I went to Kindergarten at Garfield Elementary in Parsons, KS. Before the first day of school, Mom and I walked down to the school on a sleepy and muggy Sunday afternoon to check the perimeters of the area and look in all the windows. I assumed this vetting process was protocol for all incoming Kindergarteners, but as I got older, I realized it was more because my mother had a strong inclination to grasp the fundamentals of what would be happening before it happened, and apparently was able to know how events would unfold simply by looking in a classroom window. As we approached the school, I took note of all the monarch butterfly decals displayed all over the windows, resplendent in deep oranges, butterscotch yellows, and russet browns, the signature color pallet of the 80s. I took in the strange quiet of the building and the playground, disoriented by the absence of energy and intimidated by the possibilities that may happen, or even scarier, may not. Meanwhile, Mom was trudging and tripping through stiff, overgrown summer weeds, determined to get to the windows. She shamelessly cupped her hands around her face, fogging up the glass, even in the unstirring August heat, to get a clear overview of the inside of the classroom. Looking back, I wonder if any onlookers or passersby thought we were casing the joint for the big day when we’d sneak in and take all the glue, abacuses, and construction paper our happy hearts could stand.
Once we decided Garfield Elementary was a suitable establishment for my scholastic achievement, Mom took me to my first day. She was nervous, which made me a little nervous, but once we arrived, I felt good. Excited. Donned in a new crisp outfit, once I received my rubber duckie shaped name tag, I didn’t even think, I let go of Mom’s hand, leaving her high and dry by the door, and charged into the classroom. There were toys, toys I’d never seen before, automatically making them better than the toys I had at home. There were bright wooden blocks, undoubtedly entrenched in lead based paint. The smells were brilliant–chalkboard dust, sharpened pencils, sweat, and a pinch of asbestos. There was no air conditioning, so the various smells formed a low hanging cloud that overtook my senses and ramped up my adrenaline. I can’t remember any particular kids from my Kindergarten class. But I remember other tiny, wiggly bodies with busy feet and loud, happy voices. The energy was electric. As kids, we don’t have a clue as to who we are, we just show up and play. There’s no pretense, no delicate dance we have to do so we can figure out how to socialize. We all talk at once, coming up with amazing ideas and imagining ridiculous scenes that we must act out, blissfully unaware of time, schedules, or responsibilities. What a time to be alive.
Ms. Strickland was our teacher. I’m a little fuzzy on her age, but I think she was in her early hundreds. She was wound as tight as her perm and had no time for nonsense. I don’t think she ever said this, but in my memory, she said it all the time. “I don’t have time for nonsense.” Ms. Strickland taught with an iron fist and her first priority was to keep everyone in line, but she seemed to have an especially keen eye out for me. While all five year olds are loud, busy, silly, and generally chaotic, I was the kid who took it to the next level. My voice could be heard over everyone else’s, I had a tendency to want to take charge of all activities, and if something was funny or silly, I was the kid who became practically unrestrained with an overwhelming blend of giggling, shrieking, and spurts of rolling around on the floor. As the year progressed, Ms. Strickland threw plenty of glares my way, gave me reminders that she ran the classroom, not me, and worst of all, she would make me sit by myself when my intensity reached a level of disruption, or if I couldn’t focus.
One particularly grueling day, she moved my desk to a corner of the classroom so I could Stay On Task. I was supposed to be practicing writing letters of the alphabet. I had my penmanship paper in front of me, I had my pencil. It was simple. Just trace the examples and do a few on my own. I looked at everyone else across the classroom, diligently working away while Ms. Strickland slowly paced about the classroom, her long polyester skirt swaying mid-calf, her orthopedic shoes soundlessly moving through the desks, pausing briefly to check everyone’s work. I looked back down at my paper. I started to trace a letter. By accident, my pencil ran off the page and I made a mark on the desk. I moved the paper over to see the mark. I stared at it. Interesting. I never noticed how blank these desks looked before. Ms. Strickland was still strolling through the sea of her penmanship army. I felt something calling me. I surreptitiously placed my practice sheet in my desk and started the work I was intended to do. I started off with a few small details, some circles, some spirals, a couple of stars. I practiced my name a little, but the real inspiration hit when I just started wildly scribbling all over the desk. I just kept adding to it, feeling a certain meditation, entranced in the process. No thinking, just creating. Random doodles, furious clouds of pencil etchings, broad strokes of impulsive genius. I stopped to gaze at my work, and felt giddy. A few more scribbles and wobbly signatures and this masterpiece would be complete.
