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26 August 2005 — First Grade (9)

How much can you remember about first grade?

In a recent entry, Denise wrote about her top five childhood memories, and then challenged me to do the same. I've been cogitating over the assignment for several days now, but I can't seem to order my childhood memories into a "top five"-type structure. Every time I try, I find myself — Proust-like — washed away to the past, overwhelmed by the memories and emotions of a specific era. This morning, as I soaked in a hot bath in a darkened room, I was overwhelmed by memories of first-grade.

On my first day of school, I wasn't frightened about my teacher (old Mrs. Onion), or about the other kids, or about the school itself. I was frightened about the bus. "Do I need money for the bus?" I asked Mom. I'd lived half my life in Portland, and remembered that when we rode the bus, we needed to have change. "I don't know," she said. She gave me some change just in case. Mom waited with me at the bus stop. I held the change in my hand. When the bus came, I climbed aboard and held out my handful of change for the bus driver. She laughed. "You don't need that," she said. "This bus is free."

The school itself was overwhelming, but not frightening. I got lost, and another teacher had to show me to my classroom. Everything was so big: big hallways, big classrooms, big desks. I was used to our tiny trailer house. The school was something of another world.

From the start, I was fascinated by letters and words. Around the perimeter of the room, near the ceiling, Mrs. Onion had posted a series of cards representing the letters of the alphabet. Each card had an upper-case letter, a lower-case letter, and some scene representing the sound the letter made. (For example, on the F card there was a picture of a black cat, its back arched in fear. We were to imagine the cat going fffff, fffff in fright. The R card showed an airplane: an airplane goes rrrrr.) All of these pictures were tied together in a serialized story that Mrs. Onion read to us, one chapter (and one letter) per day.

Once we'd mastered our letters, we began to read. The classroom contained a set of star reader books. I especially remember those by Ann Hughes: The Wee Light, We Feed a Deer, etc. These were fascinating not just because they introduced me to reading, but because they introduced me to a whole new world. What was this word "wee"? I'd never heard it before. The Wee Light was a story about a firefly, but what was a firefly? I'd never heard of one of those before, either. (And to this day, I've never actually seen one. Except the fake ones on Pirates of the Caribbean.) From the very beginning, books took me to places I'd never been.

As we learned to read, Mrs. Onion taught us about homonyms, words that sound the same but which are spelled differently (and which mean different things). She had built mobiles that hung from the ceiling. Each mobile contained a set of homonyms: "through/threw", "ant/aunt", "bald/bawled", "buy/bye/by", "there/their", "dear/deer", etc. (It's amusing that despite this early training, to this day I have a hell of a time writing "threw" instead of "through".) I loved learning about homonyms; they were the first inkling I had that language could be fun.

I wasn't a smart kid in the first grade, but I did like to read. I began to read whatever I could find. My grandmother's house yielded some of my favorite books: among the religious tracts, I found The Bobbsey Twins and The Tower Treasure. The latter was the first book in the Hardy Boys series. I read it near the end of first grade, and from then on I was hooked. I read every Hardy Boys book I could find. I amassed a collection.

As much as I loved to read, and as much as I loved the school's library, I loved recess more. I had grown up in the country, with no playmates my age nearby. Once every few months I could spend a Sunday after church with Evan Stephens or Chip Engleman, but mostly I played with Jeff. School was a revelation. Here were scores of children my age, scores of playmates. I was wild with glee. Recess was a time of mad races, ball games, and wild swinging from the monkey bars. Looking back, I can see that even then I had trouble socializing. Being raised without other kids nearby put me at a disadvantage socially. I've never fully recovered.

My social development was stunted in other ways. My family did not own a television. (Though I'm pleased with this in retrospect, in 1975 this seemed like a crime against humanity. Or at least against me.) All of the other children had televisions. They talked about television incessantly. Happy Days (with the Fonz!) and Laverne and Shirley were the most popular shows among my peers, though a certain subsection of boys (myself included) loved The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman. The Sunday nights I was allowed to stay at a friend's house to watch The Six Million Dollar Man were ecstasy! Sometimes a babysitter would bring over a portable television on Friday night, and I'd get to watch Welcome Back Kotter. I was familiar enough with the characters to talk about the show at school.

