Saturday, August 18, 2012

Back to School

“Riding along on a big yellow school bus
Elmer's glue and a brand new lunch box
Writing my name for the very first time
With a pencil that was bigger than me
From jumping rope and skipping school
To doing things that grown-ups do
Life goes by like that big old bus
If you miss it, it's history…” –Carolyn Arends

            I remember my first day of kindergarten quite well. Being the youngest of five children, I had for years watched sadly as my siblings headed off to school in the mornings, leaving me lonely and bereft. In the afternoons I would wait eagerly for them to come home, forgetting the fact that they often tormented me for pure amusement. I would listen as they shared stories of the classroom and playground, and I was outraged when I discovered in the fall of 1970 that, although I would be five in the spring, I had to be five much earlier than that in order to be allowed to go to kindergarten.Some of my classmates from Sunday school had made that magic cutoff date and came to church bragging about it. So I made my own “school” with my stuffed toys and the workbooks that I always begged my mother to buy for me. I tried in vain to teach my dogs and cats the alphabet. I perused my siblings’ textbooks and sometimes coerced them into playing school with me. I wanted to enter that wonderful, mysterious world and learn everything there was to learn.

            As with many things, the reality was a letdown.

            First of all, there were the school supplies. At home, I used regular Elmer’s glue for craft projects. In kindergarten, we had to use paste, which doesn’t work very well and dries out quickly if you don’t put the lid back on just right .Furthermore, some of my peers liked to eat it, which was disgusting to watch. At home, I used regular pointed scissors. I wasn’t stupid and my parents weren’t worried that I would stab myself or cut my fingers. At school, however, we had to use blunt scissors that didn’t cut anything properly, if they worked at all. Then there was the pencil that was “bigger than me”. I had been writing my name for two years-with ordinary, skinny #2 pencils. Using that giant pencil was like learning to write all over again, and the letters looked ugly and awkward on that flimsy, blue-lined primary paper.  But the crayons were the absolute worst. I don’t think they make them anymore-at least I hope not. They were called “anti-roll” because they were FLAT on one side, which kept them from rolling off the table.Having taught preschool, kindergarten, and the primary grades, I guess I can see why this would be considered a good thing, although frankly I don’t see why crayons falling on the floor is that big a deal.You just pick them up. The big flat crayons were totally ineffective and, to add insult to injury, there were only eight of them. What good is that? I wanted my pack of sixty-four with the built-in sharpener!  But no-we had to have our anti-rolls, blunt scissors, two ginormous pencils, and clumpy paste packed neatly into a red school box labeled with our names neatly lettered on the top. And thus I went forth on my first day, box and writing tablet under my arm, Snoopy lunchbox clutched in my sweaty hand. The lunchbox was so I would not feel left out-kindergarten was only a half-day-so I loaded the lunchbox with books, thinking I would actually be allowed to read in school.

            Then came the second disappointment-in kindergarten, no one was supposed to be reading yet. I had overheard my mother talking to the teacher on Registration Day about the fact that I could read already, and the teacher had frowned as though this was a terrible thing. I did not realize that I would actually not be permitted to read at school-at least for the first two weeks. One day I was taken out into the hall and given some kind of test where I had to read words off of flashcards, and another test where I had to point to the picture that went with the word the teacher said, and then there was some kind of discussion with my parents about advancing me to second grade, which my parents firmly refused to do. After that, my teacher’s perpetual scowl deepened whenever she looked at me, but I was allowed to read my books while the rest of the class had Alphabet Time. On the first class trip to the school library, I headed for the junior section to get a chapter book, but was steered over to the picture book section by the sweet-voiced librarian who explained to me in a gentle tone that “the junior books are for the big girls and boys.” I was not accustomed to being talked to as if I were a moron, and I was also horribly shy, so I didn’t try to explain but grabbed Make Way for Ducklings, a book that I had enjoyed hearing read by Captain Kangaroo. By that point, utter bewilderment had set in. I had thought school was a place for education, but all I was learning was that either all of my classmates were a little slow, or I was just plain weird.

