I stood straight to say the Pledge of Allegiance and walked quietly in the hallways--just like her. Every morning we'd clear our desks for snack time. We could choose either white or chocolate milk and the Milk Monitors skipped off importantly to the kitchen to bring back a crate with one carton for each student. Then our teacher went around and handed us each a napkin and a big handful of government-issue raisins. Nothing tasted as good as chocolate milk and raisins! We did a very fun art project that fall which involved making a picture of a rooster by gluing on colored popcorn kernels. Later that same year, I won first prize in a school-wide art contest with my painting of a swan on a lake. Second graders made more frequent trips upstairs to the school library and that was the best thing of all. I loved the smell of all the old books and the quiet way everyone whispered to each other. As wonderful as things had been in second grade, they were not going to remain that way for long. I wonder if Mrs. T knew what our lives would be like the following year?
The fun and games were all over in the third grade. Not only was I convinced I had the meanest teacher alive to contend with five days a week, Mrs. L played the organ at my church so I didn't even get a break from her on Sundays! I'd see her up there by the altar banging away on the keys, her dark eyebrows knit together in concentration, her face in a perpetual frown, and I'd shudder. Worse yet, I'd occasionally be trapped next to her in the vestibule when everyone crowded around to shake hands with the minister. She'd smile at him and laugh and toss her head until her dangly earrings swung. She even smiled at me, in front of my parents. I couldn't look her in the eye. I was unaccustomed to the sight of her teeth and they scared me. How could she act so nice when adults were present and so mean when their backs were turned?
Back at school on Monday, nothing had changed. It was like Mrs. L forgot we went to the same church together and that Jesus--who loved little children--was watching her. In the afternoons, she'd slip her feet out of her noisy high-heeled shoes and rub her sore feet under her desk. We'd watch her out of the corners of our eyes as we did our quiet reading, knowing what would come next. Eventually, she'd stand, announce that she would be out of the room for a few minutes--threaten us with bodily harm if anyone should step out of line, and assign a Room Monitor. Then she'd leave--for as long as fifteen minutes! We'd appoint our own sentry at the door and then all hell broke loose. Erasers and broken crayons flew around the room like missles. Kids dodged and ducked and squealed with laughter at our momentary release from marshal law. When the sentry hissed, "She's coming," we'd scramble to replace the chalk erasers and bits of crayon inside our desks. Usually, she'd return to complete serenity (belying 26 elevated heart rates) and the room monitor would report that all had gone well. But on one particular day, she gave less warning than usual and arrived to find a single piece of crayon in the middle of the floor.
"Who threw this?" she asked darkly.
No one responded. We kept our eyes on the books in front of us as the storm clouds gathered.
"I want to know who threw this," she insisted, waiting while we held our collective breath knowing full well who it was that owned the crayon in question.
"Fine. I see you won't tell me. Then you'll all sit with your heads on your desks until someone does."
We sat the entire afternoon with our heads in our arms. We missed science. We missed art. We missed recess. Once in awhile we'd sneak a peek under our elbows at our neighbors. It was clear no one was going to tell. A couple of kids fell asleep before the bell finally rang and we were released to go home for the day.
There were so many things to worry about in school! What if you couldn't wait until recess or lunch and you peed your pants? James, who was in the Yellow Group, needed to go to the restroom one day when the Blue Group was at the reading table. Mrs. L looked up over the top of her horn-rimmed reading glasses at him waving his hand desperately in the air. She shook her head "no," and frowned at him. We continued taking turns reading aloud around the table. The next thing I knew, kids were squealing and shoving desks out of the way. The entire Blue Group stood up to see what was happening. James had apparently not wanted to pee his pants either. So he'd unzipped his fly and--let fly--all over the floor. Mrs. L's face was beet red and we burst into laughter as soon as she left the room, escorting a protesting James by the ear.
Teachers had unusual methods of motivating children in those days. This same teacher made naughty boys stand in the corner, piling their outstretched arms with heavy books until they cried. She also drew a circle with chalk on the blackboard and made offenders stand on their tippy-toes with their noses in the circle. I remember many threats of public humiliation and Fear was a prevailing emotion. What if the teacher called your parents? What if you failed and had to repeat a grade? (Especially, God forbid, third grade!) What if you threw up on the radiator and the classroom smelled like puke until spring? These were all real and probable scenarios and they kept me awake at night and made my stomach hurt during the day.
