Adventures in Grammar School (1954-1956)
I may have become a teacher because I remember all of my teachers in elementary school vividly, and I even remember some of Larry's.
Kindergarten began inauspiciously for me. First, I was assigned to the afternoon class at West Side Elementary School. It seemed like a long walk from our home on Evergreen, all the way across Palm Avenue, down the shady part of Third Street that is lined with eucalyptus trees. I spent the day wandering around, knowing none of the other kids and playing alone on the jungle gym.
A few days later, my mom had either called the school or the school called her: I was switched to Imperial Beach Elementary School on Elm, where my brother Larry went. We celebrated! I took the morning kindergarten session, and though Mama walked over with me, I walked home alone. I was very disappointed that when I got home to tell about all my adventures, Mama was over at her mom's house. I had probably run home instead of walking, arriving early by at least 10 minutes.
Mrs. Bender was my kindergarten teacher. I thought she was awfully old (I'll bet she was 45). She wore dresses with small prints and granny shoes, big, clunky-heeled loafers.
This classroom presented all my favorite activities: cutting, pasting, blocks, stories, and yard play. Like all kindergartens then, we had our own play yard, separated from the regular playground. I liked swings and the slide.
I made a friend who insisted her name was "Windy." Mama said, "That can't be right," probably knowing the name was Wendy. But I called the kid Windy the whole year and made up a story that she was named that because her parents believed she would "run like the wind."
Since I didn't eat paste or talk too much, I never had to sit under the teacher's desk for punishment. But Windy and I spent one recess scooping sand into our shoes at the end of each slide ride, so that when we were called into class and had to dump our shoes onto the porch, we each had a big pile of sand to show off. Mrs. Bender did not think that was funny and made us sweep all the sand for the whole class into a dustpan and return it to the sand box.
I also spilled my milk once. It must have been toward the end of the year when I smugly assumed I wouldn't commit this error. I was humiliated with the goof, and worse, had to clean up after myself with the sour-smelling, disgusting sponge.
I hated nap time on the stupid little mats. All my life (to this day), I have hated to close my eyes in public, even for prayer. I had brought an old bath mat while other kids had blankets or little rugs. I never took a nap at this hour at home, why would I at school?
Before first grade started, I learned to ride a two-wheeler. Poppa bought me a boys’ bike, probably a 20-inch. At first, I couldn't swing my leg around to get on the bike and had to start by hopping on from the street curb. I rode that bike up and down Evergreen hundreds of times per day. There was a dip in the blacktop in front of the house across the street, the best part of every ride.
Finally, I learned to get on to the bike properly. We rode down to an open lot on 5th Street, a lot with small dirt hills. Up and down and around we rode; it was our very own dirt bike course. We loved to ride in the smooth hallways of Mar Vista High School too, but the janitors discouraged us by yelling when they caught us.
Poppa made the rule that I couldn't ride my bike to school unless I could ride all the way up the hill on Elm without stopping. Such a long hill for such a little girl! I practiced and practiced, and finally, I made it. I remember the evening that I went for my "test," proving to my father that I could climb that hill.
We rode our bikes to school that fall, locking them in the special zone for bikes. But that only lasted one year. The school made a rule the following year that no one could ride bikes. I guess it was too dangerous and probably a security problem too.
In first grade, I had Mrs. West. Mrs. West taught us to read! We were placed in reading groups, of course. Because I had been trying to teach myself to read for the past 3 years, I picked the skill up in a hurry and became a group leader. Once, my group got stuck on a word in our Dick and Jane readers. I thought the word was saw and another kid said it was was. When I asked Mrs. West, she verified the other kid's word. So I promptly went back to my group and said my word was right.
We sat at tables that earned little cartoon animals as rewards: busy as a bee, quiet as a mouse, and so on. The only one I remember being able to lead my group to was busy as a bee. We weren't very quiet.
I was glad my name was "Eileen" because we always lined up alphabetically by first name. I felt sorry for al the Sandra's and Tom's. I vowed to name my children so that they could be first in line with names starting with the letter “A.” (and I did!)
The worst day of the year was shot day. We took permission slips back to the school to allow the school nurse to give us shots. Then we waited, dreading the moment our class would be led to the nurse's office. With each passing minute, the dread grew, until after one shot, I fainted.
