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!


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.

Photo credit:

Not So Fast Times at Forest Hills High

FH shirtWhen I entered my sophomore year of high school, my brainiac brother Jeffrey convinced me that it would be a good idea to take both chemistry and biology concurrently. Doing so would eliminate the need to take a science course in my senior year and enable me to get out of school just an hour after I arrived. It sounded like a brilliant idea at the time,  but once the semester started and I realized just how in- over-my- head I was, I began to think otherwise.

Biology was somewhat manageable, since to some extent the material could be memorized, but chemistry required both logic and math skills, two competencies that had ceased to be part of my being after fourth grade. To make matters worse, chemistry required a weekly lab period which was slotted into my already crammed schedule at “zero” period, which if my memory serves me correct, took place several hours before sunrise. During labs, we would work with bunsen burners and chemicals I hadn’t seen since the day’s when my brother was allowed to make bombs in the house. We would make observations and hypotheses (total random guesses) as to how the chemicals would react under various conditions. Immediately after “ain’t no sunshine” zero period, we would head to chemistry class where we would receive a lesson that probably had some correlation to the lab experiments, but I, for the life of me, could never figure out what that was. Our teacher would try to quiet the class for the lesson using her signature (and only) attempt at humor, saying  “Quiet, you’re disturbing the moles” (yes, I had to Wikipedia that term too and it still isn’t funny).

I learned so little in chemistry, that my father assigned Jeffrey the task of tutoring me for the Chemistry Regents exam that I was about to fail. (Note to readers under 25 who have attended dozens of Kaplan prep classes: no parent was willing to pay for tutoring back then; siblings’ sole purpose was to teach each other stuff they didn’t know and agree to play Monopoly in place of their parents). After several frustrating attempts to learn the material from Jeffrey and buckets of tears, dad brought in the reinforcements (my brother Stuart) who was actually the more patient of the two teachers. I passed the exam, took a deep breath of O2 and a swig of H2O and moved on.

By the time I got to my junior year and was expected to take physics, I created a new hypothesis that if I begged hard enough to my physics teacher, he would let me out of the class and my science credits for high school would be completed. Finally, one of my theories was proven correct.

Math that year was no better. We were learning geometry and by what must have been an egregious administrative error, I was placed in honors math, alongside the best and brightest students in the school. Just seconds after a geometry problem was written on the board and before I could even draw the triangle or parallelogram, some future doctor, scientist or Nobel Prize winner was raising their hand with the answer. On occasions when we worked on a series of problems on our own, our male teacher would walk the room, usually ending up behind the girl with the biggest boobs in the class (which for once wasn’t me!) and massage her shoulders or do something else inappropriate. At the time we all just referred to him as a creepy pervert because we didn’t know fancy words yet like pedophile or sexual predator and no one could Google him back then to see how many states he was wanted in. By my junior year, I was outed as a sub-par math student, booted out of honors math and placed in a more academically appropriate class where I didn’t do much better, but never had to worry FH 2about some old guy’s hands near my bra strap.

One of my favorite subjects in high school was history and during my junior year I got to take a college-level class in American history. It wasn’t that I was so enamored with the subject matter but  part of the course material was a book about Thomas Jefferson that detailed his numerous  sexual relations with his slaves. I’d never read a history book like this before and I’d hardly had any exposure to the topic of sex since my brother explained the F-word to me years before, so this book was a welcome addition to all the dry readings about the other boring presidents who seemed to do a better job of keeping it in their pants.

I did well in English class, but looking back on the books we were assigned in high school, most were torturous reads with little relevance to my life at the time. Just a few of the books I suffered through included The Grapes of Wrath, Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter and A Tale of Two Cities. You know a book is bad when you read page 64 five times before turning the page and don’t even realize it and this is when I discovered my  favorite book series…CliffsNotes.

Outside of academic pursuits, high school offered several extracurricular activities Students at my high school were basically attracted to one of four areas: sports, SING!, Beacon and drugs. Categories one and four are fairly self-explanatory. I didn’t really fall into either of these categories because as for sports, I was still having trouble running the five laps around the school’s non-regulation size track sans sports bra and on the drug front, I had basically just learned how to swallow a pill whole the year before, so I wasn’t quite ready to run with the quaalude crowd.