Third grade was also my first experience with bullies. Most days, I played Hopscotch or Tag with the girls in my own class, but this year there was a new fad which involved the swings. The trick was for two girls on adjacent swings to intertwine and then spin apart in dizzying abandon. There were a limited number of swings available so, day after day, I watched the older girls spin and laugh, growing tired of waiting for my turn--which never came. (The fourth grade girls seemed to feel they owned the swings and pushed the younger girls off if they arrived first.) One day, I wolfed down my lunch and was first out on the playground. I got a swing for myself and saved one for my best friend, Kathy. We got through one entire cycle of breathless spinning before the 4th grade girls marched out.
"Give us the swings," they demanded.
Kathy got off her swing immediately and looked at me imploringly to do the same.
"No." I said flatly, determined to hold my ground. "We were here first."
The older girls dragged me off the swing and shoved me against the rough brick of the school building. They then proceeded to teach me to "respect my elders" by pushing me, kicking me, and calling me names. I refused to cry and that angered them further. I knew it was pointless to report this to my teacher since Mrs. L told all of us, "If you tattle on someone, your punishment will be the same as theirs." Apparently, decades of tattling children had drained all the compassion out of her cold heart. So day after day, I suffered in silence, never telling any adults, until the 4th graders grew tired of picking on me and took back the swings.
Each fall I started out the school year with optimism that this year would be better. It's hard not to feel hopeful with a new pencil box and a bag filled with new school supplies! 4th Grade was a milestone because it meant we got to move up to the second floor of the school building. It was exciting to climb the worn wooden stairs on the first day of school up to the same level as the library and the principal's office. We also had a bunch of new classmates as that was the year all the country schools were closed. I was happy to see two new boys that I vaguely knew from when they'd come to town with their dads--David with the beautiful blue eyes, the youngest of a dairy farmer, and Michael--darling grandson of Myrtle, the lunch lady. A new girl named Jane also caught my attention. She was tiny and quiet and wore a cape of faux leopard skin that I coveted terribly. I immediately wanted to be her friend to be near that cape. But it was Michael and I who struck up an instant friendship. I couldn't wait until the breaks and we'd write notes to each other discussing what to play next. This soon caught the attention of our teacher. She stopped class one day to address us publicly:
"Dawn, you have been whispering to Michael nonstop and Michael, you have been looking at Dawn all day. Do the two of you want to come up front and put on a little love scene for the class?"
My face burned with shame, and I stared straight ahead as I numbly shook my head. I didn't look at Michael or speak to him again the rest of the school year.
Christmas was a big deal in grade school. We were busy for weeks leading up to the December vacation, pasting strips of red and green paper together to make chains, cutting circles out of old Christmas cards to make ornaments, gluing macaroni onto milk cartons and spray painting them gold to give as gifts. The climax of all the holiday frenzy was The Christmas Program. (I think I failed to mention that the abominable Mrs. L was not just the 3rd grade teacher, she was also the MUSIC teacher. That meant that, once you were done with the 3rd grade, you still got to see her twice a week for music class AND for days on end leading up to Christmas.) Our rehearsals were held in the new gym which was filled with live Christmas trees and smelled like a real forest. Spirits were high and all the teachers were on hand for crowd control.
This year, the theme for our program was The Twelve Days of Christmas. Since I was one of the taller kids in my class, I always got the lousy parts; never a cute lamb or drummer boy--usually a shepherd or, in this case, one of the Nine Lords-a-Leaping. We nine (including one of the bullies from the grade above me whom I'd long since appeased with continual, insincere sucking-up), wore green tights, green felt tunics, and gold chain belts around our waists. One of the older girls thought it was funny to swing the extra length of her chain in circles in front of her like a Flapper, so we all followed suit. Mrs. L yelled at us over the top of the piano saying that what we lords were doing was completely inappropriate. So we did it all the more when she wasn't looking.