For Christmas, I received a Six Million Dollar Man movie viewer. The viewer was a little device you held up to your eye. You put a movie cartridge in and cranked the handle to watch a looping clip of video action a few seconds long. I took my Six Million Dollar Man movie viewer to show-and-tell. I was proud of it. None of the other kids seemed that impressed, but then they had televisions and could watch Steve Austen whenever they pleased. For my birthday, I received an Evil Knievel stunt cycle. I loved this, too, and took it for show-and-tell.

First grade marked a widening of my world. Each week, one parent would come and give a presentation on his or her career. One child's father worked at the paper mill in Oregon City. He brought a sample of paper pulp, and then passed out free paper to everyone. Another father was a doctor. He brought his stethoscope and held its cold metal disc to our chests. At this time, my parents had recently started Harvest Mills; we were manufacturing wheat grinders and food dryers out of our house. When it was her turn to share her career, Mom brought in food dryer and handed out dried fruit. The kids loved it. I was happy and proud.

My world was also broadened by our field trips. We took a trip to the Portland Children's Museum, and there I was introduced to dinosaurs. Like all first grade boys, I became obsessed with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs were awesome. On another field trip, we took a train ride. And at the end of the year, we took a field trip to Marc Anderson's farm where we got a hay ride, petted the animals, and — best of all — drank Pop Shoppe pop. (Holy cats! According to this, the Pop Shoppe has been reborn!)

First grade wasn't all fun and games, of course. It was work. And sometimes it was hell. Mrs. Onion was old and crotchety. She wasn't mean, but she couldn't relate to children; hers was a 1920s mind coping with kids of the 1970s. Like my father, she practiced the shotgun approach to discipline. When something happened that required punishment, and she couldn't determine who was guilty, she punished everyone. Once, somebody in back of the class swore. It wasn't me. (I was deathly afraid of swearing until fifth or sixth grade; I thought that swearing was a sure path to hell.) But the swearer would not confess. Four or five us that might have been the swearer were herded together and marched to the sink. Mrs. Onion washed our mouths out with soap. I cried and cried but to no avail.

My first grade year ended in 1976. Because of this, all of the history we learned was focused on the Revolutionary War era. We learned about George Washington and Paul Revere and the Boston Tea Party. We learned all sorts of patriotic anthems. (My favorite was "America the Beautiful" because one time Mrs. Onion had her son bring in some slides he had made to go along with the song. I loved the Purple Mountains' Majesty.) We recited the Pledge of Allegiance:

I plejalejuns to the flag of the unituhstatesuvamerica and tothupublic forwichistanz, one nation, under god, indivizbol, with libuhtyajustusfurall.
At the end of the year, our grade school put on a Bicentennial Celebration. It was a huge to-do. The Bicentennial Celebration was my first exposure to planned pageantry, and to rampant patriotism. It was overwhelming. For weeks, our class rehearsed its dance number in the grade school gym. Then, on the day of the pageant, we gathered at the high school auditorium. We were given costumes, including uncomfortable powdered wigs, and we were ushered on stage where we marched in circles and sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Our parents must have been so proud!

First grade was a good year. But so then were all the years thereafter. I loved school, even high school.

On this day at foldedspace.org

2004The Astonishing Ant-Man   Why haven't you, the average American, ever heard of Ant-Man? Because he's lame.

2003Little Things   In which cats are wonderful creatures. In which Lisa gives birth to a cat. In which I drove home listening to Italian Mexican music. In which I waste time and money on a game.

2002Abba Gold   A symptom of hope or a symptom of despair? This morning, Tony and I had a disagreement over ownership of the Abba CD that he had in his car. I claim it for my own, but he insists it's his.

On 26 August 2005 (09:33 AM), Jeff said:

"I loved school, even high school."

I just don't understand that. I pretty much hated school from start to finish. Sure, there were some fun times, but there was never a time when I wouldn't have rather been doing something else.

On 26 August 2005 (11:17 AM), Tiffany said:

Were you looking for other peoples memories of 1st grade? I could not really tell.

I have trouble separating 1st and 2nd grade memories because we lived at George AFB and I went to the same school both years. We lived at George AFB for my 3rd grade, but Mom moved me to a different school for that grade so that I was at the school where she worked.
I remember walking to school each morning, and passing the huge red ant hills. I had a great fear of ants while living at George (still do) after getting attacked by ants on our front sidewalk. The ant hills in the big lot in front of the school were huge, as high as my little knees and the path went right by a number of them.
I knew my letters and was reading before 1st grade (I think), but I remember loving the idea of math and numbers. I was good at math from the beginning.
I had a cast on my left wrist and hit a girl with it. She had tried to cut in line and got a concussion as a result. I remember hitting her, but do not remember getting in trouble for doing, which I am sure I did. I think that was 2nd grade.
I remember more after school memories then in school. I bet if I looked at my old school photos I could remember more, and tell you what happened each year.