SING! is an annual student-run musical production competition by grade put on by some high schools in New York City. At least that’s how Wikipedia describes it. A more accurate description might be “a temporary state of insanity which commences in late September and doesn’t resolve until mid-January.” SING! productions required students to write original scripts, rewrite lyrics to popular songs, design original sets using only a huge burlap schmatta and paint as a backdrop, create dance routines, design costumes, recruit a grade-level musical ensemble and cast and put on an hour show in about 3 months. Great friendships were built (and demolished) during SING! and there was often more drama offstage than on. Grades tried to keep their shows a secret from each other for as long as possible for fear of any intellectual property being stolen. There was some amazing talent among the grades and some of the alums have gone on to earn some coin as singers and musicians. I participated in two SING! events, in more behind-the-scenes roles like the ensemble and script writing because I was way too shy to audition (especially with such fierce competition),  but I created some amazing friendships with some great people, many who impressively still remember all the SING! 1979 revised lyrics to Earth Wind & Fire’s Fantasy.

FH 4The Beacon was the school newspaper and it was here that I discovered I liked to write. We learned how to report in a newspaper style and write and edit longer-form content as well. This was where I also discovered the best book ever; the Thesaurus; a nifty tool for making me sound much more literate than I actually was. My favorite “go-to” word for anything I wrote about was “juxtaposition” and I started overusing it in articles and daily life as well saying things like, “Is it ok if I sit juxtaposed to you at lunch today?” and “Hmm, when I juxtapose my score on the math test next to yours, I realize I’ve failed.” Several members of Beacon went on to become paid journalists and writers. I ended up with this self deprecating blog and  five followers.

By my senior year, the extracurricular activities played a bigger role in my daily life than the academic coursework and we began to turn our attention to other senior activities such as prom and graduation. Some member of the administration thought that it would be a good idea to include an overnight, barely supervised trip in the prom festivities and so hundreds of seniors got to go on a trip that had the potential to turn into a 1980 version of Burning Man. The event would be held at the Concord Hotel in The Catskills which was considered posh in the 60’s, somewhat tacky in the 70’s and has since devolved into this. The evening would begin with dinner, followed by a pool party and then the prom at midnight. I thought I’d be clever and kill two birds with one stone. In 1980, Danskin, the manufacturer of the famed children’s equivalent of polyester leisure suits in 1974, had come out with a new look; a one-piece bathing suit collection that had matching Lycra skirts. (Note to all corsage-wearing girls in long formal wear: disco was still king; this was considered formal wear back then, at least for a girl from Queens). For the pool party, I wore the bathing suit. Then I ran back to my room, semi-dried the suit, put on the skirt and heels and bam! Prom-ready.

Meanwhile, the boys had other ideas about what to pack in their suitcases, mainly vodka and orange juice. We managed to end up in a room next door to the Assistant Principal, a man named Milton Sirota, who had to endure a full year of kids chanting his name to the tune of The Knack’s My Sharona which someone cleverly changed to Mi-Mi-Mi Mil Sarota. My my my i yi woo!!! But despite his proximity, the boys (and some girls) managed to Ch-Ch-Ch Chug the vodka. The next day there were a lot of hung over kids but I don’t remember any admonishments from the faculty. Perhaps they were hung over themselves, or maybe they just remembered what it was like to be young.



Fifth Grade and the Changing of the Guards

5th grade tomboyIn fifth grade I shed my Danskin leisure suits in favor of jeans, chopped off my two big ponytails opting for a small Jewfro and went into full tomboy mode.

My fifth grade teacher also had short hair, albeit much better coiffed than mine. We would watch in amazement as she brushed her hair during group activities.  What inspired such awe was the fact that she brushed her hair from the bottom up. Who knew this was even possible? (Well, actually for me it was not possible because the brush would have become lodged in my hair and required removal by a surgeon or at least someone who knew how to operate heavy machinery.)

During her lunch break, our teacher frequented Loehmann’s department store which was just a hop, skip and a jump away across the Horace Harding Expressway overpass. The wind on the overpass was so strong from all the traffic, even during the warmer months, that our teacher needed a good upside down hair brushing upon her return. She was certainly my best dressed teacher in her marked-down Channel pantsuits, but I can’t help but believe that her couture wardrobe was lost on a bunch of fifth graders who were at least five years away from their first pair of Calvin Klein jeans or Christian Dior handbags.

