Grades one through five were spent at Bryant Elementary in Independence and I can remember the names of all my teachers but one. I can also remember some incidents that still are with me today as though they happened only yesterday. They are painful memories of what can happen to children when both teachers and students are cruel.
The “good” time I had was with my dog Jerry. He was my comfort and joy during these five years. Really a mutt, he followed me everywhere and that was because of his background; his past must have included some English sheep dog genes for he never let me out of his sight when I was at home. My constant companion and someone I could talk to when no one else would listen. I remember how he would just cock his head from side to side as he listened to me ramble on about whatever had happened that day at school. Of course, he was not allowed in the house when I was not there, but relegated to the basement, all of which was on the same level.
Grade one came and went without incident and then on to grade two. No big incidents except how I learned about fractions. The “common” paper of the day was wide lined paper with pale blue lines and we were discussing fractions during this particular day. The teacher would write a fraction on the board, explain it to us and ask us to write down the fraction in our tablet. She kept saying, “The top number goes above the line and the lower below the line.” So I did exactly what she said: I put a “1” above the blue line in my tablet and a “2” below the blue line. While she talked, she walked among the chairs and looked at the other students’ work and I could hear her saying “fine,” “good,” “you’re getting the idea,” as she went throughout the classroom. My ego was bolstered, so when she approached my desk I eagerly sat back so she could look at my 1/2, give me a big smile and keep moving on. But, that did not happen. She stood there looking down at my fraction, told me I was wrong and to do it again. Then, she walked on through the class. I tried again and again. She made two more passes through the rows of desks and always stopped at mine to tell me I had done it wrong and that I had better get it right the next time she came around. I wrote and wrote and wrote, but came up with the same thing each time: upper number above the line, lower number below the line. What was I doing wrong? The final time she came around, I still had the same results on my paper and told her I just did not understand what she meant. She leaned into me and said, “And you never will understand.”
I was so frustrated by the time school ended that day that I wanted to bury my head in my books, cry and get home as quickly as possible without other students seeing me or saying anything to me. Dad picked me up and he noticed I was quiet on the way home and finally asked me if I was okay. I told him what had happened and he never became angry with the teacher and told me we would figure it out when we got home. I felt better after that and could hardly wait to show him what I had done and ask why it was wrong. Once we were inside the house and everything had been put in its proper place, we sat down at the kitchen table and I showed Mom and Dad what the overwhelming project had been that day. They just looked at each other in a way that I could not interpret, but Dad explained the “how” of fractions to me. He made it simple: “Fractions have their own line between them, son. So, when you write ˝ keep both numbers between the lines on the paper, but put a line between the numbers.” I got it! It was so simple! And yet the teacher would not take the time to explain—by example—what she meant. I was so thankful there was nothing wrong with me and Dad made the whole process seem so easy.
I returned to school the following day and sat at my desk with this all-knowing grin on my face and was prepared when she started discussing fractions. I did it right the first time yet she never bothered to compliment me for getting it correct on the first fraction. In fact, she passed me by and checked almost all the other students’ work without looking at mine. I felt humiliated once again.
Second grade ended and I marched into third grade. Since school started in August, I had already celebrated my birthday in July. My birthday gift from Mom and Dad that year was a pocket knife that I was so proud of. I showed it to all the kids who lived next door and was the envy of everyone. I became popular around the neighborhood because the other kids did not have pocket knives. So, the first day of school, I had tucked my new knife in my pocket before leaving home and was showing it to everyone in the classroom before the morning bell rang. As the bell rang and the teacher walked in, she caught a brief glimpse of what I held in my hand and approached me asking what it was. When I told her it was my pocket knife, a birthday gift, she took it away from me and flatly stated that I could get my pocket knife back at the end of the school year. I was fuming when Dad picked me up that evening and explained what had happened. He was always so logical in his thinking and said we would get my knife back at the end of the year. For some reason that I still don’t understand today, I never questioned him with “What about now?” I just took things for granted and let the memory of my new knife sit on the back burner of my brain until the last day of school.
When that day arrived and it was time to say goodbye to everyone for the summer, I stood at the teacher’s desk and asked about my knife. She looked through her desk drawers and said she could not find it and had probably taken it home. She suggested that Dad, Mom and I stop by over the weekend to get it. We followed through on her invitation, driving some distance to retrieve my year-old knife. Dad and Mom went to the teacher’s front door, knocked and waited for someone to answer; I stayed in the car, but could see everything taking place. The teacher opened the door and I guess my parents introduced themselves to her and told her why they were there. The discussion between the three of them did not take very long and I did not see the teacher leave the door to go anywhere in the house to get my knife. When the folks returned to the car without my knife, I was dumbfounded and listened with a certain hurt growing inside as they explained what had happened. The teacher told them she had taken my knife home the first day of school and immediately given it to her son because he had always wanted a pocket knife. Part of her explanation to my folks was that since she had given him the knife as a gift, she could not, in all reality, ask for it back without hurting his feelings. So, my new knife stayed with the teacher’s kid and I moved on to other things. That really hurt and I do not know how to explain—to this day—the feeling it left me with about my mother and father. I loved them both but could not understand why they were not more demanding in getting my knife back.
