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.



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.