Jeanne, First Grade
need have kindergarten or pre-k or pre-pre-k or pre-pre-pre-pre-pre k. We just started in first grade, and that was that. The ensemble of first grade teachers stood in front of the room (by “the room”, I mean the boiler room which was also the lunchroom which was also a storage room), dressed in their finest and smiling their biggest. The air was filled with Important Occasion vibes, for this was surely a turning point in our young lives and a new beginning for the teachers.
We sat on the lunchroom freshly-painted benches with our parents, nervously awaiting our name to be on the slip of paper pulled out of the soup pot. Though she never said anything, it was fairly obvious to me that my mother wanted Mrs. Peeples to draw my name. Oh Mrs. Peeples. I still kinda’ swoon at the memory of her always-smiling (but then I wasn’t in her room) (sorry for the spoiler) countenance. Those cat-eye glasses. That perfectly coiffed hair with the little spit curls on each side of her forehead. Lipstick to match the dominant color in the shirtwaist dress she was wearing on any given day, always with a petticoat. That thin white embroidered handkerchief that was always starched, ironed, and on the ready, tucked under her belt. She wore high heels, too, and stockings (well, everybody wore stockings back then, and I don’t mean pantyhose. I mean stockings.) every single day. Yes, my mother, who’s always had a keen sense of style herself when it comes to fashion, prayed that she would hear Mrs. Peeples pull out that slip of paper and read aloud the words “Jeanne Hewell” at which time I would leave my mother and go stand with My First Grade Teacher and Classmates, my new tribe.
But the woman who called out my name was Mrs. Mae Bess Price. I don’t know how long Mrs. Price had been teaching, but I’m pretty sure she invented it as a profession. That woman was o-l-d. Ancient. Beyond ancient. I never saw so many wrinkles, and she was the only woman I knew besides my grandmother who had gray hair. Old, I tell you.
There’s a chance I wouldn’t have behaved the way I did had I been standing with Mrs. Peeples. At least that’s what I tell myself.
The first thing we learned in first grade was How To Line Up Straight. Straight was Important. Each teacher would hold her right arm out for us to use as a guide, and we didn’t move one iota until there wasn’t a single shoulder or toe sticking out to one side or the other. Once we’d mastered that, we followed the teacher up the steps to the hall that ran down the center of the building, a space wide enough to parallel park a 1957 Buick. A hall with a floor so shiny, it could’ve been covered with glass. That hall floor was a piece of art created by The Janitor, to my first grade worldliness way of thinking, the janitor was The Strongest Man Alive. You should’ve seen him operating that floor machine – sometimes guiding it with a single finger, I’ll have you know. And when somebody threw up, who do you think the teacher called but The Janitor who would come scatter those red shavings over it, leave it a bit, then sweep it all up and dispose of it.
With every step up from the boiler room, my enthusiasm for this social experiment wavered. I couldn’t stay here all day, I thought nervously, I had things I needed to tend do. How would the pets survive a day without petting? What would my grandmother do without me readily-available to dote on? And perhaps most pressing of all, how would I ever know if Loretta Young was cured enough to get out of that iron lung if I wasn’t home to watch tv at 1:00 in the afternoon? By the time we reached that shiny, creaking hardwood floor, I thought it a good idea that Mother stay with me a while longer. And I was quite vocal about it, too, so Mrs. Price found an extra first-grade-sized chair for Mother and pulled it right up beside my first-grade-sized desk. And with that taken care of, I could breathe again.
Mrs. Price pointed each one of us to a particular desk, and I needed a step stool to get up into mine. The front of the room was covered with wall-to-wall blackboard with a wooden chalk tray holding an assortment of colorful chalks and erasers. Big cards with every letter of the alphabet – both upper case and lower case – decorated the top of the blackboard. Mrs. Price’s wooden desk and swivel chair with arms sat to the left side of the front of the room right under the window. Oh those windows. The left wall of the room was filled with windows lined up one right next to the other. Each window was the size of a football field, but only a little ole’ rectangle in the center of the bottom of the glass actually opened to let any air in.
The door was on the right wall, up near the front of the room. The silver wall-mounted pencil sharpener was mounted to the left of the door, and The Janitor kept it so clean and free of fingerprints, it shone like a mirror. Shoot, if she had an extra hand and were interested in such things, a girl could fix her hair, get the peanut butter out from between her teeth, and sharpen her pencil all at the same time.
We tended to the business side of being in first grade first. Mrs. Price pulled out her roll book, which once spread open had a wingspan of about 4 feet. Using her fountain pen, she wrote our names in alphabetical order, last name first, in the rectangular spaces to the far left, wrote the date in the appropriate space at the top of the page, then put the first of many check marks in the date box to indicate that we were present and accounted for. For the rest of the year, every day started out the same: we’d put our lunch boxes in the designated area in the back of the room and hang our coats, sweaters, or raincoats up on the pegs. Then we’d each go to our desk, pull out two yellow No. 2 pencils, go sharpen them if needed, then place them in the trough at the top of our desks. We’d yell out “here” when we heard our name during roll call, then we’d stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance to The Flag in unison.
Mrs. Price handed out the spelling cards, square sheets of cream-colored card stock filled with seven columns of words – one column for each day of the week. We were to learn how to say each word, spell each word, and use each word in a sentence. I loved those spelling cards like you wouldn’t believe. What I wouldn’t give to hold one in my hands right this very.
