Monday, August 17, 2015

Why I Wrote First Grade Stinks

    I don't remember a lot about kindergarten. I was in the "morning class" when three hours was all that educators thought five-year-olds could handle.
My teacher, Mrs. Palmer, looked exactly like "Dear Abby" in the newspaper. I was fire drill captain, or as I proudly told my parents, "If the school burns down, I'm the first one out." I tackled Jimmy R., my kindergarten crush, in the classroom playhouse and kissed him. (It was a decade or two before that happened again.)

     I nearly flunked kindergarten. In addition to such skills as using scissors "responsibly," counting to ten, and reciting the alphabet without singing it, you had to be able to tie your shoes. I tried and tried all year until it occurred to a neighbor that Mom being left-handed and me being right handed made a difference. She had a left handed son who couldn't tie his shoes either.  Moms swapped kids, and both of us skinned out of kindergarten with a day to spare.  Talk about academic pressure.

    Because kindergarten was so unmemorable for me, I looked forward to going through it with my own daughter, Lily. Boy had things changed! Kids wore Velcro strapped sneakers. They were supposed to count to 20 and know the alphabet BEFORE kindergarten. Lily had been in a Bangkok pre-school that was about learning through exploring rather than memorizing. Lily's kindergarten teacher was a Sweet Young Thing whose worst admonition was "someone is not being considerate." Her classroom was a mass of pinatas and Chinese dragon kites and African violets. Lily was proud to be named "Class Gardener" and "Permanent Paper Passer Outer." Sweet Young Thing figured out that Lily was ADHD and at her best when she was "helping"  It must have been a long day for both of them because by then, kindergarten was a full school day. However, Lily and her teacher had a mutual admiration society, even if Lily couldn't quite manage numbers and least not in their correct order.

    In promoting Lily to first grade, Sweet Young Thing took into account that Lily had spent two years of pre-school and half of kindergarten in a "foreign" environment. She was promoted to the ominously named "transitional" first grade, kids who weren't "reading ready." I didn't give it a lot of thought.  Neither did Lily. She knew she would sail through school, watering violets and passing out papers. What could go wrong?

   I picked Lily up that first day of first grade. She didn't say anything, but I figured she was pooped out, getting used to a new teacher and classmates.

   At home, I unlocked the front door and went in the house, knowing Lily was straggling behind me. Slam! went the front door. We don't slam doors in our house. Ever. I turned to see Lily fling her red backpack across the room, narrowly missing me.  She slumped against the door, crossed her arms, pushed out her lower lip and announced in a voice that I'm sure the neighbors heard. "That's it! I'm never going back! I hate my teacher and there's only one other girl in my class and there's only one recess and the kindergarten kids got lunch first and ate all the chocolate ice cream. I hate vanilla! First grade stinks!"

   Suddenly, I flashbacked to my first day of first grade, telling my mother that if school was going to be this boring, I wasn't going to college. I remembered my teacher, a troll (henceforth known as Mrs. Troll)who was about to retire after forty-something years of first graders. A woman who yelled a lot, slammed her fist on your desk if she thought you weren't paying attention, and when all else failed, used what I later learned was guilt as a motivator.

"You are thankless, spoiled children," she'd shrill.  "I work and work to teach you to(fill in the blank) but you just won't learn! What is wrong with you?" She didn't know? We were terrified of her. She yelled if we got the wrong answer, yelled if we asked a question.

     I made her mad the first day of school when she said "Now when you can read this big book" (a giant sized version of a pre-primer prominently displayed next to the teacher's desk) you can have your very own book. You let me know when you think you're ready."

    I raised my hand. I had taught myself to read from billboards and TV ads before kindergarten. And while I was sure the words "mouthwash" and "rest area next exit, clean restrooms" weren't in that big book, I had filled in my vocabulary with what are now called "Dolch words").

   "I didn't mean, now." Mrs. Troll squinted at her seating chart. "Mary Ann. I meant after you know how to read."

     "But I know how to read now," I insisted. As an adult who has been a teacher, I can sort of understand her exasperation. Five minutes into the school year and she already been challenged by the likes of me.

     "Fine, then," she said in an-I-dare-you-voice. "Come on up and read for us." She stood behind the book, simpering, waiting for me to fail.

     I didn't fail. Dick and Jane were a snore as literature but I read all 32 pages of it without a mistake.  Now Mrs. Troll was really mad, because she didn't have any primers.  She hadn't counted on anyone learning to read in the first month, let alone first day.  She sent me to the office to requisition my first reader, six weeks early. Although I pride myself on remembering the most insignificant details of my childhood, the rest of first grade disappeared in the mists of trauma.

    Now it was happening again with my own child. As the Mom part of my brain registered Lily's outrage, the writer part thought First Grade Stinks.  What a great title for a picture book!  As I explained to Lily that not only would she be going back to school tomorrow and the next day and the next for twelve years (it was a little early to spring college on her) My own first grade disappointments melded with Lily's.  I started listing my possible plot points.

    The year never got any better for Lily. I grew alarmed when Lily announced at the end of the first week that five kids had been "flunked back" to kindergarten.  I immediately showed up for a teacher's conference.  The teacher (aka Mrs. First Grade) was perhaps my age, but looked older. Much, much older. She had surgery three times that school year (the only days Lily arrived home happy) so I tried to cut her some slack. But Mrs. First Grade affirmed that yes indeed she had just demoted five kids back to kindergarten "because I could tell they weren't going to cut it." (After a week?) She left no doubt that Lily would be joining them if she would "stop being lazy." I already knew that Lily was dyslexic so I asked about special ed testing. "Oh we don't do that until the student has flunked first grade and kindergarten."  What? A classroom of eight-year-old first graders?  My sympathy was wearing thin.

   It wore out altogether when Mrs. First Grade informed in February to tell me she was flunking Lily for the year because "she won't do her board work." I snapped. "You do realize she can't read, right?"  Well, no apparently she didn't. Lily had kept her secret by having the teaching assistant read to her when the teacher wasn't looking. Then Lily, having memorized the story in one hearing, would recite it for the teacher, word perfect, right down to the timing of the page turns. I told the teacher to hand her a random book and ask her to read right then and there. Teacher called me back in ten minutes. "She can't read! I guess she's dyslexic!" You think, person with twenty-five years of teaching "transitional" children?  I couldn't finish writing First Grade Stinks fast enough.

    However, fiction and real life rarely turn out the same. In First Grade Stinks, the main character, Haley, realizes that although the two grades and teachers are entirely different, first grade would bring her the ultimate reward of learning to read on her own!  Haley learns to appreciate her new, less flamboyant teacher.

   In real life, Lily hated everything about first grade except for physical education and art.  She never did learn to read that year but was promoted to second grade anyway. We changed school systems. She tested into special education in second grade, where she stayed until she graduated from high school (in the college prep track and with a high B average.) Reading will always be a challenge for her but she has developed a repertoire of coping mechanisms. She is in college now,  Guess what her major is.  Go ahead.  Guess.  Pre-K special ed!

    "After all," she says, "I've had years and years of thinking how I would teach things differently."

     I guess Lily's first grade didn't stink entirely.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


April Halprin Wayland said...

We need teachers who have been through those wars ~ go, Lily, go!

mary ann rodman said...

Thank you, April.