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.