Life is not about waiting for the storms to pass- it is about learning to dance in the rain.

Friday, March 06, 2009

A Country Girl Meets the System

My first grade began one Spring day when my mom tired of watching three pre-schoolers and asked the teacher at the school across the street if I could go to school for the remainder of the school year.
We lived four hours away in a large city, and I had missed the age cutoff by one month. Mom was worried about me starting school in the big city in the fall. She was tending the store at this country crossroads and taking care of her sick sister in addition to caring for her own two children (age 6 and 2) and her sister's four year old son all day while my Uncle worked at a factory in town in order to keep body and soul together. The teacher agreed, if I would behave, so Mom sent me off to school the next morning.

I thrived in Ms. William's first grade class.
I could read, write and spell excellently well and I could do simple addition and subtraction. I was easily the best student in first grade. At the end of six weeks, she passed me on to second grade. The next fall, when I began school in the city, the cultural discontinuities began. While I could easily read the second grade reader, they required phonics exercises which I could not do. When my performance was so irregular, the teacher began to check records and discovered that I had only attended six weeks of first grade. First I was moved to the first grade. I stayed there for two days while I was tested. Following the testing it was decided that I could return to second grade. I never did learn phonics. To this day, those little wiggly, squiggly symbols are virtually meaningless to me.

That was the year of the long autoworkers strike. By November my Dad had decided that it was going to last too long and cost too much. He chose to take the savings that he had, to follow his dream and buy the farm that he was saving to purchase. So once again, I found myself in a country school. This one was a one-room schoolhouse. One teacher taught all eight grades.

Cultural continuity resumed. I was a stellar student. Since I was reading fluently in third grade, I began teaching the first grade readers while the teacher worked with the non-readers. My "teaching" consisted of round robin reading. Our circle was over in the corner by the potbelly stove first thing every morning. I also listened in to all the other lessons. Soon I was included in the fourth grade math class and occasionally could be included in sixth grade history if my work was completed to the teacher's satisfaction. For me it was Mecca.

The next year, the crops failed. For the winter we moved back to the city so that Dad could go to work in the automobile plant in order to earn enough money for the spring planting. I was in fourth grade. There were three fourth grade classes in the school; I was placed in the lowest. I was told that if I worked hard, I'd be able to work my way up to the next level. I was a fish out of water. Everyone had to line up to go everywhere. I have always hated waiting in lines.

Jeffrey first tipped me off. It was my second day in this school. After lunch the teacher handed out report cards with the usual instructions to have them signed and returned by parents. Then she announced that Jeffrey had made straight C+'s. Everyone smiled and applauded. There were whispered polite "congratulations" to the blushing little boy. He was shy, but seemed nice so at P.E. I asked why straight "C+" was such a big deal. To me it was not even an acceptable grade. I always earned A and B marks. To my dismay, I learned that even 100% on all class work equaled only a "C" because I was in the "C" class. My mouth dropped open. I alternated between anger at the injustice of it all, determination to get out of there, and discouragement at the bar set so high. Even at age 9 I recognized the trap I was in: how could I possible earn above a "C" in order to get moved up to the "B" room or the "A" room if even 100% on everything is still only a "C"? Or in exceptional cases, a C+.

I was bored with the work and with the books available. No more listening in to science and social studies lessons of the upperclassmen; no more peeks into Shangri-La courtesy of Lost Horizon by James Hilton. I missed my friends from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Little Men, Jo's Boys, Rose in Bloom, Under the Lilacs, Eight Cousins. I can't recall the titles of the books available to us, but the stories didn't interest me and were far too easy, the characters and topics did not transport me to lands far away. I was an alien, alone, trapped in urban mediocrity.

Occasionally I made a Herculean effort to do something right and earn those valued "C's." Dare I hope for a C+? Handwriting was stylized and compliance was mandatory for all assignments. In addition, there was the problem of my usually hurried messy handwriting. I stayed after school one day to do a handwriting exercise that I thought would get me into the "Penmanship Club". I labored intensely over the paragraph and wrote perfectly round letters. However, when my mom appeared at the door to take me home, wondering why I was late that day, I handed the paper to the teacher only to be told, "You know that one exercise does not get you into the Penmanship Club. You must consistently use excellent Penmanship on all assignments in order to qualify." At that point, discouragement won. I realized I was doomed to the "C" room for the duration of our time in St. Louis. Until that day, I had never felt like a country bumpkin. I accepted my fate; I was a bona fide Hillbilly!


Brenda said...

Sounds like your first few years of school were quite memorable! I noticed on your side bar that you were diagnosed with breast cancer, how are you doing now?

Thanks for stopping by my blog :)

Ballerina Girl said...

and look at you now!
sometimes I think we (generalizing probably way too much here but...) put so much into going to the best school, the "best" teachers, the most prestigious this or that....
when sometimes, a happy child learning is the greatest gift...because they will want to learn forever!
Thanks for sharing

PJ said...

Brenda: The first years were memorable. And I have been cancer free for almost two years!

BG: I think you are right on. The love of learning is the main thing!

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