Monday, November 07, 2005


In Which I Go Back to School...

I've been called over-educated more than once. I earned two degrees as an undergraduate (English and journalism), and despite being actively discouraged by many who felt it would be a waste of my time, I went on to earn a Master's degree (also in journalism).

Well, last week, I decided to go back to school again.

To go back to the first grade, to be specific.

At Thomas' school, they do a little thing called "star of the week." Every week the teacher picks one student to be the star. That person get to be the line leader when the class forms ranks to go lunch or recess. That person also gets to monopolize show-and-tell, now known as "sharing time," which occurs three times a week. And during story time, the star gets to picks which books are read. The star also has the option of bringing a guest to class to have lunch or hang out during story time. It's a sweet deal, being star of the week. And now, the week after his birthday, it was Thomas' turn to be the star.

Being first graders, most of the kids make some pretty obvious choices for certain of these privileges. For example, when it comes time to choose a guest to invite for lunch and story time, most choose a school pal who is not in their classroom; someone they know from recess or riding the bus. Occasionally they will pick their mom to come in and have lunch.

Thomas picked me.

Her Lovely Self wasn't miffed, thank goodness. She is, after all, on the volunteer committee and often accompanies the classes on field trips and so forth. So when Thomas asked me to come and have lunch and then sit in on story time, I was more thrilled and excited than any grown man probably has a right to be.

I was supposed to go in on Monday, but Thomas got a cold the day before and ended up staying home, so we rescheduled for Tuesday. The school's schedule was easier to rearrange than my own, as it turned out. We had story pitch meetings this past week and my editor wanted to spend Tuesday working with my department. But after some groveling and more than a few extravagant promises, I managed to trade days with one of the other departments. Thus it was that I was free to show up at my son's school at 11 A.M. last Tuesday.

And thus it was that Monday night, sitting up in bed, I drove Her Lovely Self nuts.
"So, what am I going to have to do?" I asked, for probably the umpteenth time.
"It's simple," she said, her patience more than a little threadbare. "Just sign in at the office and go to his classroom. You'll line up and go down to the cafeteria for lunch, then out for recess. You come in and have sharing time (Tuesday was one of the days when sharing time preceded story time). Since it was just his birthday, I'll send you in with some cupcakes to share. Thomas will talk about you and then you can read a story."

I nodded gravely. "So, will there be, like, a Q&A session? Should I bring copies of the magazine and talk about the work I do?"

HLS lost it then. "Oh God! They're first graders. This isn't career day! Do you think they honestly will care what you do?"

"Yeah, but Thomas might tell them and--"

HLS looked at me. "And what?"

And of course it was then that I realized why I was so nervous. "I just want his friends to think he has a cool dad," I said.

HLS gave me a kiss. "You're so stupid. You never care what anyone thinks of you, and now you're worried about making a good impression on a bunch of 6-year-olds. It doesn't matter what they think. Thomas clearly thinks he has a cool dad or he wouldn't have invited you. Just go and have a good time." And then HLS pointedly rolled over to signify that she considered the matter closed.

I lay there for a moment, then said, "Well, what book should I read?"

In the end, it was Thomas who decided that. In the morning, he gave me his well-thumbed copy of Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, which he obviously thought was appropriate, given, as he said, "it has a dad in it."

As he was getting ready to catch his bus, though, he reconsidered. "Dad," he said. "Maybe you can tell the story we made up," he said.

He was talking about a story we alternately know as either "the Moxie story" or "the Hairball Express." Back when HLS was pregnant with the Brownie, we transitioned Thomas out of the crib (which we were going to need soon) and into a big bed, as well as a big new room of his own.

He loved the room by day, but by night he was a little intimidated by all the changes, so I took to lying down with him for about 15 minutes every night and during that time I told him a story that he kept adding details and sound effects to. Back then, he loved trains and also this crotchety old bitch of a cat we had then named Moxie. So I found a way to merge the two into a story that kept getting longer and more elaborate. Even though nearly five years had passed since we made the story up, he still remembered. And, I have to confess, so did I, word for word, locked in my head, though Thomas hadn't asked me to tell it for about a year.

I was pleased he remembered, but now had one more thing to be anxious about. I'd never told the story to anyone but him. What if I told it to his class and they thought it sucked?

"Okay," I said, a little nervously. "You're sure you don't want me to read the goldfish one?"

Thomas hesitated again. Now the bus was coming. "You choose when you get to school," he said hurriedly as he climbed aboard. "See you at lunch!"

Since I wouldn't really have time to commute into my office and then come back to Thomas' school, I worked from home that morning. At around 10:45, HLS told me I should get going and handed me something as I grabbed my coat. Her Lovely Self makes lunch--a cheese sandwich--for Thomas every day. I usually eat lunch near my office, but this day she handed me a brown bag of my very own, packed with a sandwich she'd made just for me (truly, she's the best wife I've got).

So with lunch in hand, cupcakes for Thomas' belated birthday treat and my storybook, I lit off for school.

As I drove to school, I realized with my usual mixture of wonder and horror that I haven't been in first grade in 32 years. Which is so weird, because I remember it like it was yesterday. Well, okay, like it was last month. My teacher was an old woman named Mrs. Story and our assistant was a dishy young thing named Miss Siano. I went to an old little private school, situated in a mansion that had once belonged to one of the textile magnates who made Manchester, New Hampshire the prosperous city it had been in the 19th century.

I went to this school because it specialized in helping both kids with learning challenges and also kids who were gifted. My brother and I had both been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder, which they simply called "hyperactivity" back then. My brother had a severe case. He took Ritalin for years and even then had a terrible problem staying on task with his schoolwork. Mine was more a borderline case (and later some doctors would eventually say I was misdiagnosed). My problem was that I wouldn't pay attention in class. I had a hard time understanding math of any kind, but I scored off the charts on anything word-related. Consequently I'd get bored during reading and spelling and would gaze out the window or do something disruptive. This school specialized in teaching kids like my brother and me (and I must confess my years there did help me form some very effective study habits). Thus it was that I entered kindergarten at this school at the age of 4 and so ended up in first grade at 5.

