Elementary, My Dear


When I started elementary school, I was extremely shy and never dared to raise my hand in class to answer questions. I prayed, each and every day, that teachers wouldn't call on me. Of course, before first grade, going to school was all fun and games. Mom enrolled me in preschool to give me more friends to play with, and my biggest take-away from Sunnybrook Kindergarten was learning to sing “Way Down Yonder in the Paw Paw Patch.” My preschool and kindergarten were not housed in elementary schools; they were stand-alone businesses and stress-free environments.

Then, everything changed. I was six years old, and a stupid state law required that I start first grade. The hallways in the main building had speckled linoleum floors and bright fluorescent lights. All the teachers stood outside their classrooms waiting for fresh little minds to mold. But my first grade classroom was in a portable building, away from the hustle and bustle of the other classes. It was boring.

My teacher, Mrs. Inept, thought she was God’s gift to the world of art critics. Mom didn’t like her, which is saying a lot; she likes ninety-nine percent of the human population. Mrs. Inept gave me a C plus or C, or worse, on drawings that looked like a first-grader drew them. I thought my work was great. Until some kid from Hawaii was called to the blackboard one day to demonstrate the most beautiful rendition of an elephant I’d ever seen. He made everyone else’s art look like doodling, which, of course, it kind of was. Below the huge, scarlet letters denoting my grades at the top of my masterpieces, Mrs. Inept would write her cruel critiques. I thought I was there to learn ABCs, numbers, and how to begin reading; I hadn’t realized I was attending Pablo Picasso's Workshop for Young Children. First grade was painstakingly long.

I was relieved to go on to second grade, but didn't care much for that teacher either. She was boring, and we called her Mrs. Poot. The snooty look on her face made you think she probably did poot, but she acted like she was too good to ever pass gas.

I had resolved myself to the fact that all elementary school teachers looked unhappy, uninterested in my happiness, and like they’d never had a fun day in their lives.

Then, I met my third grade teacher, Mrs. L. She was beautiful and nice and smiled all the time. I’m sure she made all her students feel as special as she made me feel. Every day, she would read aloud from the Little House on the Prairie book series before class ended. As I listened, the characters came alive in my imagination, and I looked forward to that part of my day more than any other. I’ve often thought of Mrs. L and wished I’d gone back later in life to thank her for her influence on me. She made school enjoyable, preventing me from being an eight-year-old dropout. The night before my last day of the third grade, I cried myself to sleep because I was heartbroken to leave her. Several years later, I knew her daughter in high school, and told her how much I loved her mom, hoping she’d pass along my message.

So, third grade was the Golden Year of my elementary years. Except for Dennis. I’ll refrain from using his last name, in case he’s reading this and wants to sue me for defamation of character or steal my lunch money. Dennis was a blond-haired, blue-eyed know-it-all. I’m sure he’s a politician now.

I was standing in line for lunch, minding my own business. Dennis was standing right in front of me, talking, as usual. He never shut up.

“There’s no Santa Claus,” I heard him say. I gasped, my blood ran cold, and I shivered as his lying lips continued to move.

My brain screamed, Noooo! I prayed that my ears were deceiving me, but he continued to spew blasphemous words from his big pouty lips, going into great detail about how he knew this to be true. How could he be telling such filthy lies and getting away with it? I wondered. I was livid before I even knew that word existed. But, still being painfully shy, I said nothing. I was glad to know he’d come out on the short end of the stick come December 25. Santa doesn’t put up with traitors.

Yet, The Killjoy spoke with such authority, as usual, that I wondered if it might be true. The more I thought about it, the more I worried. He even blamed his parents for The Lie, which added validity to his story, since any one of us listening could have interrogated the parents. The seeds of doubt had been planted and took root. I didn’t hear another word from anyone for the rest of the day, not even wonderful Mrs. L. All I could think about was getting home and questioning Mom. But I don’t remember what happened after that; I blocked all other pertinent facts due to the trauma of it all. Wherever he is, I’ll bet Dennis doesn’t have his Christmas tree up and is waiting to steal presents in Whoville.

