Second Grade: A Time for Lost Teeth and Lost Confidence

second gradeSecond grade was probably the first time kids began to distinguish themselves academically and become aware of the intellectual prowess of their peers. The public school system in New York City at the time did very little to support the educational differences of students and teachers were quick to categorize students as “teacher’s pet” or “bane of my existence.”

A few times a week kids would work on independent reading assignments. They would be assigned a module of stories to read with questions after each story. Once they completed all the stories in the module, they would move up to the next level. The modules were color coded, so as not to let on who was ahead and who was behind, but even the not-so-smart kids knew that if you were still on the orange module in May, there was a problem.

Even if teachers could detect a reading problem, they never seemed to do much with this information, except put the child in another class track the following year. Each grade had 4 to 5 tracks, so the second grade classes would be 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 2-4 and 2-5. Here there were no nebulous color codes assigned. The “one class” had the students who performed best academically, followed by the 2, 3, 4 and 5 classes. It was an exceptionally biased and insensitive way to structure a classroom and a confidence-draining experience for students. Kids in the “one-class” quickly became assholes to kids in the other classes, claiming superiority and eventual world domination.

Back in 1971, no one talked about things like ADD, Aspergers, dyslexia or overall anxiety. You were either a good student or a bad student. You either followed the rules or you didn’t. Many kids with creative minds and hints of brilliance were shunned by teachers, separated from the class at that special desk in the front right near the teacher’s desk or routinely sent to the principal’s office.

While I did well academically in the early years, other non-academic projects rendered me inept. During arts and crafts, we were given a special type of coil that had large holes in it. We would thread a plastic needle and weave colored yarn in and out of the holes to create a homemade bookmark for our mothers. Despite having a needle with a hole the size of a quarter, it took me several tries to thread the thing. Once threaded, I would weave my yarn in and out until the end of the coil and then forget to tie a knot to hold it in place, pulling the entire piece of yarn out. While most kids were on their third or fourth bookmark, I was still working on line two of my first. This was frustrating for me and created a great deal of anxiety.  The teacher called my mother to tell her I was a nervous child.  Because obviously that was a better solution than taking the extra two minutes to help me work past my mental block. This may explain why I suck at other tasks like opening doors with keys, putting moving boxes (with instructions) together, wrapping gifts or changing a vacuum cleaner bag. I finished second grade with a complex, but no bookmark. 

It was also in second grade that I realized I would be short forever. When you are three or four years old and you do things by yourself, you receive positive reinforcement from adults like, “What a big girl!” but when you are in second grade, you are told to line up in size order, so you can compare your height to the children who will not have to always have their clothes tailored by others who actually know how to thread a needle.  This is the one situation where you don’t want  to be first. I kept the title of first in line throughout grade school and thankfully shed this designation once I entered middle school and we were no longer subjected to standing in lines. Looking back, I can’t for the life of me, figure out why being in size order was necessary (except on picture day, when the second grade 5midgets (I mean little people) had to be placed somewhere where they could be seen (shortest kid (me) always sits to the far right of every class picture). I mean, what was the point? Did the teacher think she would lose the 3′ 5″ kid standing behind the one that was close to 6′ on the way to the water fountain or bathroom? It’s so arbitrary, Why not line up by shoe size, or bra cup size or by the size of a boy’s…oh nevermind. It’s obvious that the Board of Education should be held accountable for my need to continuously purchase high-heeled shoes beginning in 1978 when my mother no longer had a say in the matter, and I am billing them for $5,072.45 in shoe purchases immediately.

Despite the fact that I couldn’t wear high-heeled shoes in 1971 to compensate for my short stature or try to snag a place standing in the back row on picture day with the tall kids, I could focus on other aspects of “styling” that were not related to height. By second grade, I had moved on from the Botox-inspired ponytail I wore in earlier grades to side-by-side ponytails that created a nice symmetry with my side-by-side missing teeth. I was actually relieved by my missing teeth, because most kids had already lost several teeth and my delayed onset was just another confidence-draining aspect of second grade. In second grade, mom still controlled the selection of clothes, so dresses and tights were still the uniform and I would have to wait another two years before wearing my first polyester leisure suit to school which believe it or not, would be the biggest confidence-booster of the decade!


