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
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