Sunday, November 18, 2012

The only way to save my skin was to lie

Endion Elementary School was a huge, castle-like building with highly polished floors and tall skinny windows dimmed by brittle yellowed shades. The flat top of my wooden desk lifted to make room for supplies, and drilled into the upper right hand corner was a round hole meant to hold an inkwell, which we modern children didn't use.  I had, instead, a vinyl pencil case that zipped.

In the back of the room were mysterious wooden cupboards that closed with small brass latches; inside them were pots of glue and stacks of lined manila paper, which some children called vanilla paper. You knew the assignment was an important one when the teacher broke out the manila paper, which we all understood to be more expensive than the everyday newsprint. There was a long blackboard in the front of the room, and an American flag in the corner, to which we pledged allegiance every morning, standing by our desks, our little damp palms pressed fervently to our flat little chests.

My first-grade teacher was Miss Eich, and ours was a split class--first and second graders together in one room. We went on leaf walks in September, a long bumpy row of children of various sizes, led briskly up First Street by a thin older woman who I thought looked a little like the Wicked Witch of the West, though she was very kind.

She taught us in shifts: first grade readers! second grade readers! first grade arithmetic! second grade arithmetic! It wasn't called mathematics until third grade, which I was already dreading.

Every day we walked home at noon for lunch, kicking the bright leaves underfoot, staggering the three steep blocks up 21st Avenue East to Fourth Street, wolf down a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, and then back in our desks again by 1:30.

I loved reading class, where I was already a star; the other first-graders were just sounding out the letters and learning to sing the alphabet song, but I was reading chapter books. The arithmetic class was was not as easy; I could count as high as you pleased, but the only way I could add and subtract was by nonchalantly putting my hands behind my back and computing with my fingers. This method served me well for most of my grade-school years. Nobody questions a sweet little girl whose hands are demurely clasped behind her back.

In early October, I was summoned to the office. The classroom door opened and the secretary poked her head in; she and Miss Eich whispered together and then looked my way and beckoned. Terror gripped me, to the bottom of my feet, which turned cold. What had I done wrong? No one explained why I'd been called; no one told me what the problem was. I was a child and didn't need to know these things. And I was too frightened to ask.

I was brought into a small room off the principal's office where a smiling man sat at a table. This was not Mr. Hauer, the principal. This was a stranger. He told me to sit down, and then he slid a workbook across the table and asked me if I would read to him. This I could do, and I did, shyly, quietly. I knew how to read ahead, scanning the page for upcoming unfamiliar words, and I knew that the word "the" was always attached to another word, and so whenever I saw a word I needed to figure out, I always stopped one word early.

"The," he prompted me, and I nodded and obediently repeated, "the," and then stopped again to figure out the next word. He was messing with my rhythm.

A few sentences later, another unfamiliar word, and I stopped early again. "The," he prompted again, and this time pride overcame my shyness. "I know," I said sharply, and after that he didn't prompt me again.

After I read, the man asked me to count for him, and so I did, to a hundred, and then I stopped. "I could keep going," I said, and he asked, "So why did you stop?" I didn't know how to tell him that after 100 it just got redundant, so instead I just sat there.

He didn't seem to me to be a very smart man.

After some time, he sent me back to class. Miss Eich said nothing, just ushered me back to my seat.

That night, I made the mistake of telling my parents. "They sent me to the office today and I had to read out loud for some man," I said, and was startled when Guv questioned me sharply. Usually my parents didn't respond much at all to my chatterings about school, but this time was different.

"What did they want? Why did they do this?" and, most chilling of all, "Did they do this with anybody else?"

I kept saying I don't know, I don't know, but Guv pressed me hard, and the more he asked the more I thought I was in deep, serious trouble. I didn't have answers, but he kept asking me questions, and I knew I had to turn his attention elsewhere. "I think I saw him go to another classroom and take out another kid," I said, desperate to prove I wasn't the only one being punished.

Now, this was an impossibility. Our classroom door had a small, high window, and from the position of my desk I could not see anything through it other than the vague blur of the hallway, but Guv didn't know this. "Which class?" he asked sharply. "Who did they take?"

How could I know? I didn't know any of the kids in any of the other classrooms. But the truth was not getting me off the hook.

"I don't know," I said desperately. "I think they went to the second-grade class and I think they took out someone who looked a little bit like Billy Hart."

