My school system in Muskegon was not the best in the area, but not the worst. My elementary school, grades K-5, was also attended by my brothers, father and uncle. They all left a lasting impression. Less mischief was expected from me because I was female. But times had changed, many of the kids starting pre-school and kindergarden (not kiddy-garden) in 1977 were from all walks of life, many with very young parents. In Muskegon, it is not uncommon to see a five year old with a mom in her early twenties. The grandparents, who are around forty, help out a lot.
I was different. My parents were in their early thirties, and I was the last to go off to kindergarden. Mom took me to the elementary school and, unlike my big brothers, I was given a battery of tests.
Ah, the 1970s. Things had changed in another way. Educators expected five year olds to already know their letters and numbers and how to draw a human figure. My mother thought these were the things the kindergarden teachers were supposed to teach the kids, not the parents. There had been no trouble with my brothers, but I guess I couldn't draw very well, because I was sent to Developmental Kindergarden, aka DK, aka Dumb Kids.
I enjoyed nap time and cookies. Still do. I met two other little girls in DK who would be my best friends all through my school years. Learning my numbers and letters. I liked the Letter People, although they looked a bit strange. This was the era of Sesame Street and the Electric Company, and kids could learn from television, not just watch cartoons. I also enjoyed kindergarden the following year, but it seemed more intense, as if everything you learned was more important because first grade was next. No more nap time and cookies and half-days. In first grade, you bought your hot lunch tickets on Monday morning before class but you also had your first lunch box. Mine was a Star Wars lunch box made out of metal, as lunch boxes were back then. Also, when a kid attends school all day, the relationship with the teachers change. You're part of the herd now, so keep up. God forbid if you get held back another year. Because of my year in DK, I was already a year older than most of my first grade classmates. The girl sitting next to me on the first day of first grade was only four years old. Years later, when we were in eighth grade together, I was fourteen and she was eleven.
She must have been some kind of child genius. Maybe she could draw better than me. However, by first grade I could read my brother's fourth grade reading book. I was destined to be a writer, not an artist.
The following are memories of my teachers, grades Dumb Kids through Five:
1. Mrs. Dykstra. A young teacher who actually liked being a teacher. She showed us a picture of her husband, and kissed it in front of us. She introduced us to the Letter People. We went on a field trip and I rode a pony. I missed the bus home from school, and Mrs. Dykstra gave me a ride home. I recall, in the winter, that the zipper was stuck on my coat. Mrs. Dykstra was helping me unstick it when I sneezed, blowing a healthy wad of snot all over the front of my coat. She managed to clean me up and fix my zipper before I had to get on the bus home. Some people are born to be teachers.
2. Mrs. Cunningham. A much older teacher, close to retirement. I can't recall her face very well. She had a patient way about her, but she finally had to pin a note to me to tell my mom that I needed to learn to tie my shoes. So, at the age of six, I learned to tie my damn shoes. I also had a bus driver that scared the Hell out of me. In class, I learned to memorize my home address. I could have learned my phone number, but our phone service had been turned off. A child can never learn their number and address too soon. I met my first 'boyfriend' in kindergarden. Thirteen years later, I found myself with a babysitting job looking after a baby boy. The mother was fifteen years old, the father my old nap-time boyfriend. Full circle in Muskegon.
3. Mrs. Bianchi. I liked first grade. We were learning phonics and I remember a work book with a brown cover and pink letters. I knew how to read by the time I started first grade. I was put in the top reading group, and that group was small, maybe six of us out of a classroom of twenty-odd kids. I was introduced to reading guides, which accompanied the reading book and workbook. Along with a spelling book and phonics. Reading guides consisted of pages of questions that were answered short answer and essay style. Good thing I enjoyed reading and writing, or I would have fallen behind.
I don't think I was Mrs. Bianchi's favorite student. She didn't dislike me, but she was close to retirement, and I think she was sick of dealing with the kids and the parents. Maybe she thought I lacked self-discipline, but I've always liked to learn. Mrs. B is quite elderly now. I see her shopping at K-Mart sometimes; I never noticed that she wore wigs. She favored polyester pantsuits and blouses with frills or a large bow in the front. She was allergic to chalk. She lived in a little blue house across the street from the school. Her husband worked at one of the local factories, maybe Shaw-Walker, a manufacturer of office furniture. Or Sealed Power. The class was seated at a picnic table in the back yard. I can't remember what she fed us, but her house was very small. I would eat lunch out of my metal Star Wars lunch box, my friends two boys who were twin brothers. Very sweet boys. Mom would put Kool-Aid in my thermos. Baloney sandwiches on white bread with Miracle Whip. Pringles potato chips wrapped in foil. Some cookies. Life was good.
4. Mrs. Strum. School was about to get different. Some teachers go for too long before retiring; maybe it has to do with money or a need to stay busy. Who knows? The only thing I liked about second grade is when Mrs. Strum turned on the TV. She would let us watch a PBS educational program for a half-hour or so sometimes. She was prone to weird outbursts, probably from irritability. She slapped and pulled hair when she lost her patience. I discovered the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder that year. Mrs. Strum couldn't pull my hair if I was being quiet while Reading Little House On The Prairie. The days were long in her classroom. I fell in with a group of girls at school who liked to make fun of me or even picked fights with me. One of them gave me scabies. In the eighties, some teachers thought it was a big deal to put kids in groups, shoving their desks together. To be social and competitive at the same time. What a waste. I don't know why I tried being friends with these girls, except to say that my best friend had moved away after her parents divorced. I invited these brats to my home, and my parents did not like these girls, their mothers even less. I started feeling like no one at school liked me and I started to skip school more often. I started hearing more comments about my weight. Getting bullied on the playground. I was never so glad when a school year ended and I'm sure my classmates felt the same way.
