I went to a village Catholic school until I finished fourth grade; it was just up the street from my house. The classes were small; I had known all the other kids just about all my life. The teachers were friends of my parents. It was a comfortable, encouraging place where I did well and never even really thought about whether I liked school or not. School was like a weekday dinner or my comfortable old blue sweater—just part of life, expected, familiar, woven in.
Then, the summer I turned ten, we moved to a different city. I would spend fifth grade in two different classrooms, and I would learn how stimulating–and how stultifying–school could be.
A lake house sounded great when we moved to Frazier Street in the middle of the summer. My parents had sold the family homestead, and we were renting. This house was half a mile from where my father worked at the power plant; in theory–although it never happened that I can remember–he could walk to work. If you cut through the woods behind the house (not a recommended path; my brother John tried it and came home blotched and swelling from contact with poison ivy), Point Gratiot, a public park with a sandy Lake Erie Beach, was less than a quarter of a mile away.
We used the back roads to walk to the lake, and it was still only a ten minute walk.
The house itself sat in a nice lot with a big climbing tree. It had a picnic table and a small garage which we used for storage, not for car. It had four small bedrooms and one bath. Once, the house had been a summer cottage, but now it was insulated and winterized. The neighbors seemed very nice.
We spent a lot of time at Point Gratiot that summer, on the beach when my mother could come with us, at the playground when she could not. On the Fourth of July, we watched the fireworks from the tracks at the power plant, insiders with the secret password. Coal trains stilled for the night, we sat on the rails, a yard or two away from the rippling lake. The fireworks, set off on a nearby beach, seemed close enough to touch; they arched over over our heads like umbrellas, christening us with ash.
The seemingly endless summer slipped by. We thought, although the house was crowded and sometimes, voices were raised, that Frazier Street was a pretty nice place.
Then Labor Day weekend, a minor key picnic, and Tuesday: school.
My mother had taken us down to some central office and registered us, a blip on July’s radar; now we were going to the school itself, my younger brother Sean and I. He was in first grade; I was in fifth. It would be our first year in public school. We hadn’t thought about it all summer, but now, confronted, we were excited.
And we were terrified.
My mother pulled the big old Buick into the parking lot behind the two-story yellow brick building and walked us around to the front office. She murmured to a person at the tall reception desk. Someone came and reached out a hand for my brother; he put his hand up and went willingly: we were well-trained children and there would be no tears or demonstrations.
A girl my age appeared at the door and beckoned to me. I said goodbye to my mother and followed Renae up the stairs to Mr. Smith’s classroom.
I expected straight rows and quiet, polite children, but I walked into a completely alien world.
In the first place–a man? A man teaching grade school? It was 1965, and a man teacher was almost unheard of –oh, certainly men taught in high school; DEFINITELY in college, but a man in a fifth grade classroom was a weird and wonderful thing. And of course, then, things would be different; men didn’t have that innate knack of child discipline, my mother would say. (Look how your father lets you get away with murder.)
Mr. Smith was busy, already, on this early first day, buried in a scrum of children; he detached, though, to come and say hello. And to thank Renae. And to point me to an empty desk in a pod with five others, three occupied. The other two had surfaces with scattered binders, pens, and pencils. Clearly I was to be one of these six.
I went shyly to my seat, not sure if I was happy about this enforced close company or not.
But I needn’t have worried. Despite the freedom of working at our own pace, the anarchy of taking our work to the teacher whenever we were finished, the learning had a firm structure undergirding it. (We learned proper courtesy the first day when three of us, finished with an assignment at the same time, bolted to be the first to reach Mr. Smith’s table. He gently sent us trudging back to our seats and beckoned forward the politer Kathy, who stood waiting. We began to compete to be the more courteous, rather than the fastest.)
We learned about science by doing experiments and about the scientific method by writing up our findings in our six-person pod. Mr. Smith provided an overarching history and geography lesson, and then we chose from lists of possible topics. We did projects on our chosen topics. We shared them with the class. We reported back on what we learned from our classmates’ sharings.
Part of each day was set aside for reading; we went to the meager school library a LOT, and we read–what nirvana–for up to an hour each day. We wrote about our books, or we drew pictures about our books, or we drafted letters to the characters in our books. Our work went up on the bulletin board, no stickers or stars, just our thoughts and efforts, boldly displayed.
Mr. Smith posed us problems that required higher and higher levels of math; we worked on them in our groups, and if someone saw a short cut or a better way, that was encouraged rather than banned.
We created a weekly newsletter.