Our classroom was in a corner of the renovated mansion that got a lot of sunlight, so I always remember it being a bright room. Because it had once been a bedroom, it also had its own private bathroom, which was cool, and exceedingly convenient for a class full of small-bladdered first graders.

Aside from those details, though, it always seemed to me that my first grade experience must have been typical. We too formed lines and had line leaders to take us everywhere, whether it was to lunch or out to recess. We also had sharing time (though we called it show-and-tell) and story time. When someone had a birthday, that person--or his or her parent--usually brought a treat for snack time. In fact, when I turned 6, I remember my own mother showing up with chocolate frosted cupcakes, each one containing a secret filling of raspberry jam. My mom had reservations about the mess such a treat would make, but they were my favorite and so she made them (and she was right about the mess).

Now, more than three decades later, here I was, going to first grade again. I comforted myself with the similarities between then and now, right down to the custom-made cupcakes. For indeed, on the seat beside me were a dozen white frosted cupcakes, each with a realistic lizard artfully made of green icing, as requested by Thomas. More than that, they had been made by my own mother, seeing as she and my dad were in town for Thomas' birthday.

I arrived at school promptly at 11 and signed myself in at the main office. The women there eyed me suspiciously and I remembered that not many dads got invited as guests. I then made my way up the hall to the door marked "first grade." I stood there, frozen for a moment. My heart was in my throat. My God, I felt like the new kid. How crazy of me. And how cool. I shook it off and knocked on the door...

Oh good God in heaven, I have to WAIT for the ending?!?!? I'm on the edge of my seat, man.

As it turns out, as a 38-year-old elementary school teacher-in-training, I am headed in to my Early Literacy class in about 10 minutes and will be telling a story to a class of first graders, and then having them tell the story back to me. I am totally anxious and excited. And it will kill me to wait until tomorrow to hear how YOUR adventure went.
I think I'm going to start reading your blog every other day, then I won't have to wait for the ending to these stories.

It's sweet that Thomas invited you to his special day. And know what? I'm always nervous when I go to Lego Boys class for anything... for the same reason. I don't want his friends to think I'm not cool. Don't care about anyone else, but his friends are important.
First Grade was Miss Hoskin. A classic cut of Eastern Township spinster who dedicated her life to teaching impressionable young skulls full of mush such as myself.

How 'bout every one else?
I won't bother with grumbling about cliffhangers anymore...clearly you will continue to post them so I'll just have to exercise patience.
I too, was a five year old first a private school. I don't think the fact that I was a year younger than everyone else affected me until high school when all my friends got their driver's license a year before me, and after high school, everyone in my knit of friends got to hit pivotal birthdays like 18 and 21 before me. Of course now they're all approaching thirty...a year before me!
I don't know how this tale will end but I am sure the six year old will be riveted by whatever story you tell!
I went to three different schools in the first grade-I have no idea what their names were. My dad was in the USAF so we traveled quite a bit.

Kindergarten- Ms. Callaway :)
Miss Barry. Now, she reminds me of Miss Trunchbull from the movie Matilda. I got into so much trouble, I spent more time sitting at the desks between the divided classrooms than anyone else. I was there for a week the time I set off the exploding party favor in my desk.
Mrs. Sullivan, which was interesting because she was the first person I ever met, outside of my family, with the same last name. I knew of Ed Sullivan, and his TV show on Sunday, but he seemed more or less a fictional character, being on the tube and all.

I was also 5 years old entering first grade, and would remain the youngest in my class through graduation from high school. I enjoyed thinking that I'd have an extra year of freedom at that time, but I also was picked on because of my being younger than everyone else.

But, now I have a blog! Bwah-hah-hah! It was all worth it!!!
I think visiting a first grade classroom would scare the crap out of me. Kids still don't have much of a filter at that point, so if the subject is boring...well, the "special guest" would likely hear about it. I don't like the idea of any group of people thinking I suck - but frankly, would rather not know about it if I did!
I also started kindergarden when I was 4. The cutoff in age had passed but apparently the school said I was mature enough. Went to catholic school through grade and high school.

First grade teacher: Sister Mary Ambrose. Loved her. She was the "Nice" Nun who taught first. The other first grade class had the mean one. serious skinny old nun mean.
As a former elementary school teacher, maybe I have a different take on this. Put me in front of a room full of five year olds, and I'm totally at ease because I know that if I start to lose them I can just do something silly. They'll laugh their heads off, but after the mirth has subsided I'll be able to get back to the story. Improvisation is the key here, and I can't see you having any trouble with that mm.

Put me in front of a room full of adults I don't know on the other hand, and my legs start to shake. That's one of the mysteries of life I'm still puzzling over.

Can't wait for your next entry and also visit Thomas's blog frequently.
I can't remember my first grade teacher's name.

I do remember, however, that when Heather B. and I (I was Heather A. at the time) were caught "playing during prayer" that year, we were sent to the principal's office, and she was a scary woman named Mrs. Fosson.

The next year, she was my teacher!

(I used to have a problem with humming...I wouldn't realize I was doing it. Once this happened in Mrs. Fosson's class, and she yelled, "Who's humming?!" My playing-dumb face was very convincing. That's the first memory I have of pretending to be innocent and getting away with it.)
...Wow, I was totally wrong. I think Mrs. Fosson was my first grade teacher. I now remember that the scary lady principal who became my second grade teacher was actually Mrs. Powell.

I wish my memory was as good as yours, MM!
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