In addition to her “out there” fashion sense, our teacher was into experimental teaching methods. She once had us do an exercise where we selected a partner and had to pretend one of us was a mirror, mimicking the others’ movements. In hindsight, I think this may have been an exercise to help us become better listeners or better interpret visual cues, but at the time, we assumed this was just something for us to do while she brushed her hair. She had us do this in the hallway, much to the enjoyment and heckling of classmates from other rooms on their way to the bathroom. On another occasion, the principal walked down the hallway as we were working on our “assignments.” She shook her head, turned around and we didn’t see her again until June.

Despite her slight bending of the standard fifth grade curriculum, our teacher did let us do many of the other things the fifth grade classes did such as put on a school play. We performed Tom Sawyer and much to my delight I was cast as Tom rather than Becky, a testament to my new tomboy look or perhaps my less than pretty face.

Fifth grade was probably the year I demonstrated the most athletic prowess. I was a huge basketball fan and Gaby and I challenged two fifth grade boys to a game. We actually won which was pretty amazing considering I was the shortest girl in the class, validated each year when we had to line up in the school yard in size order and by my never changing positioning at the far right in every single freaking class picture.

While I loved basketball, punch ball was generally the game of choice during this time. Amy usually went first, followed by Gaby, Laurie or Jackie. Cha-Cha was in charge of getting the bases loaded. She had this fancy way of bouncing the ball, taking a dainty ballerina leap back and then wham. I was honored to often hit fourth, in clean up position and I usually didn’t disappoint my fellow teammates. Later when we moved on to softball, I often held the same position in the lineup, but once I hit the ball, I often flung the bat, rather than setting it down, once right into Amy’s stomach, knocking the wind out of her. After that, kids climbed up the fence when I was at bat, just to get away from me and protect their vital organs and lady parts.

Although I strove for the tomboy look, my body was beginning to change in ways that I could not come to terms with and never seemed capable of discussing with my mother. Another girl in the class had recently acquired a training bra and me and a few of my flat-chested friends teased her mercilessly about it. The joke was on me because I was perhaps the only girl in fifth grade who actually needed a training bra, but held out until mom basically told me my boobs didn’t need any training and I was ready for the real deal.

While I clung to the tomboy look, I started to admit to myself that I liked boys. Laurie and Gaby had boyfriends (that I secretly had crushes on) that were moving at the end of the school year and they arranged a party for them that was part farewell and part hook up. Feeling sorry for me, they arranged for someone for me to hang out with; a boy with hair as red as mine and boobs that were about the same size. I was terrified and I went to school that last day of fifth grade fearful of accepting my fate but equally fearful of looking like I had looked a gift horse in the mouth. The last day of school was marked by an awards ceremony. The red-headed boob man was to receive an award for perfect attendance that day. But to my surprise and utter relief, he was absent! I went to the party stag and mostly hung out with my fellow classmate Stephen (formerly number nine) listening to William DeVaughn’s ‘s 1974 hit “Be Thankful for What You Got” and feeling just that way.

Technology of the Future: A 1970’s Perspective

punchcardWhen I was in the 7th grade I took a computer science class. Computer science in 1976 resembled technology today about as closely as Morse code resembles texting (well, actually the differences there are not that extreme). But for the most part, the advances in technology have been monumental, yet it was still exciting to be learning about computers during their nascent stages.

When we weren’t busy creating “if yes, then” flowcharts or punching zeros and ones on our blue computer cards, our teacher showed us movies about technologies of the present and  future. We saw examples of computers that were  so big they probably wouldn’t have fit inside Alexander’s department store and we learned about computer scanners that would one day be used at store check out counters to track inventory. In one of these films, the prediction was made that one day everyone would have their own portable phone, which was preposterous to me. First of all, wouldn’t they run out of number combinations in about a week and second of all, did I really need to deal with a phone cord that would constantly get tangled up in all the other shit I kept in my bag, which by the way would now need to be a really big bag because a phone weighs like five pounds.

In addition to having portable phones, these phones would have both voice and picture. This was all well and good when it was depicted on the futuristic cartoon The Jetsons, but did I really want this in my actual life? How  would I lie to my parents about where I was if I was ever lucky enough someday to have the sort of social life that warranted fabricating my whereabouts? (by the way, that day never came)  What if I had told a friend I couldn’t hang out because I was home sick and then got a call from this friend where she could see I was actually at the Queens Center Mall with someone else? Would this technology make us all painfully honest with no hopes of ever getting away with anything? Count me out.