We had to stand en masse on tall risers to sing. We stood for hours each day, wilting under bright lights while the teachers worked out all the details of the program. One day, as I was standing there attempting to behave, everything suddenly went black and I toppled backwards onto to Stevie Ellingson, nearly taking both of us off the platform. The adults converged upon us and I was taken aside and shown much attention and concern which was totally humiliating. Pale and shaky in the knees, I was permitted to watch from the bleachers the rest of that day. Every day (every year) after that I was plagued by the worry of a repeat performance and came to loathe programs for the anxiety they produced.
Fifth grade is etched in my memory as The Year of Perpetual Embarrassment. A few of the girls started wearing bras, so all of us had to do the same--whether we needed one or not. The boys noticed and taunted and teased. I noted new romantic interests in the class but steered clear of that mine field. I felt awkward and ugly with my crooked teeth and new glasses. Everything was growing all out of proportion and I tripped over my own big feet. I was convinced no boy would ever like me--no matter how many games we played predicting who we'd marry and how many children we'd have.
It wasn't long before, hopeless romantic that I was, I had a new crush--this time with a much safer target--teen idol, Donny Osmond who lived far away in Utah. I saved my money to buy all his new singles and played them over and over on our tiny record player. I'd belt out the words to "Puppy Love," and "Sweet and Innocent," dozens of times every day. I had posters of him in my room, became a member of The Donny Osmond Fan Club, and wrote letters to him in my best cursive on pretty stationery. When I got a reply from him one day in the mail, I was thrilled. I brought it in to school to show my teacher, Mrs. H--a real letter from a famous person!
"Why don't you read it for the class?" she suggested/ordered. I blushed, and declined, remembering last year with Michael and the year before that with Rodney Gordon at VBS. Mrs. H insisted. I stood stiffly at the front of the room and speedily read the letter, leaving off the closing, "Love, Donny," at the end. All the kids laughed anyway and I went to the cloakroom to shove the letter angrily to the bottom of my bag. At recess, one of the girls said, "You DO know it was a FORM letter, don't you? It's the same letter that goes to everyone who writes to him." I didn't know. I felt stupid.
I started band that year--one activity I had anticipated since I was four. The first day we got our instruments, I put mine together wrong and the band director yelled at me in front of everyone. It wasn't long before I discovered that music was like a language and could be written as well as played. I drew staff lines on a piece of paper and penciled in notes up and down a C scale with the words, "Little pony, little pony up the hill we go--sometimes we are very fast and sometimes we are slow. If--I--walk along beside, maybe we will meet together on the other side." I couldn't wait to show Mr. B what I had done. He glanced at my newly composed song without smiling. He tossed the sheet aside and stabbed at the lesson book with his baton. "If you'd pay more attention to what you're SUPPOSED to be playing, you'd be much better off! Now, let's get started."
At my weekly lessons on Monday morning, he made me sit up straight when I played, deaf to my objections that I couldn't see the music through my bifocals when I sat that way. Stymied once more by the established rote method of teaching and suppression of creative expression, I languished and became unmotivated. I ignored my clarinet all week until Sunday night and then feverishly tried to learn the lesson. I had nightmares well into adulthood that it was Monday morning and a) I'd forgotten my instrument at home or b) I hadn't practiced all week. I eventually became very good at sight-reading and memorized music as an adaptive behavior. I once overheard Mr B. tell my parents, "She doesn't have what it takes, she'll never last in band." I gritted my teeth through years with this director; flinching under his disapproving scowl as he'd bang out the beat with his baton on my metal music stand, just to prove him wrong.
In my elementary years, teachers were unimpressed with my behavior and checked the same boxes on my report cards to indicate to my parents what needed to change:
"Is neat and orderly."
"Uses time efficiently."
"Completes work on time."
"Works to potential."
The most common penciled-in comment from my teachers was, "Talks excessively." They could just as well have added what they must have believed; "Will never amount to anything."
Now that I am grown, I know my worth is not measured by how well I cut paper, color inside the lines with consistent pressure, fill in dots with a Number 2 pencil, or march in perfect order. When I look back at those old report cards, I wonder why I didn't see more comments like these:
"Creative and imaginative."
"Kind and thoughtful of others."
"Bursting with life and enthusiasm."
As adults, the power is in our hands. I have not forgotten that words can leave scars that last forever or build bridges and confidence that can help a child reach for the stars. Let's use the power that is ours today: Bless a child and make a friend for life!