This morning I dropped a bombshell on my kids by confessing that I skipped kindergarten and went straight to first grade. Then, here's the kicker: I had to repeat first grade! I never lose an opportunity to teach the children about overcoming one's past, you see. They looked a little flabbergasted, however, and sorry for me, too. But at least they didn't say, "Ah, Mom, you must have been really dumb!"
"Why?" my son simply asked.
"Because my teacher spanked us." I said bluntly.
I explained. At many schools in the South, teachers would often spank for misbehavior. My husband claims this did not happen at his schools in Albuquerque. They must have been more progressive, because Solomon's adage "spare the rod, spoil the child" was something my elementary school operated by, and most of the teachers had a wide wooden paddle hanging by the classroom door inscribed with the names of those who had received its instruction.
My first first grade teacher's name was Mrs. Crow (Berto and Ana agreed with me that this name was quite appropriate). I don't remember much about her. I think she was rather skinny with thin, ratty blonde hair. What I do remember are all the times she threatened to paddle us if we didn't perform well on our work. Once, the day before we were to take a spelling test, she stood in front of the class and told us very succintly that whoever did not get 100% when the substitute gave the test the next day would have to line up in the hall to receive a spanking when she returned.
I was pretty well scared because I had missed two words, and sure enough, she made us line up. I remember my dread as I moved slowly up the hall for my paddling, the kids ahead of me sniffling as they reentered the classroom. I didn't describe my feelings to my children, but I gave them the gist of the circumstances.
"Wow, she was like...like a villain!" said Berto in righteous indignation. "What happened?"
"Paca and Grandmama pulled me out of school," I said. "I stayed home the rest of the year. Then they had a meeting with other parents and the school board, and she got fired."
"Well, I'm not sorry she lost her job," said Berto.
"Yep, she deserved it," I agreed, but I refrained from telling him and Ana about my most harrowing experience in my early school years, which strangely occurred during my second shot at first grade.
My second first grade teacher was a Mrs. Weatherspoon, a mild mannered lady with glasses and curly brown hair. I really enjoyed her class; the second time around was a new beginning for me. But something must go wrong, and it always does-at least for me.
As a small child I was terrified of being locked in small enclosed spaces. So terrified, in fact, that I refused to shut the door to our tiny bathroom at home. Because I would leave the door ajar, my family members often walked in on me. I didn't mind as much as they did, but I'd scream at whoever it was when they left, "Don't shut the door!"
There was a family legend that my fear of being shut in a small space and possibly gasping out my last breath in a closet or bathroom was my sister Annie's fault. I don't know how, unless she dabbled in hypnosis as a child, and I, as the expendable fourth child, was one of her experiments. It's possible, I suppose.
I do know, though, that when I started school I no longer had the option to leave the restroom door ajar. And the bathroom I had to use was like a replica from my worst nightmare.
It lay in a short passageway between Mrs. Weatherspoon's class and that of another first grade classroom. This hall was dark and narrow, and the bathroom was a one person occupancy. I avoided it at all costs, because if I held out for lunch I could always use the hall bathroom with its swinging door.
But one day early on in the year, I could not wait, and I had no choice but to venture to that no man's land. I raised my hand urgently, and my teacher nodded at me graciously-I could go.
I went down that hall like I was going to my doom. I turned on the light and shut the door, then quickly opened it again. After I had closed it a second time, I debated: should I lock it or not? No, no way! That was just one more barrier between me and the outside world. If I was quick, no one would catch me using the potty, and I could bolt out of there.
I sat down with a leg extended toward the door, ready to jam it back in the face of some unsuspecting fellow first-grader if they attempted to enter. When I finished I flushed and did a quick wash with heart pounding (only a moment more til freedom!), and then I turned the knob to make my exit and pulled.
The door wouldn't open!
I was going to die in there for sure-a lonely, forgotten little first grader in a stupid, one toilet restroom! I began crying hysterically, yanking with all my might on the door knob and throwing in an occasional kick against my unyeilding captor, the door. Still, just in case no one heard me-"Help!" I screamed. "Help, help, HELLLPPP!"
The door opened so suddenly I was stunned into silence. Mrs. Weatherspoon stood there with as many of her students as could cram into the narrow hall. My classmates were snickering into their hands, and my teacher was trying not to look annoyed.
"Sweetheart, the door jams sometimes," she said calmly. "You just have to turn the knob and pull harder."
That's what you think, Lady! I thought. I wiped the back of my hands across my face and proceeded to my desk, my classmates gawking at me all the way.
But what was a little humiliation compared to a long, possibly fatal, imprisonment in the first grade bathroom? I was a survivor!
And being the survivor that I am, I am grateful my kids have had no such similiar traumatic experiences in school, though this morning when they got out of the car, I did find I'd neglected one small detail in our morning rush.
"Have a good day, Miss Ana," I said, turning to smile at my big first-grader as she hopped out. Then I groaned. "Oh, Ana, we didn't comb your hair!"
It looked like the wet stuffing from a scarecrow, all streams and strands. People weren't likely to buy that it was intentional, since she's not a thirteen-year-old boy with underwear showing above his pants and a skateboard under the arm. But, oh well, one day of mussed hair wasn't likely to traumatize her. As for me, I'll never forget my first grade year-either one of them.