Wednesday, August 17, 2011

“First Grade Drop-Out”

            I started first grade at the age of five. Our school had no kindergarten and instead offered an option to start children a year early. My mother took advantage of this program as she played single parent while my father had an extended TDY overseas. With a three month old baby at home, she thought it less stressful to have me at school with my sister. Little did she know!
            My parents didn’t believe in frequent spanking. We really had to mess up before we’d get a smack on the rump. My first real encounters with corporeal punishment happened in the front of my first grade classroom. The gargantuan teacher would swoop down an aisle, capture a student by the arm within her talons, and drag an unsuspecting child to the front of the room. With her free hand, she’d reach for her favorite instrument of torture—the paddle. Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack! Then she’d send the crying kid to the office. I’d cringe in my chair, forever fearful of doing something to attract an attack. I never witnessed the behavior of my peers that caused the swoop, drag, thwack attack; so I lived in perpetual fear that one day I’d be the one in the front of the room.
            By October, I cried every morning before going to school. If my teacher walked down my row, I had one of two reactions—I peed my pants, or I fled the room. Much to my sister’s embarrassment, my favorite sanctuary became her fifth grade classroom. Her teacher, a kind soul, would suggest that Paula calm me down and take me back to my own room.
            One day, my panicked flight proved more than my teacher could endure, and she chased me down the hallway yelling, “Stop! Stop that girl!” as I skidded around the corner and tumbled into my sister’s room.
            “Paula! Don’t let that battle axe get me!” I screamed as I threw myself into my sister’s arms.
            By that time, my teacher gained momentum and bulled down the hallway. Nostrils flaring, she grabbed my arm and swung me into the air. “You will NOT have your sister help you today!” she declared as she stomped to the principal’s office with my sister trailing timidly behind us. I cemented my heels into the polished floor in resistance, but all to no avail.
            When we reached the office, my hysteria matched my teacher’s venom, with both of us overshadowing Paula’s mortification. I remember the instruction to sit and be quiet. I remember clutching my sister’s hand for support, I remember hearing the teacher’s voice rising heatedly behind the principal’s closed door. It didn’t take long for my mother to arrive, juggling Charles in a stroller. She shot us a concerned look and vanished behind the principal’s door.
            Eventually, the door opened and my mother’s tight lipped expression revealed nothing. She hugged Paula, thanked her for taking care of me, and sent her back to her classroom. Then she took me into the bathroom to wash the tears from my face.
            “Elizabeth Anne,” she began. “You will go back into that classroom, and you will stay in your chair. You will no longer run to Paula’s room. If you don’t do as I say, I’ll give you a spanking.”
            Defiance flooded my heart. I turned away from my mother and bent over, pulling my dress and petticoats up over my rump, I declared, “Then spank me!”
            My mother’s hand hit hard and true, but I still refused to go back into that classroom. This time my panic wrenched me into vomiting. At that point, my mother realized just how deep my fear ran. She returned to the principal’s office and retreated behind the door. I learned later that she pled for him to assign me to a different teacher. He responded, “I’m not letting a first grader, or her mother, run my school!”  
            The next morning, my hysteria made me so ill that my mother kept me home. I knew that the teacher would spank me if I stepped into her classroom again. No amount of reasoning or pleading could convince me otherwise, and another phone call to the school requesting a different teacher for me met with denial.
            My mother sought the advice of my sister’s teacher, a first-hand witness to much of the drama. Since the principal refused to move me to another class, this other teacher suggested that my mother withdraw me from the school. She felt my young age, a new baby in the home, a missing father, and a “strict” teacher spelled nothing but trauma for me.
            During that entire school year, my mother made me do assignments at home. She taught me to read. She drilled me on writing my letters and numbers. She had me bundle popsicle sticks to learn to count, add and multiply. I wrote my first stories while sitting at the kitchen table. She wanted to make certain that I realized I still attended school—her school. The next year, a little maturity and the right teacher made all the difference for me, and because of the foundation laid by my mother, I reentered first grade at the head of my class.

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

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