5. Mrs. Comstock. Third grade was full of contradictions. I was the first Personality of the Week in my class, but I was being bullied daily by boys on the school bus. Once again, the principal turned a blind eye, because girls aren't supposed to stick up for themselves. I got into a fight with an older girl that sent me to the office. I didn't apologize either. I was tired of feeling sorry for being alive. I was learning to fight back. I also started writing at that age. My oldest brother had been involved in an accident the summer before and almost ended up in prison. I think the term 'involuntary manslaughter' applied to the situation. He had just graduated from high school, and ended up working two jobs to pay off the legal fees. He didn't go to prison. My brothers brought the drama, so I tried to be good, which is hard when you're so young and your innocence is being chipped at daily, making a child angry and scared. I started dieting that year, but was unsuccessful. Food has always been the best cushion for me. My teacher took a leave of absence, our substitute the principal's son for the next few months. He liked me, but I didn't care, because I hated school. I had lost a friend because her mother didn't like my father or it could have had something to do with my brother's accident. My brother's car, while he was making a left turn to enter our driveway, collided with a young man on a motorcycle. He was maybe two years older than my brother, about nineteen. He flipped over my brother's car and died in our neighbor's front yard. A tragic accident. Dad later said his hair went gray overnight. He had to bail my brother out of jail the next morning.
I started to go through an early adolescence, which made me hate my body even more. I had a hard time with math but, with Mom's help at the kitchen table, I learned my multiplication tables so I could pass the third grade. By the time Mrs. Comstock came back, I just wanted to be left alone with my writing. I tried writing plays, and would annoy my classmates by trying to put a show together. It never happened, because my teacher didn't care. She was so ill and tired. She used to keep a paddle at her desk. She paddled my well-padded ass with it once, but I ignored her. I was standing up with my back to her, writing my name on a homework assignment. I never responded strongly to physical discipline.
6. Mrs. Saelzler. I took my attitude with me to fourth grade. Mrs. S had also been my third brother's teacher five years before. She had been so awful to him, my mother had to come to the school to deal with the woman. My brother had asthma, and this old bitch would make fun of his wheezing, along with ridiculing the other kids in her classroom. She was a horror. Now, I had landed in her classroom. When I told Mom, she said she would get me out, but I refused. At first, I didn't think Mrs. S was so bad. Maybe I thought I could be tougher than my brother, as if I was being challenged. Let's say that fourth grade taught me what the word 'bitch' really meant, as did favoritism. The year before, I demoted from the top reading group to the middle 'average' reading group, and it really effected my self-esteem, placing a chip on my shoulder that didn't go away for many years. I was now the girl who had to try harder because I didn't like math. If a kid wasn't good with numbers, they were a loser in Mrs. Saelzler's class. And she wasn't known for her patience. She thought kindness was for losers, too. She did not encourage creativity in her classroom or friendships. No putting desks together. I was miserable, like usual, but I hid it behind my growing truancy. For some reason, Mom let my absenteeism fly. I think she just wanted that school year to go by for me. She no longer went to P/T conferences. She couldn't stand Mrs. S and offered to go to the school for me a few times. I declined every time, because I refused to let that old bitch hurt me. No more crying in the classroom or the bathroom for me. And that also included at home.
I concluded fourth grade by winning a book report contest. I was awarded a dictionary on the last day of school, but one of my classmates, one of Mrs. S's favorites, tried to steal it from me. I demanded it back, only because I knew my book reports were good. I was a writer, damn it, the other girl had received praise all year long because of her math scores and she was in the top reading group. That year taught me that creativity wasn't valued at my school, especially in the 1980s, that conservative era when competition was bred through athletics and academics; math, science, and sports. Not much room for anything else.
7. Mr. Wedell. He liked me, he really liked me. Mr. W was well-liked going back to third grade, when he would invite my class to his classroom to watch movies. Mr. W played movies all day once a week. After fourth grade, I thought I'd have it easy. However, Mr. W was two years away from retirement, and he was past caring. Sometimes, the classroom would be a zoo. Mr. W was known for his leniency and his affection for his students, but the chaos was only exacerbated by his ranting lectures. Like most adults in my life, he needed a drink or medication. Maybe both. He let me get away with skipping school and making up my homework instead of going to class everyday. I was getting into hard rock music and my friends. I wanted to be thin and famous, a creative job like actress or rock star. Screw school. Fifth grade was the highest grade at my elementary school, and I felt like I had paid my dues. I wasn't looking forward to middle school, which I would end up hating more. I had spend DK-5 being shuffled from classroom to classroom, being ignored or treated like shit for the most part. Sort of the way Dad treated me at home. When I look back, I thank God I loved to read, because if I had struggled with math and reading, I would have flunked a grade. Instead, I passed from year to year, promoted, not placed(whatever difference that made).
I was already talking of dropping out when I turned sixteen. :)