Something changed. The air was instantly cold and bitter, and I felt the cheap fabric of polyester brush my arm. I slowly turned my eyes up to see the ominous presence of Ms. Strickland looming over me. I wasn’t always the most perceptive child, but I was completely aware that this woman was furious. Her face was pinched so hard, it practically disappeared into her head. And…was her perm was somehow tighter? She snatched the pencil out of my hand and asked me where my penmanship practice sheet was. When I produced the paper from my desk, she snatched that too, told me to stay right where I was because she would be back, and marched away. I looked at the creation on my desk and felt the strong presence of guilt surge through my body. The gravity of the situation hit me and I suddenly found myself repelled by my masterpiece. It was an absolute mess. It was terrible. I was in so much fucking trouble. What would become of me? I was supposed to be learning to write, and instead I was just scribbling? On my desk? Man, I was gonna be in the corner of the classroom for the rest of my life. I sat there for a tortuous eternity before Ms. Strickland returned and decided I was to serve a solitary time out sentence. She put me in an even more isolated corner that I somehow didn’t know existed. I had to lie on my stomach and bury my head in my arms. I don’t know how long I stayed there.
The following year, I was in the big leagues. First grade. The teacher this year also had a tight perm. Maybe it was written into their contract at Garfield Elementary. Tight perms to the point of decreased head circulation. I don’t recall this teacher’s name, but she seemed decent enough. One thing I noticed was that the other kids had grown an inch or two from the previous year. Some of them had even lost teeth, flashing big proud grins with one, sometimes even two teeth gone, and would demand everyone to look at their gums to see the emerging bit of tooth enamel poking through. I was still quite tiny and had all my baby teeth. No matter. I could still party.
The adventures began when we were divided into reading groups. We learned a little reading in Kindergarten, but this year, we would be reading full sentences, reading a loud, and doing something called comprehensive reading. It all sounded rather intimidating, but once we started, I found that it really wasn’t a big deal. The written word made sense to me. Words forming sentences felt like music. I liked how my voice changed when I read something out loud. It felt like singing. Once everyone in class had more or less grasped the fundamentals of reading, we were divided into three reading groups, the top readers in the first group, the developing readers in the second, and the struggling readers in the third group. In spite of how much I enjoyed reading and the ease and pleasure I felt when it was time to read, I was placed in the lowest tiered group.
At home, Mom’s shock and indignation sent her straight to the telephone to demand answers. She received more answers than she bargained for though, and the teacher informed her that not only did I not belong in the top tier reading group, I didn’t really belong in first grade. They offered a special education program called “Transition”. It was a type of limbo class for kids who maybe weren’t necessarily impaired, but couldn’t quite keep up with the traditional classroom setting. I was hoping Mom would enlist an elite security detail to swoop in and offer a motorcade to accompany me down the hall to the top reading group. There would likely be confetti and candy and a welcoming committee, everyone would be cheering, the first grade teacher would bow her permed head, profusely apologizing to me for her dreadful mistake. I would graciously place my small hand upon her crisp perm and tell her to rise, all is forgiven. I’m not a monster, after all.
Alas, I did not receive any parade or adulation or public apology, but when I went to school a few days later, it was decided I was now in the top reading group. Mrs. Tight Perm II called me up to her desk and lowered her voice to inform me I would be joining the top reading group, and how does that sound? I whispered out an “uh-huh”, and gave her a dumbstruck nod. Well that’s weird, I thought. I guess Mom must’ve really strong-armed this lady. I don’t recall what happened after that, but I did well with reading. I started to recognize that I felt a little pride for myself. I was used to the guilt or shame that is so strongly ingrained in children, to prepare us for the grim world of Following The Rules. Pride was something new. Of course there would be plenty more shame to come during my tenure in school, so much more than pride, but on the rare occasion when pride would surface, I would ride that wave as long as I possibly could. It was something I had worked for. It was something I earned.
Decades later, Mom and I still joke about Ms. Strickland and how ruthless and rigid she was. Of course, she’s long gone by now, god rest her perm and polyester soul, but we still make fun, because we’re naughty. During our most recent session of Strickland ridicule, Mom laughed and added that Ms. Strickland had her good points too. When I rolled my eyes, Mom figured I was old enough to know the truth about my reading success. Apparently when I was about to get the boot from the first grade, Mom went to Ms. Strickland for council. Strickland came to my aid and together, my mother and that old battleax (rest in permed peace, etc.) joined forces and told the first grade teacher to stop being an idiot. I don’t think they said that, but they did convince Mrs. Perm II to put me in the top reading group. “Strickland??” I scoffed after hearing this shocking, albeit sensational, news. Mom told me Ms. Strickland always thought I was very bright and creative, and should be in an environment where I could thrive, rather than an environment that would only leave me feeling bored. Boredom leads to scribbling all over your desk.
I try to leave a little space in my heart for Ms. Strickland now. She didn’t like me so much, but dammit, she knew I had something to offer besides fits of giggling and causing a ruckus. I’d like to think maybe she’d be proud of me. I can Stay On Task for up to 20 minutes now, I try to be in charge of absolutely nothing, and I have excellent penmanship.