CREATIVE NONFICTION: ‘School Days’

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My sixth grade class photo.

Public education has changed dramatically since my early school days; interactive white boards have replaced chalkboards, Power Points have replaced filmstrips, kids are no longer taught to write in cursive. Yet some things will never change.

My husband can name every single one of his elementary school teachers, including his principal. Of course who can forget a principal named Pascal Goodness? Apparently he was as nice as his name. My early memories of Lee Road School are quite random; specific names elude me until fifth grade. Instead, I am left with a series of images: playing show-and-tell in Kindergarten, using Dick and Jane Readers, freezing at the bus stop because girls weren’t allowed to wear pants to school, and wearing a plastic corsage to my sixth grade graduation where we all sang the Four Seasons smash hit “Ronnie.” So too, I will never forget lining up in the cafeteria as they distributed the Sabin polio vaccine in a sugar cube, or being sent home in the middle of the day after the Kennedy assassination.

My first teacher-related memory is from second grade. My classmates and I diligently constructed paper-maché bunnies for weeks. One day after recess we discovered that several bunnies had been thrown out, including mine. Were they musty or moldy? Maybe. I was extremely timid; the mere act of raising my hand in class set my heart pounding wildly. But when my classmates began to whine about this transgression, I did too. I’ll never know why, but our teacher singled me out and I was sent straight to the principal’s office. I hung my head in shame and dutifully complied. To make matters worse, this unnamed teacher marched the entire class down to the principal’s office in order to collect me later. I can only wonder if this was just convenient for her? Perhaps we were on our way to gym or music or maybe yet another outdoor recess?

In third grade we had to memorize a poem to recite in front of the class. I chose “My Shadow” by Robert Louis Stevenson. I stood in front of the class trembling, barely reaching the third stanza, “He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play, and can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.” I so related.

Our fourth grade class put on a play about the Civil War. We practiced the song “John Brown’s Body” together in Chorus. Everyone was required to audition. I nabbed a minor role with three or four lines. Patti Levine was cast in the lead. I attended practices religiously and memorized everyone’s lines. When Patti fell sick on the day of the play, I was asked to take over her role. I vehemently declined. It was bad enough that I was then enlisted to lead the pledge of alliance.

My fifth grade teacher was Miss Cohen. She played the guitar and spent hours teaching us the ancient art of Origami. I mastered paper cranes, boxes, and frogs. This came in handy during Saturday services in temple as I sat next to the Rabbi’s daughter, proudly demonstrating my new-found ability using the weekly flyer. Miss Cohen had us rewrite the ending melody to the “Star-Spangled Banner” to make it easier to sing. I don’t know if this was in response to an actual contest, or just her idea of fun.

Mr. Adler was my sixth-grade teacher. I remember rushing to be first in line when we played weekly trivia games. This motivated me to memorize all the state capitals as well as master the use of dictionary guide words, skills no longer essential for the modern student. A while ago, I was looking through some old family pictures and I found my only surviving school photograph, taken at the end of sixth grade. I’m seated in the first row, the short girl row, wearing a pale yellow dress with puff sleeves. There’s a hot dog pin dangling from my pointed flat collar and a white plastic bow-shaped barrette in my hair. I’m not sure what’s up with my bangs, perhaps I cut them myself? It makes me smile.

I can only wonder what today’s student will remember as they look back many years later at their primary school years? But then I am reminded of the words of Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

–Ellen Mandel