Wonderful Grandparents Never Go Out of Style

grandparentsGrowing up, I usually got to see my grandparents twice a year. We generally spent one week in the summer in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the small town where my mother grew up and where her parents still lived.  Altoona is known for three things; Horseshoe Curve, Mallomar cookies and the hometown of fictitious character Alex Owens from Flashdance.

Each year we embarked on the six-hour train ride to visit them with great enthusiasm and excitement. We would head for New York’s Penn Station with my parents and their his and her matching Samsonite luggage, my mother’s case packed to the brim as if she was spending a month in the South of France. She carried a Jackie Kennedy-like cosmetic bag that was big enough to transport a small dog which always seemed unnecessary to me since my mother didn’t wear much makeup. When they announced our train, the conductor would call out all the stops on the route with such vigor and heart that upon his retirement decades later, he was invited on David Letterman to call out the stops one more time. My favorite part was when he said All aboarrrrrrrrd!!! and he sounded something like this. 

For me, the grueling train ride was one of the most exciting parts of the trip. While my father chain smoked and counted the hours left before arriving at his destination, I would play cards with my brothers and make frequent trips to the water fountain that had fancy cone shaped paper cups, similar to those used to hold the Chow Chow french fries I salivated over back home. I was allowed to travel through the cars to the snack car or bathroom if accompanied by my brothers. I only wanted to do this with my brothers anyway, because I regularly feared that I would make a wrong turn, exit the moving train and be squashed by its wheels. I continue to have this fear today.

Back then, the trains had a fancy dining car with table cloths and real silverware, unlike today where you typically get your soggy microwaved Amtrak food in a cardboard box. On a few occasions, I remember going to the fancy dining car with just my father. One time we were eating as the train climbed an enormous hill in Paoli, Pennsylvania. The table shook, the glasses threatened to shatter, and I obliviously ate a hamburger that tasted like shoe leather, mesmerized by my surroundings.Grandma's garden

It was always exciting to visit my grandparents because they lived in a house, not an apartment, and owned a car. While many would take these things for granted, since we owned neither, these things seemed exotic to us. To this day, whenever I hear the sound of the turn signal in a car, I think of my grandfather and remember my drives with him.

The other thing I loved about visiting my grandparents was their yard which housed a garden and a birdbath. Additionally, my grandfather had an automatic pitching machine that pitched wiffle balls that you could hit with a plastic bat. My grandfather was one of 9 boys; enough for a baseball team. One of his brothers even made the minor leagues. So he was thrilled when his only granddaughter spent hours perfecting her swing while her brothers were inside exercising their minds.

There was no beach nearby, but my grandfather would take us to Lakemont Park, which  had an amusement park, playground and the largest swimming pool I had ever seen in my life; at least three times as big as the Park City Pool. When we arrived home with wicked sunburns caused by the fact that there was no such thing as Fair-Skinned Ashkenazi Jew Sunscreen 50 in 1970, my grandmother would attempt to sooth our skin with a paste made of baking soda and water that left a trail of white dust around the house. I don’t think this concoction did a thing for our sunburns, but it made up feel like we were being taken care of. After I was coated in my Shake n”Bake-like mix, my grandmother would let me help her in the kitchen. Her specialty was apple pie and she taught me how to make it with a fancy schmancy lattice crust.

Lakemont parkSometimes my grandfather would take us out for ice cream or a burger. My grandparents kept kosher at home and when they went out they would bend the rules a bit, but my grandfather was not prepared for the bacon cheeseburger I ordered one time when I went out to eat with him. I’m sure my mother got a dressing down after this episode, and once again wished I’d attended Hebrew school at Temple Isaiah, but then again, she’s the same person who shared her first BLT with my father years earlier and vowed never to go back to the dark side of a pork-free existence.

