Monday, June 29, 2009
Why, you might ask, would someone who loves to learn as much as I always have, hate first grade so much? But I despised it.
I went to 6 schools in my 12 years, 4 of them in the first 5 grades. But that didn't affect first grade, of course. I suppose I was too young emotionally to handle the full days, though. Usually children begin with half-days in Kindergarten, and so far I was no exception. But my afternoon Kindergarten classes lasted a grand total of 2 weeks. Ten sleepy afternoons, following swimming lessons, a few teenage girls attempted to acquaint my wide-eyed classmates and me with the foreign concepts of sitting quietly in our chairs until called upon, raising our hands to speak, and writing our names on simple coloring pages. There may also have been singing. I only wanted a nap. Then, at the tender age of 5, I began the full days of first grade. But the work was no problem. Upon hearing that I was to go to school, I insisted on being taught to read. I felt it would be the height of embarrassment to show up at school unable even to read. I was highly motivated - my mother says I learned by osmosis.
Unfortunately being able to read actually became an obstacle to my happiness in school, however, because the other kids were constantly asking me questions, for which answers I would incur the wrath of the teacher. And the teacher was my real problem. I was positively terrified of her. In this particular school there were known to be 2 first grade teachers - the nice one and the mean one. In what was to become an unfortunate pattern in my school life, I got the mean one. I was only slightly apprehensive because I tend to get along easily with people and I felt perhaps she'd been misunderstood. Alas, she had not.
I can't honestly say I was singled out for her sharp words. I don't recall her liking any of us. We all got in trouble if we talked; but it didn't matter why. When confused classmates whispered desperate pleas for help and I tried to explain something, we both were called down sharply. Finally I learned to put my head on my desk when I had completed my work, shutting out the whispers and the tugs on my shirtsleeves.
The constantly sour attitude and sharp rebukes made me nervous enough, but had it ended there I might have adjusted. One day something occurred that cemented my fear and made every day an anticipation of disaster. We were finally at lunch, to be followed by recess - every child's favorite part of the school day. My friend and I were at the back of the lunchline, which was very long and very slow, and we began looking around us, and fell to daydreaming. Something brought my eyes back around to my friend, and with a start I realized the line had long since left us behind and we were standing alone near the door we came in at. "Go!" I commanded my friend, giving her a little push to emphasize my words.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, seeing how far back we were, and she hurried forward. As I lifted my foot to follow her, I was suddenly snatched up by both shoulders and shaken very hard. My head flew back and forth, tender baby teeth clashing together, feeling much like I imagine a field mouse must when an owl snatches it from the ground. As the violence of the shaking diminished, I could see the angry face of my teacher close to my own frightened one. "Don't push people," she screamed. Eyes wide with shock, I attempted to sputter out an explanation. Unfortunately I began with the words, "I wasn't-" and before I could get another word out, the shaking began again, much harder than before, as she yelled furiously that I was not to lie to her! "Ok," I gasped and she released me. I stumbled forward to get my lunch, stunned and rattled. Leaving as quickly as I could to go to recess, I discovered that the treasured plaything I had carefully placed in the toy cubby had been absconded with. Discouraged and unhappy, but afraid to complain, I went and sat under a tree. My mother was furious when I told her what had happened, and she tried in vain to get me transferred to the other class. She did discover that my teacher was very ill and that's why she was so tense.
Following closely on the heels of this incident was another, adding to the feeling of uneasiness because of the unnerving quality of it. I was sitting in reading circle with the sun streaming in, a little sleepy with the dull business of listening to other first graders stammer out their reading lesson. Suddenly the quiet was shattered by a shy, timid girl, who leaped to her feet, screaming. She danced frantically, slapping at herself and emitting little shrieks while we all watched in horrified fascination. The teacher rushed to the girl's side, trying to discover the problem. Just as she reached her, the girl burst in to tears and the teacher hustled her out of the room. We all stared in amazement at one another, totally at a loss as to what had just occurred. We were later informed that the girl had been stung by a bee that got inside her sweater. This episode did not make me fear bees, but my fear of my teacher became a bit mythical as I associated her with the bizarre episode.
One weary, dreary Monday morning, I dragged unwillingly in to school, weighted down by a very large, heavy cast on my aching arm, shattered in 3 places in an unfortunate incident at the Jaycees picnic over the weekend. It was my right arm, too, so all the careful work I'd done so far in learning to write had been completely undone. When I arrived, it was not my teacher who waited for me. We had a substitute, a very pleasant looking lady named Mrs. Whited. She explained that our teacher was going to be out for some weeks due to surgery and recovery, and she, Mrs. Whited, would fill her place as best she could. While feeling sympathy for the sick teacher, I can't say I was sorry to have relief from the constant dread of the school day. Mrs. Whited was as pleasant as she looked and I thrived under her smile like a flower in the sun. She was patient with me when I had trouble doing my work because of my broken arm, and she laughed when she found that rather than raising my hand for attention, I was just resting my heavy cast on the back of my chair. We got along famously. The crowning touch was the school-wide Student of the Month competition. I craved going forward in assembly in front of the entire school to receive the certificate and accolades given to the favored student. But our teachers had to nominate us. I had given up hoping, so I was genuinely surprised when my name was called. I went forward, beaming, and saw my new favorite teacher beaming back. Not long after that our regular teacher returned. Everyone in the class mobbed her to say welcome back. Well, everyone except me. I was over with Mrs. Whited having a tearful farewell.
There wasn't much of the school year left by this time, and perhaps our teacher was feeling better after her surgery, because there were no more particular incidents. As long as we stayed silent, and didn't complain at recess about the bullies, things weren't too bad. We even had an art project one day, and I enjoyed it so much that I remember it still. The owl I made is preserved as magnificent in my memory, the actual work of art not having survived to contradict my visions of grandeur. The owl art project done on black paper was the single good memory I had with that first grade teacher. She was almost nice to me that day! I've had a fondness for owls ever since.