My favorite days in first grade were the rare rainy days. The brightly lit classroom contrasted with the gloomy hallways. On rainy days, Mrs. West pulled out puzzles from the drawers or chose extra art projects for us to complete. The drawers that housed these treasures exhaled the smell of a rainy day in a combination of newsprint paper, wood, and glue.
Second grade was even better! My teacher was Mrs. MacDonald. She was a family legend, for she had taught my mother, my uncles, Larry, and now me! She expected great things from me, and I did my best to give them to her.
Mrs. MacDonald encouraged me to write. We wrote stories every day. I wrote about our trips and our camping, the pigeons we kept as one of Poppa's passing hobbies, and the field trip to the zoo. Unfortunately, we were required to decorate each story with a picture, and like others in the family, I really can't draw. The only picture I was ever satisfied with was my picture of a raccoon. I thought the pictures wrecked my stories.
In second grade, we encountered "higher" math. Arithmetic! The bane of my second grade life. I could do my sums and my subtraction, but I didn't like it. When we set up a pretend grocery store with papier mache products, fruits, vegetables, meats, I always hoped I could be the shopper, not the checker, because I was so afraid that I wouldn't do the bill correctly. Mrs. MacDonald put a lot of time into that unit. She had gathered a small shopping cart, a little cash register, and even built a striped awning over the grocery-store area of our classroom.
I continued reading, reading, reading, but the day Mrs. MacDonald introduced the idea of paragraphs was humiliating. I couldn't understand her explanation, and I kept looking for the gap at the end of the paragraph instead of the one at the opening. I don't know who finally clarified this for me. And even though I was a good reader, I hated reading aloud.
I had a lisp, saying some l's as w's. I read "eleven" as "eweven" and the whole class laughed. After that, I avoided reading aloud whenever possible for the remainder of that year.
Another change in second grade was the opening of the new part of the elementary school campus. We had our own separate playground, which meant that I never got to see Larry. And we had a new principal for the primary grades, Mr. McGee. He was mean! He instituted a "no talking"rule in the lunchroom. Lunch was torture instead of fun that year because even one whisper meant detention at the tables and no recess.
Third grade belonged to Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown encouraged multicultural studies. I was the big star when we studied Europe, because I had pictures, dolls, and souvenirs from Germany. But then we studied Japan, and though it seemed that all my classmates' fathers had served in the Navy in Japan, I didn't know anything about that country. Mrs. Brown said, "Well, you have had your turn. Now someone else can be in the spotlight." I wasn't sure that was in any way fair.
Mrs. Brown read for us The Big Wave by Pearl S. Buck. This was one of the first long stories I ever remember waiting to hear the end of. She also had us make rice to eat with chopsticks from little bowls! She put raisins into the rice to make it more appealing. Some of the kids were pretty good with their chopsticks.
She also read to us Pagoo (about a hermit crab) and Paddle-to-the Sea. I still love these books that captured my imagination through her story times.
With each unit, we wrote and performed a play. When we studied harbor life, we learned about San Diego's "Harbor of the Sun," a romantic name that assured me I lived in the most beautiful city in the world. I wrote a play about a small tugboat and a crystal ocean liner. Boy, was I insulted when my story wasn't chosen for the class play! Mrs. Brown said she chose someone else's because it provided more parts for the whole class.
I pouted so much that Mrs. Brown bought a funny, green, gloomy ceramic figure. She said he was called "The Grudge" and that people who held a grudge looked just like him. Too bad! I continued to pout over the insult to my script.
Since Mama was working, Grandmother walked all the way to my school (she didn't drive) to be in the audience for our sea life play. Even though it wasn't my script, I played a crab (did Mrs. Brown cast these parts?) and felt quite the actress with my brief lines. The author of the script had agreed to use my staging of the play, which was for us to make big cardboard puppets to put on sticks that could be danced and walked above a blue-dyed sheet that represented the sea. In this way, we could hide behind the scenery and didn't have to memorize our lines!
At the end of that year, Mrs. Brown retired. Mama found a letter Mrs. Brown wrote to me from her retirement house in Ventura. Mrs. Brown praised my reading and had the good grace not to mention my brattiness to her