In addition to not being able to fathom some of these new technologies, many existing technologies changed over the years in a way I never thought was possible. In 1974 my brother got a Texas Instruments hand-held calculator from our grandparents for his Bar Mitzvah. At the time, this calculator was as cutting-edge as  Google Glass is today (except for the fact that the calculator actually worked). Calculators were very expensive then and the assumption was they would always be so. Last time I checked, you could get a fully functioning calculator for something like 99 cents at Staples.

When Pong came out in the 70’s, I never expected the explosion of video games that would follow and always assumed everyone would be happy just hitting that little electronic ball back and forth until the end of time. Who knew we’d soon have games to help us learn math, improve our golf stroke, guide simulated people on how to manage their lives, become experts at killing people, and basically eliminate any form of human interaction with anyone ever.

Right around 1980, the Walkman was released in the US. I’d never imagined having a portable device for listening to music and once I got one I took it everywhere, even though it wasn’t exactly lightweight and its portability was questionable. Luckily, the first mobile phone that wasn’t the size of a brick was still a god ten years away, so I never had to carry both at the same time or invest in a handbag with wheels.




Third Grade Exposed

tights.3[10]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


Fourth Grade and the Beginnings of My Checkered Past

MomNERDFourth grade was a year of change and an end of innocence. Watergate was in full swing, the US was in a recession, and Cher was appearing regularly on television half naked. I began my own experimentation and rebellion or sorts during this time period as well.

In fourth grade we had a spelling and math test every week on Friday. I breezed through math in third grade because the main thing we learned that year was multiplication which is all memorization…something I can actually do (well, until cell phones with auto dial were invented and my ability to memorize anything went out the window). But fourth grade math was division, which requires some degree of logical thinking, something I have none of.

Each week we were handed a piece of pale yellow paper and the teacher dictated the math questions we were to answer. She didn’t use mimeograph paper for math tests and while most kids continued to sniff the pale yellow paper hoping for a quick buzz, all we ever got was the faint smell of the storage closet where the paper was kept.

Since we were required to answer several math problems, the teacher instructed us on how to fold the paper to achieve the correct number of boxes to serve as a work space for each problem. If there were eight math problems I could handle the folding ritual, but on the weeks when there were 16 problems to solve, my paper often looked like a failed attempt at origami or a handmade accordion fan.

Once the paper was folded and the problems were dictated, I employed a new skill I had learned that year…cheating. My friend Gaby was always up for a dare, plus she was a much better math student than me, so who was I to argue? We blatantly surveyed each other’s papers, yet we were never caught. It seemed like an ingenious plan at the time, however, I left fourth grade lacking some basic math skills that were later uncovered by my sixth grade teacher who couldn’t stand to look at me. Note to friends: This is why you should never ask me to divide the check after a gathering with multiple people. Some people will end up kicking in $2 while you will be asked to pay $50.

Fourth grade was without a doubt the year I made the biggest fashion statement of my life. In fourth grade, I stopped wearing dresses to school and started wearing pants. In 1973, school-appropriate pants for girls were Danskins. The tween Danskin ensembles of the day were the equivalent of men’s polyester leisure suits for ten-year-old girls. My favorite outfit was a pair of green Danskin pants with an orange Danskin turtleneck. I wore a multi-colored, multi-patterned knit vest over this and put the finishing touches on the look by wearing two big ponytails tied together with orange yarn (mom’s idea). One week I wore this get-up on a Friday when we had our math and spelling test and I earned grades of 100 percent on both. I became convinced that the outfit had something to do with this and secretly planned to wear this each week on Friday in hopes of repeating the 100 percent test scores. It must have been pretty obvious, because the teacher actually sent a note home to my mother asking why I wore the same thing every Friday. I’m not sure if the teacher had picked up on my leanings towards obsessive compulsive disorder or she was just trying to throw a hint mom’s way that she should buy me some more clothes, but all I know is that since I outgrew that outfit in the fourth grade, the 100’s on my math tests have been few and far between.

In fourth grade we finally got to stop making the obligatory Mother’s Day gifts of the 70’s such as a pencil holder made out of an old soup can, glue, and dried macaroni and a jewelry case made out of an empty cigar box that no matter how much cologne you sprayed in it still smelled like a cigar box (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). Our fourth grade teacher came up with the idea to create a cookbook for the moms for Mother’s Day. Each kid had to request a favorite recipe from their mom, but keep the project a secret.  The teacher copied all the recipes (wait a minute; no…she mimeographed them!) and each kid created a special cover for the book out of of some strange, exceptionally durable material that felt like wallpaper, (perhaps left over from the teacher’s home renovation project).