Once we each had a spelling card, we were given our reading book. Reading about Dick and Jane and their mischievous little dog Spot quickly came to be my favorite time of the day (next to recess, lunch, and going home, of course). Soap operas for first grade, that’s what it was. I couldn’t wait to open that book every day and see what those two rascals had gotten themselves into or where they’d go next.
We were given a primary tablet for writing filled with sheets of thin gray newsprint covered with pink and blue lines, some solid, some dashed. It had a blue horse on the front, and I later learned you could save those blue horse pictures and redeem them for all sorts of fantastic prizes like more tablets, pencils that were red on one end and blue on the other, big chunky erasers or pointy pink erasers with a hole in the bottom that was just the right size for sliding over the eraser Certain People had already chewed off in their nervousness.
Mrs. Price then went over the Mae Bess Rules Of Order:
1. Thou shalt always make a straight line when coming in from recess or going to and from the lunchroom.
2. Thou shalt raise thy hand before talking.
3. Thou shalt keep thy pencils sharp.
4. Though shalt not talk to thy neighbor.
5. Thou shalt ask permission before going to the bathroom.
And before you knew it, all necessary business was tended to and it was time to learn our first foreign word: recess. We lined up at the door – in a straight line, of course – and marched out into the hall, and down the steps at the each end of the building. Without any further ado, Mrs. Price went over to the bench under the one tree on the vast expanse of the hard red clay playground to take her seat with the other first grade teachers. There were slides as high as the Empire State Building. There was this thing made of red and blue boards that you
stood sat on to go around and around the central metal pole. Swings hung on chains from a metal A-frame. We stood there for a moment, our eyes getting used to the light, then we took off in all different directions. Actually, it’s They took off in all different directions. I was quite content to stand there and watch, noting things like who played with who, who went to which piece of playground equipment first, who let who break in line, what the different laughs sounded like – all those oft-overlooked things . . . but my mother (who we learned that day likes being in the thick of people a whole lot more than I do) was decidedly less content to observe.
“Why don’t you go slide?” she asked, giving me a firm push in the direction of that gleaming metal contraption.
I stumbled about two steps from the shove then stopped.
“Go on,” she said, giving me another hard shove. “You know you like people.”
In the spirit of compromise, I grabbed her hand and pulled her with me to the sliding board. There were about four people in line, so it took a little while to get to the top rung of the ladder, but I made it, checking with every inch of ascension to make sure that Mother was still standing at the base, waving to me. Finally my little white tennis shoe clad foot with the lacy fold-down white socks on it hit the top of the slide. I did like I’d seen the other kids do, placing each hand on one of the metal rails then hoisted myself up, swinging my legs out in front of me so that when I came down, I was seated on the top of the sliding board. With August being by far the hottest month of the year and school starting just after Labor Day, my new panties with the rows of ruffles across the back provided absolutely no insulation from the heat of that metal sliding board that had been baking in unfiltered sun for more than 31 days.
I looked down to make sure Mother was still watching, determined to make her proud. Her daughter would be The Best Sliding Board Slider Ever. I could just hear the supper table conversation. “Crawford, you should’ve seen her. She went down that slide faster than anybody else alive. She just zoomed, and nobody had run wax paper over it either. She’s got real potential. I’ve always said so.” My daddy would beam as he leaned over to give me a kiss on the top of my head. I hoped we were having cubed steak, mashed potatoes, cornbread, and corn on the cob for supper. This exchange just HAD to happen over cubed steak, mashed potatoes, cornbread, and corn on the cob.
Sure enough, Mother was still there, smiling and waving. I released my grip on the handlebars, giving myself a little shove to get me started. Just as I’d imagined I would, I broke the sound barrier with my rapid descent. When my feet touched the ground, I turned and started running back to get my congratulatory hug from Mother . . . but she was gone. I instinctively looked in the direction of the Oldsmobile she’d parked on the street at the beginning of This Most Auspicious Day, and there it was, pulling away, the hem of her dress sticking out where she’d closed the door on it. I tell you what: abandonment like that could’ve stunted the growth of lesser 6 year olds.
The bus bringing me home from a long day at school got to our house about the time that big ole’ Olds pulled into the driveway bringing Mother home from a long
day afternoon at the office. I was so tired, I just walked directly over to the sofa and took myself a good, long nap. Mother woke me up with a call to supper, and I salivated in keen anticipation the whole way from the sofa to the kitchen table, but when I slid into my chair it was not a meal of cubed steak, mashed potatoes, cornbread, and corn on the cob I saw on the plate before me, but a plate full of weenies without buns cut into bite-size pieces.
I learned enough lessons to fill a book on that first day of first grade . . . and not all of them were lessons Mrs. Price was gonna’ grade me on.
The dress I’m wearing in my first grade picture? It was the most fetching shade of royal blue cotton fabric you’ve ever seen. The collar and cuffs were white trimmed with red rick rack. The embellishment around the waist had ever color in the rainbow with the possible exception of orange. I loved that dress, and I still love those two-tone-blue-and-white-cateye-with-silver-sparkles glasses. You know I do. Making my way through 100 days of stories, and you can tune in daily if you want by mashing the button in the orange box at the top of the screen and following the directions. I’ll see y’all tomorrow.