Elementary ThingsPosted: January 23, 2008
In fourth grade Johnny Kenney told me there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I told Miss Phelps on him. I was counting on her for reassurance, but she clamped her mouth shut. She was a tall woman with wide hips and skinny bowed legs and black hair in a bun. She was an old maid with a long chin and a pointed nose, and she was the sweetest schoolteacher ever. Miss Phelps made a smacking sound with her thin lips. “Well,” she said, letting out a long breath. “I’m not going to say a word.”
Oh, no, I thought, as my heart sank to my knees. There must be something true about big fat Johnny’s revelation. It knocked the wind out of me, and I felt like there were thunderstorm clouds instead of snow clouds descending on me. I’d have to work hard to try and pull the pieces of my shattered childhood back together. That Christmas, I tried to ignore the possibility that Santa didn’t exist, but the seed of the idea was still there and set in, spreading like mold on bread, to spoil my joy. It made me grow up faster than I wanted to.
In fifth grade during a rainy day recess, I was sitting in the back of my classroom talking to my friends and drawing a picture on a sheet of notebook paper. I’d loved to draw all my life, everything from girls with pigtails and ribbons to paper doll clothes. I was pretty good at it. When Mrs. Wright walked in the room, though, I covered my drawing with my hand and pulled it toward me because I truly lacked confidence that I was good at it and didn’t want anyone to see it. That made her think I was drawing something nasty, and she accused me. I got fussed at in front of the whole class, and no matter what I said she didn’t believe me. I had to give her my picture so she could see for herself that I was telling the truth. I felt dirty, exposed, like a naked puppy dog rolled over on its back with all its little nipples showing. That’s when I learned you’re always guilty until proven innocent. I didn’t draw much after that.
My sixth grade class was all boys, except for six girls. There were constant barrages from the boys — jokes and words I didn’t understand. I hadn’t a clue what was going on around me, except that there was a lot of muffled snickering. And then one day Ina Jean Durham taught me a new word that started with the letter “f” and she defined it in great medical detail. Now, Ina Jean didn’t make good grades, even in spelling and vocabulary, but I think she could’ve gotten an A on this subject. She told me my parents even did the deed she described. I almost vomited thinking about that, but I figured they’d only done it twice, because a baby was the end result of that act and they only had two.
I didn’t dare tell Mrs. Waldrop on Ina Jean, but when I got home that afternoon, I told Mama I’d learned a new word. Mama looked up from her pressure cooker full of peas steaming and hissing a warning. She had shock all over her face. Later that night, she pulled out a book titled Being Born and said she’d been saving it for me. “Here,” she said. “Read this and you’ll know everything.” That was my Birds and Bees talk — a one-sentence summary of the facts of life, as well as everything I’d need to know on my wedding night.
I knew then that the f-word was for real, and the act it defined really went on behind closed doors. I wanted to go backwards and not know. I felt cheated out of my childhood.
It seemed that all adults were flawed. They were weak-kneed, they could be downright mean, they were suspicious, they had all this nonsensical stuff going on, and this one f-word was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard of. Who in the world could’ve conjured up something so far-fetched? Adults really needed something better to do besides sitting around figuring out what body parts fit where. And I really didn’t need to know about all this. But I did know. It did, however, shed some light on the boys’ hushed remarks.
Another thing about sixth grade was that the superintendent wanted all the sixth graders to learn Spanish in their classrooms. The junior high had a language lab and would offer foreign language to gifted students the following year, but for now, everybody would have a dose of Beginning Spanish. The flawed thinking here was that every teacher could teach the language. It’s one thing to teach long division and sentence diagramming, but another thing entirely to teach the correct pronunciation of another country’s language when you’ve never heard it before.
My teacher was a rich farmer’s wife and didn’t have to teach for the money, like Mama did. She just taught because she wanted something to do. She said adios with a southern accent … and she didn’t even get that right.
I knew she wasn’t saying the words right, because I was already learning Spanish at home. There was a TV program every afternoon with Mrs. Blue from Arkansas. She made her two boys come on the air with her to repeat her drills. They sat in little wooden chairs at a little wooden table. The two Blue Boys and I learned Spanish together. I was eager for those thirty-minute segments. I soaked in the words.
After too many of my annoying corrections to her diction, Mrs. Waldrop announced that I would be teaching the class. She meant it, too. And so every day from then on out, I stood in the front of my classroom and at the age of eleven, I taught twenty boys and five girls how to speak Spanish. God only knows what those boys were slurring about me behind fists they held in front of their mouths, but by golly, they listened and they learned. And in seventh grade, based on test scores, some of us were pulled out and put in a real Spanish language lab and learned from a real Spanish teacher, Mrs. Stigler, and I became a lowly student again.
All in all, I saw that adults had the same problems kids did. They didn’t know all the answers, they didn’t believe, they didn’t trust, they did a lot of pretending, they didn’t always do the best thing, but sometimes they got it right.