One of my favorite recipes from that book was from Harlan’s mom. The recipe was for orange Jello. “This is a recipe?” you might ask. But wait; in his mother’s recipe you add orange juice instead of water! Fancy, huh? I still remember the instructions: Empty box of jello into a bowl, add one cup orange juice, stir, refrigerate, serve. So simple and yet so 70’s. My mom contributed a recipe called Chicken Tarragon Champignons. I have no idea how to pronounce this, but I do remember the recipe called for so much butter it should have been served with a side of Lipitor. My mother still has this cookbook and it is not unusual for her to call me and tell me things like, “I made Patti’s mother’s ham steak with pineapple recipe yesterday for dinner.” Unfortunately, I think she has yet to try the orange Jello recipe.

After the cookbooks were delivered, the teacher arranged a day where each mom could cook the dish supplied in the cookbook and we could have a feast in the school cafeteria. It was a festive occasion, until a boy named Roger realized that the five bowls he had consumed of what he thought was chicken soup was actually an Asian-inspired dish made with whale meat. The event ended with the janitor mopping up the three or four bowls of soup that Roger puked back up.

When Roger wasn’t eating whale soup, he was often getting into fist fights with another boy in the class. This was one of the most exciting points of the day because Roger was the heart throb of many of the girls and we would all jump up and down on the desks screaming, “Go Roger, Go!” and watching a fellow classmate get pummeled until the teacher was able to peel the two apart. These fights left such an impression on me that each night after my father came home from work, I would reenact that day’s fight and insert a bleep sound for each time one boy had cursed at the other.

Many of my other memories of fourth grade have faded, but sometimes when I go to visit my mom, I take out that cookbook and if I breath into it really deeply, the memories come back along with the faint smell of mimeograph ink.


See Dick Get High; First Grade Revisited

First grade was a time of academic and personal growth. It was the year I traded in my botox-inspired ponytail for shorter hair and barrettes, learned how to read, and learned how to add. Mastery of that last skill is somewhat questionable, as evidenced by my inability to balance my checkbook, but in any case, first grade was an exciting time.

My first grade teacher taught us how to read from a large book that was propped up on an easel at the front of the classroom and creatively named, “The Big Book”  This was before Sesame Street began airing on PBS and before today’s notion that children should be literate in-utero, so for most kids, this was their first exposure to learning to read.  Before going to school, I remember my mother reading to me on a haphazard basis from a book of fables, but when she got to the mind numbing and redundant story of Chicken Little where the names  Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, Ducky Lucky, Drakey Lakey, Goosey Loosey, Gander Lander, Turkey Lurkey and Foxy Loxy are repeated over and over again, she got fed up, taught me the meaning of the word etcetera, and decided to put her tax money to good use and let someone else take over any duties related to literacy.

In The Big Book, the characters had names like Dick and Jane and these kids went about their daily business exploring life through their phonetically-correct world. There was never a kid named Phoebe or Xavier or a story about a kid who came down with pneumonia or had tickets to see Phantom of the Opera, because if there had been, we would have all realized how much of a mind f*&k the English language was and we would have given up on learning it in two weeks. The Big Book focused on words that were easy to figure out like run, eat, and stop, but it was just a matter of time until we started scratching our heads and wondering who the prankster was who came up with words like laugh and thought and what idiot thought it was a good idea to create words like effect and affect which would continue to confuse us for decades to come.

When we weren’t reading The Big Book, we sometimes had worksheets that were printed on mimeograph paper. For those of you born after 1970, you don’t know what you were missing. The scent of the ink omitted from a single sheet of mimeograph paper was sweet and somewhat addictive and would give you a decent buzz. Mimeograph paper was basically a six-year-old’s version of LSD. The teachers were constantly telling the kids to stop sniffing their math worksheets, but to no avail. Years later, mimeograph machines were replaced with copy machines and many of the school’s students went on to harder drugs like Elmer’s  Glue and Aquanet hair spray. A few others entered MA, a 12-step program for those trying to break their mimeograph paper addiction.

