“Beginnings are scary, endings are usually sad, but it’s what’s in the middle that counts. So when you find yourself at the beginning, just give hope a chance to float up. And it will.”
~from the movie “Hope Floats”
As a youngster, I was extremely shy. My mom said I literally hid behind her dress or skirt wherever we went, especially when someone tried to talk to me. This was cause for great concern and made my parents extra nervous about how I would do once I started school.
I never heard them discussing this matter, but I’m sure their confidence in me was fairly low. They were probably thinking, Abnormally shy and carries a doll around with her everywhere she goes. Why doesn’t Dr. Spock have a chapter about this in his book? We’ll just act like she’s normal and wait for ‘that’ call from the school,” using air quotation marks as they emphasized the word “that. Not long after I began my journey in public education, though, a close friend of my mother’s observed me at school and later remarked, “She walked down the hall like she owned the place.”
Beginnings are always scary. There’s nothing like venturing into the unknown, exploring strange new worlds while also having to learn the social hierarchy. For me, starting Kindergarten presented an extra challenge since I was going to do so with the use of only one arm.
“Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” proved to be more than true as I was showing off a few weeks before school started while climbing up Janis Lewis’ towering tree house. Each step I took was filled with determination. “This is my Everest,” I muttered as I kept my eyes ever upward, focused on my distant destination. Halfway up, I turned, waved and yelled, “Hey! Y’all look at me! Woo-hoo!” At the same moment I was applauding my act of bravery, I lost my grip on the tree house ladder, plummeted to the ground and landed with a “thud.”
The hysterics were Oscar-worthy as my mom ran over and swooped me off the ground, tossed me in the car, and sped to the emergency room. After the doctor declared my arm was broken, I was the recipient of a plaster cast which had to be covered with a Sunbeam bread wrapper whenever I took a bath. As casts go, it was unattractive, dingy and began to emit a putrid odor after a couple of weeks.
Kindergarten was not mandatory in those days, and the Kindergarten I attended was only half a day. It was kind of a warm up or dress rehearsal for my upcoming adventures in elementary school. The only thing I thought was a bit unusual at the Christ Episcopal Kindergarten was we had to wear beanies on our heads when we attended chapel. It took me several years to figure out that wasn’t a Kindergarten thing, but rather an Anglican thing.
Socially, in my first year of schooling, I learned to share, to be kind to others, and to tell elaborate and possibly fictitious stories during Show and Tell. It seemed we all tried to outdo and “one-up” each other by competing for the unspoken honor of creating the wildest story.
In 1969, a little over a month after man first set foot on the moon, I set foot on the Raguet Elementary School campus as a first grader. My school was named after Anna Raguet, a young lady who resided in Nacogdoches in the 1830s and was courted by Sam Houston. Miss Raguet eventually abandoned any future plans with President Houston and instead married Robert Irion, Houston’s Secretary of State. Just like Anna Raguet when she first moved to Texas, I had the whole world before me, and was equipped to conquer new frontiers with my Big Chief tablet, “Family Affair” lunchbox, and a cigar box filled with fat pencils, paste, scissors, crayons, and erasers.
One of the things I remember most about first grade was the “caste system” and how quickly I was forced to learn about the social groups: the glue sniffers and paste eaters, the pencil chewers and tappers, the runny/snotty nose kids and nose-pickers, the teacher pleasers and the chronic troublemakers, the bus riders, the car riders and the walkers, the hot lunch line kids and the lunch box kids, and unfortunately, the kids who threw up at school, causing Mr. Sego, the custodian, to make a trip to our classroom. Just like clockwork, he would arrive with a disgusted smirk on his face, pushing his cart with the stinky old mop and bucket filled with dirty looking water and a can of that nasty chemical smelling concoction which was sprinkled on vomit to make it easier to clean up. Standing in front of the classroom in his faded blue jumpsuit uniform, which was almost as wrinkled as his face, he examined the frightened and nauseated students and rhetorically asked, “Who made this mess? Did you make this mess?” Shivers ran down our collective spines as we avoided eye contact, knowing the real culprit was safely with the nurse while we were left to endure Mr. Sego’s wrath.
