Adventures in Grammar School, 1960s style
Once I got to fourth grade, it was a whole new world. Larry had moved on to junior high and was no longer on campus. Even though his hours had been different for school, it had been a comfort to know he was right there. And I loved it when students or teachers would ask, "Are you Larry's little sister?" With him at another school, I was afraid people might forget I was his sister.
My fourth and fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Munzinger. I think she went to fifth grade with us because she loved our class. I will never believe it was a random administrative decision.
Everyone who didn't have her was afraid of her. Mrs. Munzinger was very strict. She was short (about 5 feet tall) and fat (plump?). If I saw her today, I might say she was just muscular in body and rounded of face. She did have little piggy eyes though and big, chunky cheeks. She emphasized arithmetic and p.e. We had races on our math papers every single day. Whoever finished in the top three with the answers all correct was able to help her correct papers. We fought for that privilege by studying and practicing our multiplication and division.
Our social studies that year covered the history of California and the geography of the United States. I can still picture the book telling of a journey across the United States by car. The family sounded just like ours except the kids were always getting into trouble at each stop or destination.
Mrs. Munzinger loved sports. She encouraged us to learn to shoot basketballs, run fast from base to base in softball, and to learn some strategy for kickball. She did not like sissified girls or allow squealing or running or throwing "like a girl." No wonder I loved her! She was just like my dad and my brother! My kickball team did so well that we were in the playoffs! We beat the 5th graders but lost a close game to the 6th graders. I played shortstop on the kickball team.
We also learned square dancing. Even though this was a time when kids thought the opposite sex had cooties, Mrs. Munzinger got us together in dancing squares, taught us the language of the square dance, and made us hold hands for the promenades. We even learned to polka! On Friday afternoons, we pushed all the desks back to the walls after lunch, and spent the rest of the afternoon dancing. Sometimes we would dance outdoors on the playground, using an extension cord for the record player.
I missed Mrs. Munzinger when we moved to Florida in January. I don't remember my Florida teacher's name. I do remember that I had to catch up on the geography and history of Florida. I took the workbook home and finished all the lessons in one weekend, to my teacher's surprise. The Florida school was also holding a book report contest, something right up my alley!
I chose to read little blue books in a series of biographies about famous Americans. Each book was about 100 pages long. I read one or two of those every day. I loved them, learning all about the childhoods and steps to fame of people like Dollie Madison, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Sam Houston. I didn't have many friends in Florida, Larry was busy with his own studies, and reading those books was a distinct escape and pleasure though often I got headaches from reading too long.
We moved back to California toward the end of the Florida school year in May, before the contest winners were declared. I was thrilled to receive in the mail a book report prize: Children Everywhere, a book of stories and poems that I still have.
In the fall of that year, I was back in Mrs. Munzinger's class with many of my friends from the 4th grade. We knew all the routines: the arithmetic races, the square dancing, and sports. In 5th grade though, we began to work in earnest on U.S. History. Mrs. Munzinger created a timeline around the room's chalkboard, highlighting all the explorers. We learned about new people, like the Cabots, not just about Columbus and the Pilgrims.
Basketball replaced kickball as the sport of the year. Mrs. Munzinger taught anyone willing to learn how to score a basketball game in the scorebook. It was fun to be surrounded by the players at the end of the game as they found out who scored how many points.
I ran for secretary of the student council. I wonder if Mrs. Munzinger rigged the election in my favor? She had made a campaign poster for me: a stop sign that said, "Stop here. Vote for Eileen Clemens." She hung the sign at the main intersection of walkways on the way to the cafeteria. I question the election because at that time I was severely overweight from the cortisone treatments my kidney disease required. No matter what, kids always pick on fat kids. I don't think they would have voted for me.
I did win though, and I ended up running the meetings for the elected 6th grader. He was a handsome boy who had won the presidency, but unlike my smart and responsible brother, the president two years before, The new president, Jackie, didn't know Parliamentary Procedure, and the teachers didn't insist he learn it. For some reason, student council was disbanded when I was in 6th grade. I had wanted to run for president.