One other week each year, my grandparents came to New York to visit us. My grandmother’s favorite thing to do was go shopping at Loehmann’s, the same store where my fifth grade teacher shopped. My grandmother had a penchant for anything lavender and bought a pair of lavender spandex pants there that she rocked at the age of 73. While she bought disco-wear, my grandfather spent his time at the nearby Jay Dee Bakery buying enough prune danish to wipe out constipation in North America.

As I got older, I continued to visit my grandparents and began making the trips on my own. While I was fortunate to have them both in my life until after I graduated from college, their health was steadily declining at that point. By my early twenties, my grandmother was displaying the classic symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. On one occasion, my grandmother who had kept a kosher home for 80+ years asked for butter on her bread while we were eating meat. My grandfather kept insisting that she must want margarine, since it was against Jewish law to mix milk and meat at one meal. My grandmother was insistent and my grandfather said, “My wife’s been kosher for over 80 years but if she wants butter, I will give her butter.” This moment touched me at the time and this memory still stays with me today as a symbol of his love and compassion for her.birdbath

My grandmother passed away first and her funeral was held on a bitter cold day. My grandfather died just a month later and the day of his funeral it was a beautiful calm spring day. It was as if things were now in order and they were back together again.

If I’m ever fortunate enough to be a grandparent, I hope I get to share memories with my grandchildren  that will last forever, as mine have. I  hope to be rocking lavender spandex as well, but this may be a feat that only my grandmother could achieve.



$#*! My Dad Says

Dad BermudaJust like my mom, my dad had his own set of sayings, jokes and expressions that made him endearing, charming, silly, ridiculous and wise all at the same time. Here are just a few of my favorites.

  1. Ask your brother Jeffrey.
  2. How was the party?
  3. I love you sweetie-petite-ee
  4. Everyone gets one glass of soda.
  5. Major in accounting so you can meet a nice man.
  6. Where are the cookies?
  7. Start thinking about waking up for school. (6:30 am)
  8. Make it snappy!
  9. How was gym class?
  10. Are you taking care of your teeth?
  11. Oy!
  12. I never remember you and your brothers fighting.
  13. You should eat more junk food!
  14. Turn off the light when you leave the room!
  15. Ask your brother Stuart.
  16. dad couchHow many people were at the party?
  17. I love you Boober!
  18. Everyone gets one cupcake.
  19. What can you do with a psychology degree?
  20. Whose turn is it to buy cookies?
  21. Soon you will have to wake up for school. (6:45 am)
  22. What’s the rush?
  23. No gym class today?
  24. Your braces are costing me a fortune!
  25. Feh!
  26. You used to fight with your brother so much!
  27. You mean you like to exercise?
  28. Who left the light on?
  29. Ask your mother.
  30. Did the kids at the party bring gifts?
  31. I love you sweets-e-luchins.
  32. Eat as much candy as you want.
  33. Learn how to type so you can get a job.
  34. Who ate the last cookie?
  35. In 15 minutes you will have to wake up for school. (7 am)
  36. barbara and dad niagra fallsDoes Jim ever buy you pretty flowers? (always asked when discussing gym class)
  37. When was the last time you went to the dentist?
  38. Don’t ask.
  39. Go back to graduate school so you don’t have to type anymore.
  40. Are you sure you turned the light out?
  41. Wake up! (7:15 am)

My dad may no longer be here, but I know he’s somewhere still saying this $#*! And I hope he knows I’m still listening.








Junior High: In and Out in the Blink of an Eye

HalseyIn 6th grade, I took a test that would allow me to skip the 8th grade if I scored high enough. My brothers suggested I skip 8th grade, as they had done, so I would have one less year of school to deal with. This all made perfect sense to me until years later when I entered college at barely 17 and spent every keg party with a huge scarlet A (well a green X) on my hand so everyone on campus would know I was too young to drink. Despite this short-term inconvenience, skipping 8th grade did have its merits, mainly the fact that when both my children entered 8th grade, I was able to tell them I couldn’t help them with any of their homework because I’d never been to 8th grade.

Educators led parents to believe that children would still be taught the 8th grade curriculum, but it would be integrated into the 7th and 9th grade curriculum. Integrated was apparently code for “screw the 8th grade curriculum; we have neither the time or the resources to teach it to you, and who will really know anyway.”