We sipped from little house-shaped cartons of milk and munched on graham crackers twice a day, never breaking from the work we were immersed in. Whenever possible, we spent a chunk of after lunch time outdoors, identifying plants, using math to time dashes, noting the changing season. We worked on projects in our pods of six, and we created wonderful things–buildings and models and posterboards and stories and poems. We mixed up innocuous batches of “chemicals” and blended outlandish colors of paint and stirred our small group–four girls, two boys–into a firm, fast group of colleagues and friends.
That fifth grade classroom was unlike any learning I’d ever experienced.
And then November came, and with it cold winds…winds that blew through cracks in our rented house. There were permanent pillars of cold standing in the corners; there were enormous spiders seeking refuge from the cold waiting slyly beneath warm chairs. My brothers joked that the spiders were so big you could hear their footfalls. The heat chugged on and never quit. When the gas bill came, early in December, my mother’s eyebrows stayed arched for 24 hours.
Snow fell and temps dropped even more and we celebrated a cheerful but chilly Christmas–one where everyone had the sniffles. Those developed into chesty infections, and four of the family wound up seeing the doctor, who worried about my brother Michael’s asthma. The doctor suggested that a different house, a sturdier house, a house with sealed junctures, might be the answer.
So my parents located a three bedroom duplex, away from the lake, in a nice neighborhood in the city. For the second time in six months, we upped bags and moved.
It was different living in a house all on one side–no windows on the north-facing, adjoining side of the house. It was different living with another family–our landlords, the M’s–on the other side of the wall. They were an odd family, the M’s, austere and a little scary. Mr. M was short and very round; he had a thick head of gray hair that looked as though it must be hard to the touch. He wore white shirts that strained across his big belly, and black ties, always. When the weather allowed, he sat on the porch and smoked cigars and read the paper at just the time when we were coming home from school. He barked terse, unfriendly hellos.
Mrs. M was taller and fluttery and eternally frazzled. She seemed fearful of an explosion from her gruff little husband; she was always throwing her hands up in the air and rushing around to fix something.
There were three M children, a grown ‘boy,’ who worked outside and sang Irish ballads in the bathroom. My older brothers warbled back at him, causing friction. Another boy was in high school; he had a beetle brow and was short like his father; he seemed eager to please and he stammered. And there was a girl my brother John’s age, who was thin and vague and giggly.
When we were rowdy and noisy, Mrs M fluttered over pleadingly. We were always being shushed.
But it was a sturdy house. The rent, my parents warned us gravely, was very cheap. And in that neighborhood was a little boy my youngest brother’s age and three girls in the same grade as me. One, Sheila, went to the Catholic school. I would go to the public school nearby with Mary Jane and Donna.
Another new school; another adventure, I was confident. And so I came to Miss Green’s class.
Again, my mother had taken us to the gloomy main school office to register, but this time, my brother and I walked to school on our first day with our friends. Mary Jane waited for me at the principal’s office–Miss Weber herself came out to greet us, tall, dignified, exceedingly old, I thought, but with a benign twinkle. She bid us work hard, behave well, and have fun. My brother went off to his classroom and I followed MJ to mine.
MJ and Donna had been quiet and noncommittal when I told stories of Mr. Smith’s six-seater pods. When the door to Miss Green’s class swung open, I understood why.
Here the seats were in rigid rows. I quickly came to realize the children were gradated by height; I sat in one of the back seats, next to a tall, awkward, deeply embarrassed girl named Susan. In the front row, conversely, was a tiny boy named Ron; each was chagrined at the placement. In between them sat a quiet, disengaged group of students.
Miss Green stood up from her desk when we entered. She was a spry, thin woman with black hair that, even to my naïve eyes, looked improbable. She wore a tightly cinched plaid skirt, with a frilly white blouse, tucked tightly in. She had hose that I recognized as being orthopedic, and her shoes were sturdy black heels. Her pressed mouth split thinly when she smiled; the lips were scarletted, and not friendly.
Miss Green gave me a little speech about being a good girl and a quiet student, sent me–her head shaking: “So tall!”–to the biggest desk at the end of the second row. Susan rolled her eyes at me sympathetically, and my life in Miss Green’s class began.
In the mornings we did English, History, Geography, Math, and Science. This consisted of taking out our books, reading silently, and answering the questions at the end of each section. There was an allotted time for each lesson, usually 45 minutes. If we finished early, we could read quietly or put our heads down and rest. If we didn’t finish, we had to take the work home.
I read a lot that year.
Miss Green sat at her desk while we worked, presumably grading the last batch of papers. When the 45 minutes was up, she clicked down the rows and picked up our papers. She had a powdery aura, and a strong residue of perfume lingered for minutes after she tapped by, mincing the paper off our desks and directing us to the next textbook and the next chapter.