By the time we were adequately high from the mimeograph paper, it was usually time for recess. In first grade we graduated from the baby park for the kindergarten kids to the big yard for grades one through six. During recess, we learned how to play a game called Rattlesnake in which 15-20 kids held hands and chanted R-A-T-T-L-E-S-N-A-K-E spells Rattlesnake while going under the arms of the first two kids on the line. By the end of the song, all the kids were linked in one huge twisted human chain and everyone would then sing R-A-T-T-L-E-S-N-A-K-E spells Rattlesnake once more while jumping up and down since no one could move an inch at this point. I’m not sure if I actually enjoyed this game, but at least it wasn’t Red Rover. On another occasion, the aides assigned to watch the first graders in the yard decided it would be fun to put on a Charlie Brown play during recess.  I thought this was a good idea until I was not cast for the obvious role, The Little Red Haired Girl, and at that point I decided Rattlesnake wasn’t such a bad game after all. 

During inclement weather, we had to spend recess in the auditorium where we were forced to sit in silence for 45 minutes while an aide with a Russian (or was it German?) accent screamed “Who’s talking???” anytime she heard a peep. On a few occasions, they would show some sort of film in the auditorium but this was before there were VCRs and DVDs or CDs and the pickings were slim. I remember once being shown a film about three kids who are walking through some woods alone and happen upon an abandoned refrigerator. One kid gets in and the others close the door. I’m not sure if the moral of the story was don’t get in a refrigerator and close the door or don’t trust your friends, but either way, it was a pretty creepy film to show kids in grade school. And besides, it’s not like there were any woods next to the apartment buildings we lived in, let alone abandoned refrigerators. I just couldn’t relate to the film. And if I really wanted to put myself in harms way, all I had to do was walk up to Queens Boulevard.

In the afternoons, following recess, we were often able to do more creative activities, like drawing. The eight-pack of Crayola Crayons mom purchased at the beginning of the school year paled in comparison to some of the other kids’ 64-packs (with a built in sharpener) and it was here that I realized the valuable lesson that not all things are equal, life isn’t always fair, and sometimes you have to improvise when drawing a cover for your Harold and the Purple Crayon book report when the closest thing to purple in your pathetic eight-pack of crayons is blue. These tough lessons prepared me well for the new challenges I would face in second grade when the work got harder, the teachers got stricter, and my eight-pack of crayons dwindled to four.



Kindergarten Confidential: What Really Went on in the Classroom in the 60’s?

Unlike many of today’s kindergarten students who often spend a full day in school, are assigned nightly homework, and finish the year having read the complete works of William Shakespeare, kindergarten students in the late 1960’s were allowed to be dumb and immature for just one more year before the realities of reading, writing, and arithmetic set in.  School was a half-day and the expectations were pretty low. Yet even without the academic pressures, kindergarten back then still carried its own set of challenges.

My kindergarten teachers were Miss Poyer and Mrs. Pentel or maybe it was Mrs. Poyer and Miss Pentel; I just remember one was a Mrs. and one was a Miss. Going to school for the first time was quite daunting, particularly because the number of students in the class was outrageous. In my memory, there were 50 kids in the class and that was when 10 of them were out sick. While I know the class was not that large, I’m pretty sure there were more kids in the class than what you’d typically see in a kindergarten class today. Perhaps they figured, “What’s the difference; it’s not like we’re teaching them anything,” but even at five, I suspected there were some serious funding issues at the Board of Education.

The classroom was welcoming and exciting. It had a section with dolls and carriages and a kitchen with a play toaster. There was a huge block area as well. While technically you could play where you wanted, the girls always ended up in the kitchen and the boys always ended up at the blocks. If there had been a pretend flat screen TV showing a football game and a few fake beer cans alongside the blocks, we girls in the kitchen with the babies would have had an even more realistic view of how the lives we were pretending to have would actually play out. There was also a piano and an area where the kids would sit for song time and story time. The trick was to get a spot on the floor as far away as possible from the kid who smelled like farts. That was stressful and I was not always successful in this endeavor, yet it proved to be a valuable lesson that has come in handy throughout my life.

The teachers were given enormous license with what they did in the classroom since they weren’t really accountable for teaching us anything other than not to spit at each other. They came up with some strange activities that even a complacent mother of any other generation would have questioned. There was a boy and a girl in the class who were best friends and attached at the hip and the teachers decided we should have an in-class wedding for them. Another one of their hair-brained ideas was to stage a kindergarten production of Carmen, because an opera about immorality, lawlessness, and tragic death is absolutely appropriate for a kindergarten audience.