I entered junior high school with some trepidation because many parents were anxious about the transition. A year or two before I entered, there had been an unfortunate incident where a student from the school who was traveling on a bus was shot. All the parents were worried that the school housed a bunch of gun carrying thugs who would be mugging their kids who were still trying to figure out how to recover from a bebe gun wound.

But junior high school proved to be an amazing ( and violent-free) experience. Since we now had different teachers for each subject, the likelihood  of every teacher hating me was dramatically reduced. And while I only had one male teacher during all my time in grade school, now I had several, which changed the dynamic of the learning experience, probably because I had a crush on half of my male teachers.

I had the same math teacher for both 7th and 9th grade. He always wore a belt with the Jewish Chai symbol on the buckle. Why he felt the need to call so much attention to his religious convictions via a buckle above his crotch is beyond me, but because of that belt, I have never forgotten that he is a Jew.

I also had cool, young teachers for geology and computer science and for just a brief window in time I enjoyed those subjects again. On the flip side, I also had a male gym teacher, which was weird to begin with, but became even more bizarre when he would claim he smelled cigarette smoke in the girls’ locker room and threaten to come down to check. Ew.

One of the biggest changes about middle school was that we had to change classes every 45 minutes. When the bell rang, you had to quickly navigate to your next class in under three minutes despite the throngs of kids in the hallways. Traveling between classes was so congested that the school had separate up and down staircases to combat the mayhem that was inevitable. Learning how to move efficiently from class to class was daunting at the time, but it taught me an invaluable skill that I would need a decade later…navigating the F train to Manhattan during rush hour.

Since students were traveling from class to class, there were many opportunities to get to class late or just cut the class altogether. But luckily the school had a solution for this, called “clean sweep.” Clean sweep was a draconian system for rounding up students who were late for class, smoking in the bathrooms or tying to cut class. An announcement would blare on the PA system from some school official who sounded authoritative saying, “This is a clean sweep. If you do not have a hall pass, you must report to the auditorium immediately.” Most kids didn’t want to be caught and end up in the auditorium. I don’t remember what the consequences were, but at the time I thought they were similar to what prisoners experience when they end up in solitary confinement, so I made sure to get to class on time.

Some students really enjoyed the challenge of getting to the next class on time and two in particular took the task to a new level and always raced to the next class. One boy always wore a handmade striped vest and each year as he grew, his mother would knit a new row to accommodate his recent growth spurt. Minutes before the class ended, they would start packing up their books and tying their shoelaces, readying themselves for the task at hand. A few teachers got so sick of this behavior that they made these two kids stay in the room until everyone else had left.

Occasionally, some kid would have a broken arm or leg and would be given a special pass to leave class early so their fractured bone would not be more traumatized from the gridlock going on in the halls in between classes. The injured kid was allowed to take a partner with them to accompany them to the next class, and being selected for this distinguished role and avoiding the between class crush was more coveted than winning the lottery.

Many of my friends from grade school were still in my classes in middle school, but my friend-group began to expand as I met new kids as well. The best new friend I made in junior high was Susan who lived in the next town over where I hadn’t spent much time before but quickly realized was a step up from my hood. The main reason I felt this neighborhood was upscale was that it had a McDonald’s and I gladly took the Q60 bus on weekends to meet my new friend for a Big Mac so I could live large even if it was just for a few hours.

Susan was such a good friend that in 7th grade when my retainer got caught on my oh so 70’s new gauze shirt, Susan offered to help me dislodge it. Sans gloves, Purell, or a face mask, she proceeded to pull the disgusting, bacteria-infused retainer from my shirt. She broke it in the process, which was a blessing, since there was no way my father was going to pay for another one and I was done with my braces forever. Perhaps I have Susan to thank for my Lauren Hutton-ish gap in between my two front teeth that perhaps could have been prevented by longer use of the retainer, but I’m good with that. To this day I can’t think of another human being other than my dentist, who will willingly put their hands on something that’s been in my mouth for an indefinate period of time.

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