At twelve-thirty most of us walked home for lunch; we were due back by 1:45. Then, we had spelling for 45 minutes. On Monday we copied the words out five times each; on Tuesday, we looked each word up and wrote out the definition. On Wednesday we used each word in a sentence. Thursday was “review” day: we wrote the words out five times each, again. And every day, to my amazement, Miss Green sat herself down at her desk, with absolutely no pretense, and looked at the watch that hung on a gold chain around her neck. She pressed a tiny button on that watch, and promptly went to sleep.
We wrote our spelling words to the accompaniment of our teacher’s ladylike snores. Then the watch would ‘ping’, Miss Green would sit up and collect our papers, and we would go gratefully off to our specials–gym class twice a week, art on my favorite days, music, and, on Fridays, the fifth grade chorus–an activity that lovely old Miss Weber always came to, listening with appreciative smiles.
The only deviation to the routine was our Friday spelling test, during which Miss Green had to read us the words. She seemed exhausted by the time that chore was done, exhausted and glad to see the backs of us when we trooped off to chorus.
The first week I thought Miss Green must be recovering from some sort of catastrophic illness, and that soon real teaching would begin. But my friends assured me this was what school was always like.
Fresh from my six-seater pod, I didn’t quite believe them.
The second week, I found a suggested activity at the back of the science chapter that sounded like so much fun, the kind of thing Mr. Smith would have been all over. I raised my hand, mid-morning, and Miss Green bid me approach. Eagerly, I carried my book, open to the activity page. I pointed it out to her.
There was a little silence, during which she chewed her lips and stared at me. Finally, “No,” she said. “We don’t learn like that here.”
I stood awkwardly, frozen, a little, by shock. She pointed to my big desk at the end of the second row.
I slunk back to it.
As I opened my history book and began to read, a flat, loose-leaf shurriken landed on the open pages. I unfolded the note.
“Don’t make extra work,” it read.
I looked up at the blank backs of all my classmates, and I sighed and picked up my ballpoint Bic. It was the second week of a very long Spring term.
The wonderful Miss Weber, I realized later, must have known what was happening in that classroom. At least once a week, she called me out, sometimes to read with second graders for half an hour, sometimes to work on crafty art displays for the main hallway. She made sure to stop and talk when she passed me in the hallway, interested and encouraging.
She did the same for all the children in my class; we would return flushed and flattered from the rush of attention from a caring adult. And then we would sit ourselves down, pick up our pens, and start, again, to answer the questions at the end of the section.
I don’t know what happened to Mr. Smith; I hope he became a principal and spread his philosophies of active learning to a broad and thirsty audience. I’m sure he didn’t stay long in our little city.
I was saved, after Miss Green’s class, from hating school entirely by my sixth grade year with Mrs. McGraw, who combined a more traditional approach with active learning and a genuine liking for both learning and her students. The next year I went to the centralized middle school, a huge place where all the city’s seventh and eighth graders were warehoused, smart kids, nice kids, tough kids— and kids who were 15 and 3/4 years old and just waiting for the few months to pass when they would be 16 and able to quit school once and for all. It was a raucous, simmering, sometimes dangerous, place, but I did meet all kinds of interesting people there.
One of them was a boy in my homeroom who asked me about Miss Green.
Yes, I told him, I’d had Miss Green. Poor thing was old and always tired and I half wondered if maybe she wasn’t sick.
And he snorted. He’d had Miss Green’s sister, another Miss Green, and she acted just the same way. It wasn’t that they were sick, he whispered to me, it was that they were HUNG OVER. They went out at night, every night. And, he lowered his voice even further, they picked up MARRIED MEN.
Miss Green? I thought of her prim twin sets, her rigidly ironed frilly blouses, and my mind recoiled in shock. But my new buddy, whose dad and mom sometimes went out to the same bars as the Green sisters, was not the only one to report that the twin teachers were also twin floozies.
I tried to imagine my Miss Green loosened and lubricated. I could not.
It was, I think, the first time I realized that a grownup could be entirely other than the face presented blandly for my edification.
We didn’t stay long in the duplex; we moved the next year to the house that was our family home until years later when my parents, aging and sick, moved into the tiny apartment complex that would be their last residence. We weren’t sad to leave the duplex, although I badly missed the neighborhood. The M’s, of course, were glad to see us go.
But that fifth grade year marked me. Although Miss Green’s class froze something in me, Mr. Smith’s class ignited something that wouldn’t be quenched.
I thought of Mr. Smith, and of Mrs. McGraw and other wonderful models, when I started teaching. I could never reach his powers of organization and classroom management, but I tried–I always tried–when a student came to me, on fire with an idea for a project, to find a way to say, firmly and emphatically, “Yes!”