In the third grade, I had a female teacher whose voice was so deep she could have very easily been the offspring of Golden Girl’s Bea Arthur and R&B singer Barry White. When she got angry, which seemed to be always, her voice got deeper and louder making the flimsy school chairs rattle as our little bottoms quaked in our seats. What upset our teacher most was when a student had a messy desk. Students had an opening under their desk to store things like their notebooks, pencil case, textbooks, and glue. The expectation was that we keep this area fairly orderly. But this is a tall order for a nine year old and some of us struggled with the concept of storage space and opened up our interpretation of what was suitable to house there to include such items as crumpled papers, broken crayons, the test we failed last Tuesday and were supposed to have our parents sign, chewed gum, used tissues, and half a tuna sandwich. When the teacher spotted such a disaster, she would take the contents out of the desk, throw them on the floor, and berate the child publicly. As bad as we felt for the kids subjected to her wrath, we all enjoyed the break from our regularly scheduled program of math, science or whatever while the teacher lost her shit in front of the class. Perhaps this is why I now have a bizarre fascination with the show Hoarders. Sure, the therapists try to speak rationally to the hoarders when they uncover moldy food in the cupboards or a dead cat in the fridge, but you know deep down they just want to scream at these people, just like my third grade teacher.
Of course it wasn’t all bad and there were some great moments of learning during the year. One topic in particular stands out in my mind. In third grade we learned all about caterpillars and their subsequent transformation into butterflies. We were encouraged to go out into the wilds of central Queens (whatever shrubbery we could find) and hunt for caterpillars. We found, caught, studied, and unfortunately unintentionally ended up killing many; green ones, black ones, furry ones, slimey ones. We caught so many of them that I believe the third grade class at P.S. 206 was directly responsible for their untimely demise. I have not seen a caterpillar in Queens since 1974.
Third grade was the first year that I ate lunch in the cafeteria. My mother rotated between three artisan style sandwiches: tuna fish, egg salad, and a single slice of bologna smothered in mayonnaise on two pieces of Wonder Bread. Cha-Cha’s mother was always trying to fatten her up and she would send her to school with a sandwich stuffed with every type of luncheon meat imaginable…salami, ham, bologna…the only thing missing from that sandwich was a side of bacon. After three bites she was done and we turned our attention to more important tasks like searching my lunchbox to see if my mother had once again lost her mind and packed me three ring dings.
After lunch, the kids would head out into the yard for recess. Cha-Cha and I participated in some of the activities, but we created games of our own as well. The kids were instructed to place their lunchboxes around the perimeter of the schoolyard before they started playing. We would survey the entire yard and find two lunchboxes with the same theme (this was easy, since half the student body had a Partridge Family or Brady Bunch lunchbox; except my brothers who were stuck with those stinking plaid lunchboxes that Santa brought them years before). Once we found two of the same lunchboxes, we would switch them so the kid with the thermos originally filled with Hawaiian Punch went home with a thermos with leftover Spagettiios.
When students weren’t at lunch or recess and needed another diversion from the daily drudgery of school, we would head to the bathroom. After we had done our business, we would marvel at the collection of spitballs that hung from the ceiling as if we were looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. When the alternative was returning to class for history or “language arts” (the 1970’s euphemism for grammar), the spitball ceiling was indeed beautiful.
Another important reason to head to the bathroom (besides the obvious) was to fix our tights. No, I don’t mean readjusting them, although that was sometimes necessary as well when the elastic started giving out. In third grade, all the girls were still wearing dresses and skirts which meant wearing tights that would often rip by 1o am. Rather than face the embarrassment and humiliation of an exposed kneecap, we chose to take matters into our own hands. Armed with our Elmer’s Glue, taken from our (hopefully tidy) desks, we would escape to the bathroom to slather glue on the damaged area in an attempt to put the tights back together. We generally ended up with a big mess and at the end of the day, taking off the tights was like ripping a bandage off of a wound, but hey, at least our kneecaps weren’t out there for the whole world to see. As you can imagine, this recurring situation fueled my aversion to dresses and my rationale for switching over to the equivalent of men’s polyester leisure suits in forth grade.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of third grade was the third grade play. It was the first time we got to do a play and the first (and pretty much only) time I was cast as a lead. The play was called The Court of King Arithmetic and it was about a boy who has to go in front of the King (Arithmetic) because he doesn’t believe in math. King Arithmetic has four princess daughters: Princess Addition, Princess Subtraction, Princess Multiplication, and Princess Division. I was cast as Princess Multiplication which is so fitting since multiplication is the only math skill I ever mastered. My friends Amy, Gaby, and Jackie played the other princesses. In addition to being my only lead role, it was probably the only time anyone ever referred to me as princess (unless you count those few times in high school when someone might have called me a Jewish American Princess behind my back). In addition to the princesses, the king had a court of numbers zero through nine. When the boy who hates math tells zero (played by Cha-Cha) she is nothing, zero retorts, “I may be nothing, but when I’m with him (cue to put arm around number nine played by a boy named Stephen), I’m 90”. After former New York State Governor Elliot Spitzer got his new name, “Client #9, I was brought back to The Court of King Arithmetic and I started thinking how sometimes a #9 is better off not hooking up with anyone.
*photo courtesy of Choose to Thrive