In the delicate ecosystem of our elementary school, there were also many different forms of punishment for those offenders who didn’t always stay on the “straight and narrow.” Some teachers required students to write sentences, a punishment handed out when one of my friends got crossways with Mrs. Rayburn. (some names in this blog have been changed, or have been left out in order to protect the innocent, or not-so-innocent)
Mrs. Rayburn was the language arts teacher who was moved to our grade level after a long stint in the first grade. We rolled our eyes when she repeatedly and musically chanted, “One, two, three. Are you ready to work with me?” Did she think we were a bunch of babies? We were fifth graders, the top of the food chain; the cool kids of the school.
The arrogance and tolerance level of our group of rebel-rousers may have proven to be more than our teacher bargained for, as we mimicked her daily at the same point in “The Pledge of Allegiance” when she religiously and on cue reached up with her left hand and yanked on her brassiere. The girls in our class who were lucky enough to wear bras, actually snapped theirs in unison along with Mrs Rayburn. The rest of us were just left to pretend and dream.
I’ll never forget the day when one of my best friends became the recipient of Mrs. Rayburn’s wrath. I can’t for the life of me remember what Lee did, but her punishment was to write four pages of sentences, front and back. My friend had the clever idea of writing the sentences in invisible ink. Once she was finished, she proudly handed the stack of notebook paper to the teacher, who took one look at the blank pages and yelled, “You have exactly one minute to get this finished and turned in to me, or I’m calling your mama.”
On the way back to her desk, my friend mumbled to herself, “You can call my mama if you want. My daddy’s on the school board and he can have your job.” When my ever creative and intelligent friend reached her desk, she pulled out the invisible ink pen, used the tip that is like a marker and makes the ink appear, and scribbled it over all the pages.
To Mrs. Rayburn’s amazement, the student had the sentences completed and ready to hand in within a minute. It was a miracle! We could almost hear the angels in the room singing, “Hallelujah,” but I guarantee there were no angels in that classroom. The invisible ink charade was an epic achievement in the eyes of her fellow classmates and I know, without a doubt, the story has been passed down through the ages and is still repeated and whispered about in the hallowed halls of Raguet Elementary.
In addition to sentence writing as a form of discipline, some teachers drew a circle on the chalkboard and had misbehaving students face the board, and put their nose in the middle of the circle. This worked well until a student with chalk dust allergies was sentenced to hard time on the blackboard. What an icky mess!
Other student offenders were banished to the hall and had to stand there while the rest of the class did their school work. Many teachers had methods similar to the “color changes” of today. It was that particular form of punishment which was handed down to me during my early elementary years.
The journey to my downfall all began on an ordinary day out on the playground during recess when a boy named Billy, who was the king of the playground, informed me and everyone else within earshot that I was “nothin’ but a pile of shit.” I had no idea what this meant, but knew it wasn’t very complimentary and that something must be done to stop the spread of this slanderous statement.
Being the law and order type girl I was, I ran as fast as I could to tattle on him. The first adult I saw was our student teacher. “Miss, hey, Miss,” I breathlessly wailed. “Billy said I was nothin’ but a pile of shit, and he yelled it out on the playground in front of EVERYONE.”
I could tell instantly by the appalled look on the student teacher’s face that Billy was in for it! Justice would be served! I was further convinced of Billy’s fate when the student teacher silently walked me inside our classroom and led me to the bulletin board which had an apple tree with apples covering it. Each student had an apple hanging on the tree with his/her name on it and whenever someone did something bad or inappropriate his/her apple fell off the tree. I was eagerly watching, waiting for Billy’s rotten apple to drop to the ground. Imagine the humiliation I endured when, instead, my apple fell in disgrace. I wasn’t sure what in tarnation just happened, but I learned a valuable lesson that day. Don’t say “shit” even if you’re just repeating it, and no one is above the law, especially tattle-tales.