This seemed to work; Guv turned and left the room and I shuddered a sigh of relief.  But later he was back. He had called the Harts! Crap! This had not occurred to me; we hardly ever used the telephone, especially not after dinner. But Mr. and Mrs. Hart questioned Billy, and they told Guv that nobody had gone to Billy's class and nobody had taken Billy to the office. Oh god. I stared at the floor, miserable, and my eyes filled with tears.

"Leo, she doesn't know," my mother said mildly, but Guv looked upset.

It was another few days before everything became clear. Trish and Guv sat me down and explained that the man in the little room had been a tester, and that I was being promoted from first grade into second grade. It wouldn't require much; I would just stay in Miss Eich's class but when she called first grade readers, I'd stay in my seat and only go when she called the second graders.

None of it was much of a change for me; even moved into second grade, I was still the best reader in the class. But oh, if only school were only all about reading. Suddenly I was in second-grade arithmetic, and oh no, oh no, they were adding and subtracting three-digit numbers. I didn't have enough fingers for this.  I had learned subtraction by being taught that the number on top was always bigger than the number on the bottom, and my job was to figure out how much bigger it was.

But what if I was subtracting 147 from, say, 321?  The seven was not smaller than the one. The four was not smaller than the two. I had absolutely no idea how to do it and, frankly, thought it impossible. How do you take away seven from one?

Oh I was doomed.  Oh, dear lord, for the next 11 years I was soldily solidly doomed.


Jo's World said...

Laurie, its very much fun to relive your early school days with you. What a smart little girl you were! Why was your Dad called Guv?


Jo, Up North

Deborah said...

I'm really enjoying these stories, Laurie. That building is incredible, is it still there? It reminds me of the building up the street from us, which we called the Pillar of Fire when I was a child, aka Westminster Castle.

laurie said...

Jo, I'm not sure. short for "guvner," i guess. he just didn't like being called dad or daddy or father.

deborah, the building is still there, though the belfry was taken down in 1970 after it was vandalized. i think it's now apartments.

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

I can't believe they didn't bother to discuss this with your parents before they brought in a tester. And I love your dad's reaction; clearly he cared and was protecting you from unknown dangers. But they moved you without covering the stuff you had missed?!? Sheesh. Btw, my gradeschool desks looked just like yours, though the building itself wasn't nearly so grand.

Shirley said...

Your stories are so interesting Laurie! I too was wondering why your father was called "Guv." Our school desks were much like yours and our classes in elementary school were two grades per classroom with one teacher, like yours.

I recall one math class when a boy challenged me in a math lesson. The teacher would reward the first child to complete the assigned pages with accuracy with a red velvet deer ornament. He thought he would win the prize and told me not to cry when he did. Well, I showed him! Nothing like a challenge to wake my ambition and I did complete it before him with all my answers correct. He never chided me so again and I kept that lovely deer for more than thirty years.

patty said...

Laurie, love the reading story, I also was ( and still am) a reader. When we had free time in class I would read the encyclopedias or the dictionary; but I could not do math to save my soul! Still can't, still use my fingers (which was frowned upon in class) never balanced a checkbook. My horror came in high school with algebra and geometery. Still don't understand how I passed those classes. Figured my teachers felt sorry for me, knowing how hard I struggled. Your blogs bring back my childhood memories.

Suebedo said...

So you are a whole year younger than the rest of us in the class of 74? No fair!

laurie said...

It's true. I started my senior year when I was 16 and was 17 at graduation.

Wisewebwoman said...

Love these stories Laurie. I was not so public with my reading skill. I was terrified of being 'different' and the school (all girls) was full of bullies.

Erin said...

I love these childhood stories. Please tell me they are going into a book?

Green Girl in Wisconsin said...

Isn't it amazing how little we knew--how little grown ups explained to us back then? That's what strikes me.

Naperville Now said...

You have captured the adult/child relationship perfectly, in addition to my personal inability to comprehend numbers. Give me a book any day. Great post.

Far Side of Fifty said...

You are gifted with words ..not numbers..many people that love words hate daughter is the same way.
Loved your description of your classroom and your teacher..and they should have told you why they were taking you from the scary:(

marian said...

This post and the next one are so evocative for me that I have a little bit of a stomach ache! That ever-present edgeless terror... Well done.

Naperville Now said...

my math terror continues to this day. (there are never enough fingers.) meanwhile, we readers need to stick together. great post, Laurie.