Because kids were so mean about my weight, I started walking home for lunch. It took 10-15 minutes each way. That way, I didn't have to sit in the lunchroom where people might say, "Gosh, you don't eat very much for such a fat girl." I missed out on playing at recess, but I usually had 10 minutes or so after the round-trip walk and quick healthy lunch. One time on the way home as I passed Mar Vista High School, some high school kids were making remarks about my weight. I said, "Shut your black mouth. Only evil comes out of it." That must have been an allusion to one of the books I was always reading (Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew in this time period)
During the summer before my 6th grade year, Mama decided that the cortisone wasn't working and that the side effects were too devastating. She started giving me a high protein drink for lunch and cut the cortisone dosage until I stopped taking it altogether. I was happy to be off that powerful drug that turned my skin a brownish color, made me gain between 40 and 50 pounds, and in general made my life miserable.
When school started in September, I had lost all the excess weight! Mama bought me a black felt circle skirt with a poodle applique on it. The first day of class, people pointed at me and asked, "Who is that new girl?" They were quite surprised to find it was a new, skinny Eileen Clemens.
Mrs. Pearson taught our 6th grade. What a relief--I had been I afraid I would get crotchedy old Mrs. Estes, a neighbor who never smiled and had the reputation of being MEAN. Mrs. Pearson was young and beautiful. She was tall and thin. She wore "Parisian" clothes, with "designer" touches like a scarf around her neck or a brooch on a shawl. She was the music teacher too; how we admired her clear soprano voice. When Mrs. Pearson needed throat surgery during the school year for polyps, we were devastated to have a sub, a little fat lady who wanted us to sing dumb songs like "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean." Plus, she couldn't even play the piano. I am afraid we were pretty mean to the sub.
I liked the independent research projects we did in 6th grade. I did one of cities, focusing on New Orleans where I was born but had no memories of, and I completed another report on folk tales. My friend Lyn did one on Jazz that was deemed so outstanding, she was asked to give her oral report to Mrs. Estes' class. Since Lyn and I were rivals as well as friends, that made me very jealous. I convinced Mrs. Pearson that I should give my folk tales report to the other class as well. My ego at that age astounds me today—I was pretty desperate for attention. The new baby in the family was getting all the perks at home—I even began pulling my hair out by its roots.
The spring concert that year was a huge event. We joined the chorus as well as the band I had started clarinet lessons in 4th grade when Poppa said he didn't want me to be a chorus girl. He made me quit ballet to Larry's relief. Larry said I was always lifting my leg in an arabesque or falling to the floor in a plie. He would shout, "She's lifting her leg again."
The chorus was a great thrill because, like my mom, I was convinced I really couldn't sing very well. But I was chosen for a soprano. I felt sorry for the altos who had to sing the low harmony and rarely had any melody. During the spring concert, I had to switch places from the chorus risers to the band on stage. This made me feel very multi-talented.
And since my friend Lyn had been selected to play in a clarinet quartet, I insisted to Mr. Pence, the band director, that I wanted to play a solo. Day after day, I practiced "Que Sera Sera." My friend Robert Syverson came over one afternoon. Joycie said I was practicing and couldn't come out. Robert asked incredulously, "That's Eileen playing? I thought it was a record." I was proud.
On the day of the concert though I was sorry I ever had dreamed up playing the solo. I was so nervous that I felt faint. The performer before me, Bill Homer, played "My Old Kentucky Home" on his trombone. Then it was my turn. I did manage to get through my solo with just a couple of squeaks and errors. Mama said Bill's solo was the best. I wanted it to be me—but my mother was always honest and not one to give compliments for no reason—self-esteem was not in the vocabulary in 1960. But Bill was very good.
Graduation from elementary school came in June. I was excited. For the event I was allowed to choose both the pattern and the material for the dress that Mama would make for me. I chose a full-skirted knee-length dress with a large white lace collar. The taffetas were on rolls placed high on the racks along the wall of the fabric store. Around and around the store I went, trying to choose a color. Sky blue? lilac? green? I eventually settled on a lime green. Mama made the dress just as I had pictured it and even constructed a full petticoat of netting in forest green and beige.
For some reason, when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma, the audience laughed. I don't know if it was just the big smile I had or if my dress stuck out funny in the back. Mama said it was because I strode so confidently forward to receive my handshake and my certificate. I remember Larry with her in the audience, but neither my step-dad Ronnie nor my Poppa came to see me graduate.