On 26 August 2005 (11:21 AM), mac said:

Aren't there fireflies in Minnesota? When Pam and I reminisce about living in Philly, the one thing that always comes up is the fireflies. We loved them--and miss them. School however, I do not miss; I've spent a lot of time in school.

On 26 August 2005 (01:14 PM), Lynn said:

My strongest memories of 1st grade include the following:

My brothers were all in high school and I rode in my oldest brother's VW bug to school each morning. One day, I decided I didn't want to go and refused to get out. It was quite a scene and they were all mad at me.

Mean Mrs. Levins patrolled the playground and we used to sing "on top of old smokey, all covered in blood, I shot Mrs. Levins with red rubberband."

A boy named Mike Moody used to write me love letters and sign them "Moody Mike." His sister didn't like me and once trapped me in the bathroom and threatened to beat me up - and she was a third grader! I hid in the stall while she shouted, "I know you're in there!" and occasionally banged on the door.

I had a birthday party and forgot to invite one girl. When we all lined up to get on the bus, I realized my mistake. She cowered in the corner of the room and cried. I felt horrible. My wonderful teacher, Mrs. Merriman, called both of our moms and arranged for her to attend.

Unlike JD, I don't remember what we learned, other than reading. And I don't really remember that, I just know that's what you do in first grade.

On 26 August 2005 (07:38 PM), Kristin said:

I remember those alphabet cards with the fffff-ing cat. Hmmm--that doesn't read so well. Anyway, The Wee Light also sticks in my memory because of an unfortunate incident in which I apparently zoned out while Mrs. Miller was explaining to us a new reading program. The idea was to read books at home and have our parents initial slips of paper with the titles. The more slips of paper we accumulated, the more "money" we would have to spend on "store day." To get us started, we all read The Wee Light in class together, with Mrs Miller signing our first slip. When the first store day rolled around I had only that one slip, Mrs. Miller really scolded me. This was the girl who already knew how to read upon entering 1st grade, who even read to the class at story time on occasion--from the Mother West Wind books. I was shamed but surprised, as I really had not understood the assignment. By the next store day I had recovered and was able to buy something wonderful like a pink plastic ring with a silly fuzzy face on it. Pop Shoppe--I totally forgot about that!

On 27 August 2005 (10:07 AM), Lisa said:

We drank Pop Shoppe sodas using a Red Twist as a straw (bite off either end). It left red scum at the bottom of the bottle, but no one seemed to mind.

I've never seen fireflies either--it's on my list of things to do.

I grew up without a TV too. I never minded much (I watched plenty while babysitting when I was older) and now we're doing the same thing to Albert. He'll be culturally illiterate too.

On 27 August 2005 (03:20 PM), John said:

What you call fireflies, we here in the Ozarks call "lightning bugs". Seeing the first lightning bug at dusk was an event, much like the first robin of spring or the first frost.

I wasn't aware that they weren't present in parts of the country. They're even in New England, as my father recalls catching them as a boy in Boston.

Some of the kids would tear the glowing rear ends off the poor creatures and smear the bioluminscent material to whatever struck their fancy. I remember kids running around with eerily glowing hands as a result.

Okay, enough with the gruesome stuff. Sitting on a porch on a warm summer evening watching lightning bugs can be very enjoyable, it's almost like having your own personal meteor shower. They don't seem to notice people, so a bug can be hovering right in front of your face and flash. It's not startling or alarming (it's really a glow, not a flash), but it can be a little bit distracting.

And it IS fun to catch these little bugs, hold one in your hand, and marvel that their light produces no heat.

On 27 August 2005 (08:37 PM), Amy Jo said:

Fireflies were one of the best things about living in Alexandria. We would sit in our backyard, beer or wine in hand, and watch them twitch about, and say, ah, so this is what all the fuss is about.

On 29 August 2005 (09:13 AM), Aimee said:

I don't remember seeing fireflies in Minnesota while I was growing up, but South Dakota has a thriving population ... Every summer night this year, our backyard was alight with them. To me, they look like the moment after somebody has just stoked a bonfire and all the red-hot ashes fly up on the wind and then gently fall down ...

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