Fourth and fifth grades consisted of stricter teachers. Maybe they were stricter because they had to deal with attitudes that were starting to form right before junior high. But I didn’t think of that; I was still an easy kid at the time, so I figured my fourth grade teacher was simply mean. My fifth grade teacher looked tired all the time; she probably needed a long nap. And most of my teachers looked old. I didn’t have any age in mind when I looked at them, but I knew they were some of the oldest people I knew. Except for Mrs. L, who was eternally youthful, of course. I always hoped for younger teachers. They looked friendlier, not scary. But most of all, I wanted teachers with real smiles, not plastic or fake expressions.

One of the most exciting days of the school year was the first day of school. But with it came a lot of social pressure. Choosing a cigar box each year was a monumental decision. If you're too young to remember cigar boxes, you may think I went to some ultra-liberal institute of learning where smoking a stogie on the playground was encouraged. But these wooden containers were used to house our fat pencils, glue paste, safety scissors, a wooden ruler, etc. Some boxes were cigar themed with the logo of a particular brand on them; others were the same kind of hard wooden boxes, but with brightly colored backgrounds and cartoon characters on them. When you lifted up the lid, there was a place to write your name and your grade level.

Lunch boxes could make or break a kid's reputation. I knew I was safe in the popularity department the year I picked out my metal Partridge Family lunch kit. Gone were the days of the pink soft-sided Tinkerbell kit with a thermos that made a magical tinkling sound when I turned it over. I had matured. I was groovy. It didn't matter so much what was packed inside the kit; it was what was on the outside that mattered. Spiral notebooks came in a plethora of colors, as well as with photos of puppies or kittens on the front. Notebooks with a picture carried more clout.

As we progressed to higher grade levels in elementary school, we graduated to thinner, regular size pencils. Number two pencils. That number two seemed to be a big deal to teachers; they repeated it no less than 20 times on the first day of school as they reviewed the list of supplies written on the blackboard. I worried about taking the wrong number pencil to school. When Mom suggested taking some from home that had the name of some shipping company printed on them, I protested, "Mom, they don't have a number on them! What if they're not number two? Do you know what number they are? Can't we just get new ones that we know are number two? Please don’t make me take a pencil without a number two." Drama ran high in our home, long before puberty hit. I was careful to steer clear of the green pencils from home; they had a different number, and tore my paper when I used them. 

But what was of utmost importance in surviving my early school years was whether or not my best friends would be in my classes. Every year after first grade, I held my breath as I walked into a new classroom, scanning the room for a familiar friend that I’d come to know the year before. Relief swept over me when I spotted one or more of them. Next, I begged God to put me beside someone who would be easy to sit next to, someone who wouldn’t draw too much attention to me and would be nice, preferably a girl.

School days were filled with anticipation, nervousness, and laughter. I built friendships that would last into my future, some of them still existing today. Together, we lived through dodge ball, learned our multiplication flash cards, and endured having to square dance with boys in music class. We survived and conquered, all without coffee as part of our daily regimen; I’m not sure how we did it. But we got through and made it to the next phase of life, junior high.

As decades have passed, I haven’t thought of those elementary days often. But recently, I’ve been immersed in a sea of change. High school graduation for my son, Cowboy, and his starting more vocational training in new settings. Helping my mom more as she ages. Learning to use newer technology in various settings. And the list goes on. Each new phase of life consists of a million things I don’t know yet, but I must learn and adjust accordingly. It feels like the first day of school all over again, but with bigger chairs and bigger words. It can be daunting at times.

But I remember what I learned from the beginning of my schooling; what worked then will work now. I look for the nice teachers in life, those who have been where I am now, the ones with authentic, compassionate smiles. I spend time with friends I know will stay the course with me for the long haul; they are my support. And I always have the proper writing instrument with me, although a number two pencil is no longer required, to take notes and write stories along the way.