(from our Tokoni Post, 6/1/2009)

Grade School Memories


First grade was a mixed bag of tricks, just as this story is a mixed bag of memories. I wasn’t the brightest student, but I wasn’t dumb, either. I was just your average – and talkative – first grader. And talking – boy! – that got me into endless trouble.


The year was 1965, the school freshly minted; the playground a copper colored field of red clay without a single swing or see-saw. It was just a barren dusty field, muddy when it rained, which dropped off abruptly into a wide ravine where they’d pushed the hill over to flatten it to make room for the building. The school itself – nice enough, I reckon, was about three miles from our house. It seemed much further, for the school bus which met us at the top of the hill had to travel what seemed endless miles of unpaved road to pick up us country bumpkins, transporting our squealing mess to the low rambling building. (Funny thing: Looking at the school on Google Earth, I see that playground hasn’t changed a whole lot! – and neither has the school. Nice to see that parking oval where me and my friend would run ’round and ’round.)


I have a lot of memories of that school. The blind girl who sat in our class – stark white hair which matched her blank white eyes, and her skin so pale as she sat before the bulking black hulk of her braille typewriter. She was endlessly fascinating to us, and we all treated her kindly. She sticks out in my mind so well that I can feel her name right there, on the tip of my brain – but alas, it’s gone, forgotten, lost to the winds of time.


I had a teacher who hated me; that much I know from my mom. This teacher, discovering I had a German birth certificate, would refer to me as ‘the little Nazi’. Of course I didn’t have a clue what that meant, except, as the teacher would often point out, “Any of you can become president – except YOU, you little Nazi!” I didn’t mind, and when my mom found out I guess that practice ended. I do know it took me forever to earn my ‘silver star’ for learning the alphabet, and I always had to sit towards the back of class. But that was a good thing, because I was a talker.


She tried to get me to stop talking – smacking my hands with a ruler, and setting me in the corner. But it didn’t work. I would just talk to myself instead. She put me in the hallway – fine. I talked to anyone who would walk by, and if no one was there, I’d talk to the cinderblock walls – myself again. I didn’t mind.


I remember us playing ‘instruments’ – the recorders and little tin cymbals; the game of ‘pass the phrase’ where one would start with a phrase and we’d pass it down the line and see what the end person ended with. It never was the same. I do recall struggling very hard to recite the phrase handed me perfectly – but somehow by the time it reached the end, it had changed. I never understood that; how people can take something and change it and change it and change it again until what came out didn’t resemble what was said at all. I still have trouble understanding why or how people can do that.


I recall the library – we were forbidden from the library that first year, since we didn’t know how to read – watching the other students roaming around in there selecting books, maybe sitting down to read them. Boy, how I wanted to go in there! Later I would discover the true wonders of the library, going on to read literally thousands of books over my lifetime. (And yeah – thousands. But that’s for another story.) And I remembered us watching it snow as we marched past the windows — a miracle for us little kids, raised here in Georgia.


Once – perhaps in second or third grade, they assembled us to watch a film in the auditorium. There were about a half dozen police officers there, and they showed us this really gory black and white film about the dangers of hitchhiking. I suppose parents today would have been in an uproar – this film showed dismembered bodies – and an image that still sticks with me today – a jar full of eyeballs. “This,” one of the officers solemnly intoned, “Is why you should NEVER hitchhike! There are a lot of (sick?) people out there . . .” We were all suitably impressed and traumatized. I know the fear of hitchhiking has always stuck with me since.


Unlike today, a lot of inoculations were done at the school, along with the TB tests. You don’t see too many people today with that quarter sized scar on their upper arm from the booster shots – the older folks know what I’m talking about – when they’d march you past the guy with the ‘black gun’ who’d press it against your arm and deliver a painful sting. I also learned to hate the taste of raspberries. One day we were gathered together and all us kids had to brush our teeth with this raspberry flavored toothpaste – a fluoride treatment, I learned later. They warned us not to swallow – but a lot of us little kids did anyway because after brushing you had to wait in line to spit it out – so some was bound to trickle down our throats – and many of us got sick. To this day that raspberry taste makes me feel queasy.


Corporal punishment was allowed; I remember one little girl getting her butt tanned with one of those ball-and-string paddles by a teacher until the paddle broke. The girl then pee’d down her legs. Us kids snickered and laughed – but not too loudly. I can still see the teacher’s angry gaze looking at us, warning us to “shut UP!”. But such paddlings were rare. Most of us kids were well behaved, knowing that whatever we got at school we would get double at home.


It’s odd, how things stick out in my mind. My last year there – fifth grade – I got my first “F” in math. The time the school bus, dodging a weaving driver on a rain slicked mud road, slipped sideways into the ditch, throwing all us boys onto the “girl’s side” – and they had to evacuate us out the emergency door – how we all waited breathlessly for the ‘fat girl’ to get out – it took three guys to handle her. The boy, Mark, with the squinting green eyes that I fell in love with on the bus – but he lived so far away, and me, being a boy, didn’t dare say anything to him. (I can still see his face, though, smiling, his eyes creasing in the corners.) I can remember the ache in my heart, wanting to ‘love’ him the way I’d learned love should be shown (as wrong as that knowledge and desire may be in an eight year old boy, I still feel that ache.) The girls playing jump rope on the dusty clay, us boys running in endless circles (we had an ongoing debate: did the breeze from running cool you off more than running make you hotter?) It was another time, another place, and I sitting here I ask myself once again: if I knew then what I know now, would I want to go back and relive that time?


I don’t know. And that’s the sad part about it. But I do know this much: I’d treasure some of the moments a lot more than I did then.


Such is the folly of youth, just as regret is the folly of age. Which I why, though difficult sometimes, I work on accepting what happened, what didn’t — and on putting the ‘Ifs’ and ‘could haves’ on a back shelf in my mind to gather dust, where they belong.