            The third blow came when we were given our very first dittoed picture to color. It was a cat playing with a ball, and I became excited, planning to make the cat yellow with orange stripes and the ball red, purple, and blue. I could actually visualize in my mind how beautiful it would look, and I would bring it home to my mother and she would put it on the refrigerator with my brother’s Good Work handwriting paper and my sister’s “A” math test. Alas, before I could even pick up one of my flat yellow crayons and begin, the teacher was saying something in her screechy voice.”Everyone hold up your BROWN crayon. Now say BROWN.” We all did. “Now, hold up your GREEN crayon. Say GREEN.” We all did. After reviewing BROWN and GREEN ten times, we were allowed to color the cat BROWN and the ball GREEN. I was saddened. Whoever heard of a brown cat? I had several cats at home. One was gray (Lightning), one was black with white feet (Boots) one was orangey-yellow (Barney), and one was calico (Rover). None of them were even close to brown, and to this day I don’t think I have seen an actual brown cat. Maybe I missed something. I was sad but resigned; however, a little rebel named Bill colored HIS cat purple-and outside the lines. Miss Screech snatched his paper away from him and held it up for the class to see. “This is exactly what we DON’T do in kindergarten,” she snarled. “This is the way BABIES color, so I guess Bill is a BABY.” Bill slipped down in his seat, his face red.I felt sorry for him and resolved to be very nice to him, even though he was one of the paste-eaters.

            I wish I could say that my year got better, but it didn’t. Every day we had warm milk and either slightly stale animal crackers or slightly more stale graham crackers for snack. Every day Bill couldn’t learn his colors or his letters or his numbers or how to color in the lines and was sent to the corner. “Bill, you will be a REPEATER”, Miss Screech told him. Indeed, the next year Bill did not get to go to first grade with the rest of us, but was stuck in the land of Painting With Chocolate Pudding for a second round. Miss Screech was the only kindergarten teacher so he had to suffer through her humiliation again. She probably yelled at him for eating the pudding again, which even at five I thought was absurd. You do not give small children food with which to make art and expect them not to EAT any. I was to recollect that many years later when my preschool class made igloos out of sugar cubes (which, by the way, is a terrible and demented idea) and necklaces out of Froot Loops ( a better idea, but a huge supply of cereal is essential).  My kindergarten experience was a daily routine of kiddie songs, counting things and circling numbers, trying to lie perfectly still at rest time to avoid the wrath of the Screech, and getting knocked down at recess.

            My kindergarten teacher could have written the book on how NOT to teach. I thought she was a little bit mean at the time. In retrospect, as a teacher myself, I see that I was wrong. She was VERY mean. I am by no means a perfect teacher,and I make mistakes every day, but publicly humiliating a five-year-old for not being able to learn? Really, Miss Screech? It is no wonder that I almost never spoke during my first year of school. I was introverted anyway, and I was completely cowed by Miss Screech. I didn’t tell my parents anything about it until years later, and they were horrified. But, like every experience I have had in my life, I did learn from it, and I would never, ever treat children the way Miss Screech did. To be fair, I had far more good teachers than bad ones during my school days. I will write of them in future blog entries, since I suspect that my theme the next few weeks will be “school”. After all, I am a teacher. That’s what I am. Oddly enough, if you had told me at almost any point during my elementary, middle, or high school days that when I grew up I would WILLINGLY choose to go every day to a classroom, I would have laughed and laughed. I couldn’t wait to get out and go find myself-and then I found myself right back at school, exactly where God wanted me. On Monday I will begin a new school year, teaching English and Bible and creative writing to ninety unique and beautiful students. I will have days that are wonderful and days when I get frustrated and days when I wonder if I am doing any good at all. But no two days will be exactly alike and that is part of the joy of what I do. Now…get busy and do your homework!

“Mom, is the world coming to an end?" Jonny asked, picking up the plate of cookies and ramming one into his mouth.
"No, it isn't," Mom said, folding her lawn chair and carrying it to the front of the house. "And yes, you do have to go to school tomorrow.”
Susan Beth Pfeffer, Life As We Knew It

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