The highlight of the morning for many, was snack time. Snack was always milk and cookies. No fruit, yogurt cups, or cheese sticks here; just good old fashioned sugar and preservatives. Surely this was something I could handle. After all, my family dinners had prepared me for milk and cookie time for several years already. But something happened to me every day during snack time. I would get sick. The milk they served in school came in those little single serving cartons and they always smelled sour. After a few sips, I’d be tossing my cookies, frequently into the teacher’s lap. Each day I would return home and tell my mother I didn’t want to drink the milk at school anymore. But I always left out the part about throwing up. So when I asked her if I could stop drinking the milk, my three ring ding mother all of a sudden became health conscious and told me I needed to drink the milk because it was good for me. Several days and dry cleaning bills later, the teachers sent me home with a note saying, “Please don’t give Barbara any more milk money.” Problem solved.

The mothers were each assigned certain days they were responsible for supplying the cookies for snack time. Whenever it was my turn, my mom always bought Chips Ahoy. It was a fine selection, but I didn’t understand why she never threw in a box of Oreos or Mallomars. But I kept my mouth shut because I feared that the alternative to Chips Ahoy might be “really bad cookies” and no five year old could endure the bullying that could come from that.

Clothing selection was another cause for kindergarten stress. In the late 1960’s all the girls wore dresses to school. This was what was considered appropriate back then. But the dresses were incredibly short and very impractical for sitting on the floor during music or story time in the mandatory legs crossed “Indian style” position or when running and climbing in the yard. The first frost was a blessing because it meant you could finally wear tights and stop flashing your underwear at everyone. I often reminisce about those clothes, which I affectionately refer to as “the little hooker collection.”

In addition to the dresses being short, many of my dresses were monogrammed. I’m not sure why my mother was so into this. Was she afraid I might get lost and did she take comfort in the fact that if I did, someone would be able to identify me by my initials and return me to my rightful owner? Did she purchase the dresses thinking they were bath towels or his and her bathrobes? Did she need to monogram my clothes to tell me apart from my brothers? This is still a mystery to me. Years later, I got her back for all the monogrammed clothing. When I took the name Safani, my initials became BS and mom was done purchasing anything with my initials on it…ever.

Probably the biggest conundrum for mom and a great source of stress on school days was what to do with my hair. When I woke up in the morning, my hair was generally a hot mess and there was little time to do anything about it. Mom’s go-to hairstyle for me was the ponytail. But she pulled the hair back on my head so tightly that my face resembled Kenny Rogers after a botched Botox procedure… definitely not my best look.

Even birthdays were stressful in kindergarten. The events leading up to the celebration were wonderful. It was one of the few times a year that you could go to the Jay-Dee bakery and select cupcakes that didn’t have a shelf-life of 3,000 years. You could pick cupcakes with pink icing for the girls and blue icing for the boys. And everyone would be extra nice to you on that day because it was your birthday and you had free food and it wasn’t a Chips Ahoy cookie. The birthday child was allowed to select a helper to assist in the cupcake distribution process. But I had two really good friends and didn’t know who to pick. I struggled with the decision for a few seconds, then realized that both these kids had already had their in-class birthday celebrations, so I was at no risk of being de-selected for future cupcake distribution duties because by the time their next birthday rolled around, we would be in first grade and in-class birthdays would no longer be any fun. So I picked one of them and lived with my decision.

Despite all these challenges, I managed to muddle my way through kindergarten and into the big leagues of first grade. My mind began to expand, but my tight ponytail and short dress never did.




Mr. Nelson and Other Evil Teachers in Grade School

Everyone remembers a bad experience with a teacher and I am no different. Except for the fact that I remember MANY bad experiences with teachers and have tried to blame many of my learning problems later on in  life on them. Fifth and sixth grade proved to be a particularly harrowing time for me in the “bad teacher department.” In fifth grade we started getting specialized teachers for certain subjects. The science teacher for those grades was Mr. Nelson. He was the first male teacher I’d ever had in my entire academic career and frankly I was looking forward to the change in scenery. His teaching style was different, dare I say refreshing. He would play albums filled with titles like “What is the Milky Way?” and “The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas” while we worked on certain in-class projects independently. But my hopes for a new type of learning experience were quickly extinguished when I realized an important fact: Mr. Nelson hated me.  I didn’t follow every classroom rule, but was no better or worse than any other kid in the class. Sure, I secretly enjoyed chanting the altered versions of Mr. Nelson’s science tunes  with my classmates when he wasn’t listening (in our revised version, the sun was a mass of Mr. Nelson’s gas), but to my knowledge, I never did anything incorrigible or different than any other fifth grader.  I know what you’re thinking…”Oh please, Barbara, you were just a sensitive kid who remembers the situation playing out this way when in fact you were treated no differently. No, no, no. I have witnesses.