The ultimate form of punishment for students at Raguet Elementary was usually one of last resort and that was being sent to the principal’s office. Mr. Pool was one of the nicest, kindest, friendliest men in the world, but according to playground folklore, one did not want to be sent to his office for anything.
Rumor had it that hidden deep within the confines of Mr. Pool’s desk drawer was an electric paddle. Some unfortunate students claimed to have seen it; others had only heard about it from older siblings. Knowledge of its existence was enough to strike the fear of God into most of us and we couldn’t begin to imagine the pain and suffering that this early form of terrorism wrought on its victims. The electric paddle was so legendary there was even a song made up about it, and on any given day on the playground you could hear students belting out the warning to all who were smart enough to listen to the tune of the Army’s “Caisson Song”:
“Over land, over sea,
Over Mr. Pool’s knee,
There’s a paddlin’ awaitin’ for you.”
Fortunately, for me, I never came face to face with the electric paddle. My elementary school days were mostly filled with joy, laughter, curiosity, learning and friends. From marriages performed on the playground between two tall oak trees, to the less than friendly “slam books,” lasting relationships were formed and millions of memories made. Times were so much simpler then, when the biggest worry was if your name was going to be the one called in a game of Red Rover, or if you were the unlucky one selected to dump Mrs. Wallace’s lunch tray, which always consisted of the remains of a grapefruit and remnants of tuna fish.
In those days, we truly believed our PF Flyers made us run faster, and when we grew up we could become anything we wanted to be. Dreams could and did come true as we finally made it to fifth grade and became members of the Safety Patrol, donning orange vests and spouting out the orders of “Flags in. Flags out.”
We had milk breaks, and school plays, art and music, and recess. We took achievement tests, which I never remember getting results from and they certainly didn’t define me as a student or person. We were expected to learn to read and write and do arithmetic without taking a state mandated test. Teachers were allowed to be creative and students actually copied assignments from the board on notebook paper. Mimeographed worksheets were not used often and were a special treat because we didn’t have to do as much writing, but mostly because some students enjoyed sniffing the fumes that remained on the paper. Guilty as charged.
We survived without air conditioning and computers and watching a film strip from a film strip projector was exciting, especially if you were selected to advance the filmstrip at the sound of the “beep.” Times were simpler, more innocent, and carefree.
I grew up to become an educator and after years of dealing with a vast array of students, I feel that I should send thank you notes as well as letters of apology to all those elementary teachers who shared their knowledge and love of learning with me.
To Mrs. Cox, my second grade teacher and family friend, thank you for reading to us every day. Your enthusiasm and expression inspired me to become a lifelong reader.
To Mrs. Brice, who was “nice like a bowl full of rice,” thank you for your ladylike and professional demeanor. You treated all of us with respect and for us, you always had great expectations.
To Mrs. Hees, thank you for encouraging me to be creative and to do so with confidence.
To Mrs. Parker, thank you for cultivating within us a love of art as you challenged us to be original through many crafts and projects.
To Mrs. Jackson, thank you for taking the fear out of math. You always had a smile on your face and your sense of fashion was flawless.
And to Mr. Pool, thank you for being a leader who led with love, not intimidation.
When I applied for my first teaching job, I listed Mr. Pool as a reference (At that time, I was a substitute teacher on the JH campus where he was principal).
One summer day, I received a call from a principal in a school district around Dallas who wanted to interview me for a teaching position. I had already accepted a job, but thanked him for calling. Before I could hang up, he said, “You need to take Eli Pool out for a cup of coffee. In all my years in education, I’ve never had someone give such a glowing recommendation for anyone.”
Sadly, I didn’t ever have the chance to take Mr. Pool out for that cup of coffee, but I think of him often, especially on Veterans’ Day when “the caissons go rolling along.”