Fourth grade arrived and I was ready to move on with or without my pocket knife which Mom and Dad did not replace. Instead of the classroom being in the old 5-story building, we moved into a newer building just behind the old one and because my last name starts with a “T,” I was allocated to the back of the room. Blackboards in those days were sometimes green and white chalk marks didn’t really show up from the back of the room. But, I did the best I could and squinted many times to see the board and write down my notes. However, around December my eyes seemed to get worse and I would take part of recess time to sit in a desk at the front of the room and write my notes. The teacher did not seem to mind although she was supposed to be on the playground as one of the supervisors.
One afternoon, the teacher handed me a note in a sealed envelope and asked that I give it to my parents when I got home. I stewed and fretted all the way home on the bus and with a certain amount of hesitation, I handed the note to Mom and she read what was on it. The teacher was expressing her concern that I was having problems seeing the blackboard and doing lots of squinting; it had affected my grades and that she wanted my parents to take some sort of action.
I had always playfully put on my cousin’s glasses when we were together and told my parents I could see, but they pooh-poohed the idea and did not take any action until the teacher’s note gave them second thoughts about having my eyes checked. I was excited thinking about getting a pair of glasses and had vowed I would even lie about my eyesight just so I could have a pair. Glasses seemed to be the rage those days and I wanted to fit in with everyone else. So, Dad drove me to Montgomery Ward’s and I had my eyes examined. Imagine the glee I felt when the eye doctor told my Dad that I not only needed glasses but my visual acuity was so bad it was a wonder that I could see anything at all without some type of aid. I was overjoyed and we made an appointment to return in several days to get my glasses. I was a very happy little boy!
When the appointed day arrived in mid-summer, I was ready to leave for Ward’s long before Dad was, but we managed to get there in a timely manner. Once fitted with the glasses, I was amazed at all that I had missed, but did not really “see” the difference until we stepped outside into the bright, cloudless day. Although Dad never said anything about my outrageous, excited comments, I’m sure he would have loved to tell me to sit still and keep quiet. I could see each individual leaf on every tree and just could not get over all that I had missed during the previous years of my life. I didn’t care how I looked in the glasses or what people would say to me once they saw me. I was a proud little boy who could finally see! This one simple task, taken for granted by so many people, was like opening a new door in my life.
I had two mishaps during the fourth grade that I will always remember. One concerned being overweight and always wanting someone to sit on the other end of the teeter totter on the playground. I would beg kids but no one would offer to act as the weight on the other end. One day, two girls volunteered and I was thrilled that I would finally get to use the teeter totter. The three of us were having a great time when the bell rang, calling us in from recess. The girls hopped off their end and I immediately plummeted to the ground with a hard smack and felt a sting in my left butt cheek. When I was finally able to get up from the ground, I felt the back of my jeans and pulled a long stick out of them and threw it on the ground, not thinking what “might” have been left behind.
I was late getting to the class and the longer the time went by, the worse my left hip kept bothering me. I finally asked if I could go to the principal’s office because I did not feel well; I didn’t want to say anything about the “accident” on the playground. When I reached the principal’s office I had to explain what took place on the playground and mentioned that I “thought” I had something stuck in my upper leg. The lady did not seem embarrassed when she asked me to drop my pants so she could take a look. She found a splinter three inches long that was under my skin and immediately said she would drive me home so my parents could get me to a doctor. I was extremely embarrassed by the entire incident, but she seemed to accept my misfortune as a routine matter and drove me home while I sat facing the passenger car window, my left butt cheek hanging off the car seat so the pain would not be all that bad.
Once home, I was again asked to drop my pants so Mom could look me over and then she called Dad. He arrived and we made a rush to the doctor’s office where my butt cheek was deadened and the long splinter removed. The doctor put in six stitches and I had my second scar. That “slight” incident really mattered to me because not many of my classmates had any wounds or scars to brag about and its location made my “mishap” even more of an interesting story to share.
Having recovered from that fiasco, I decided one evening to clip my toe nails but do it my way which meant no clippers; I just ripped them off even if the piece I pulled off went into the quick of my toe. Having accomplished my task on all toes, the following morning, my right toe was swollen and bleeding, but not badly enough that I could not get my tennis shoe on. I made it through that day and the pain settled in that night. I made it one more day and finally had to fess up to Mom about what I had done and what action the whole event had caused. I had previously had ingrown toenails and never had any problems before but once in the doctor’s office, he decided not to deaden my toe, and instead used a small-sized blade with cotton wrapped around it that he shoved right under the top of my nail all the way down to the bottom. I actually bit my knee to keep from crying, but thanked him as we left the office and returned home. The next several days at school were not the best because I had to wear a tennis shoe with the toe cut out so it would fit my foot and not bother me too much when I walked.
The fifth grade was totally uneventful for me—other than the normal learning process—and the last day of school, my parents gave me the word that we would be moving from Independence to Kansas City, Kansas so Dad could work on a divinity degree. I said goodbye to all my friends that last day of school and vowed I would keep in touch, something that did not happen.
And I’m STILL a Preacher’s Kid!