When kids got a bit unruly and weren’t able to settle down, Mr. Nelson would always pick on me and say, “Barbara, you’re talking when you shouldn’t be; go stand in the corner.” He even had a special dunce cap you were forced to wear in these instances and let me tell you, I had to wear this thing so frequently I began to resemble a cone head from the famous Saturday Night Live sketch. An even greater offense was chewing gum in Mr. Nelson’s classroom. I wasn’t the only kid singled out for this, but again it always seemed like I was first in line for getting caught. Guilty parties had to place the chewing gum on their noses and keep it perched there for the rest of the class.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t exactly the best student in the class. In an effort to beef up my grade, I asked Mr. Nelson if I could do a project for extra credit. He allowed it and I thought my luck was about to change. I planned to do a project on the theory of electromagnetism using a horseshoe magnet and magnetic particles to demonstrate movement and the magnetic field. I was confident I would score a great grade and maybe even some much needed brownie points with Mr. Nelson. But the day I demonstrated my science experiment to the class, the magnet no longer had a charge (yep, probably should have checked that beforehand). The particles didn’t dance around like they were supposed to; they just sat there. Not only was the experiment a flop, but Mr. Nelson berated me in front of the class for taking up “valuable class time” and said I would lose credit because the experiment didn’t work. I would have received a better class grade if I had just stuck to chanting about Mr. Nelson’s gas. To this day, it’s hard for me to look at a magnet without breaking into a cold sweat.

We went on a lot of class trips with Mr. Nelson, mostly to the Hall of Science and Alley Pond Park. During one trip, I was told I couldn’t be on line next to my friend Laurie because I was too chatty. When it was time for lunch, I realized I forgot mine at home. You can imagine how pleased Mr. Nelson must have been to hear this from me. Laurie’s mom was the class mom for this trip and she convinced Mr. Nelson to let me sit with Laurie just for lunch so she could share the sandwiches she had brought. After much hemming and hawing, Mr. Nelson acquiesced with the strict reminder that I must immediately leave Laurie’s side once that half a tuna fish sandwich hit my stomach. If it weren’t for the kindness of Laurie’s mom who knows how the day would have turned out.

In sixth grade I had Mrs. Greif for math and homeroom. Her name really should have been Mrs. Grief because all she gave me was grief. When I didn’t get a math concept she would announce to the class, “Barbara, when I had your brother in my math class two years ago he understood this right away; why can’t you?” So much for the “every child is a snowflake” theory of education; the party line with Mrs. Greif was “How did your parents end up with one bright, adorable math whiz and one of you?” We sat at tables of four in math class and my seat faced Mrs. Greif’s desk. One day she announced to the class, “Barbara, I’m sick of looking at your face; switch seats with Cha-Cha.” So now I was stupid and hard to look at. Does wonders for a young girl’s confidence at age 12.

Of course it wasn’t all bad and there were some accepting, caring, and progressive educators at the school. One teacher who stands out for me is Ms. Rifkin, my social studies teacher in fifth and sixth grade. Before Ms. Rifkin, every teacher was Miss or Mrs. and Ms. was just coming into vogue. Everyone pronounced it Mzzzzz Rifkin because if you got it wrong, she would correct you. Ms. Rifkin was younger than many of the other teacher and she had long blonde hair and braces…the first adult I’d ever seen with them. Ms. Rifkin always let you do extra credit, praised everything you did, and never took away points for extra effort. She challenged our young minds with thought provoking and even risque topics. We learned how to debate and some of the topics had very adult themes. My topic was should prostitution be legalized. My mother was a bit appalled and embarrassed taking me to the library to research this topic when I was age 12, but she abided by the teacher’s rules. Ms. Rifkin had the best intentions, but perhaps some of the topics were a bit too lofty. One student was assigned the topic of plea bargaining and asked to debate if it should be allowed. The next day the student came into class and passionately explained that all people should be able to participate in flea markets and hawk their wares. So perhaps not everything that Ms. Rifkin attempted went off without a hitch, but I give her an A for effort. I guess I need to give all these teachers an A for at least creating a lasting impression.