I attended the first half of first grade in Nashville, Tennessee in 1998. Back then it was still acceptable for the teacher to use the “paddle” if kids were misbehaving, assuming parents had signed a permission slip.
I remember one boy who got in such trouble. He was led out of the classroom by the teacher while myself and the other students remained inside. We gathered up against the glass window in the door to see what was going on. I was at the back of the group, trying not to get squished, so I didn’t see anything. But I remember his cries each time the paddle made contact with his behind. When the teacher came back in, the boy was trailing behind. His eyes were cast down against a tear stricken face and he was rubbing his rear end. I remember wondering what kind of parents would give someone else permission to beat their child.
Lesson Learned: Be grateful for the parents you have. It could always be worse.
I was a high achiever. When we first started to learn what nouns were, I caught on quick. The teacher explained it once and I had it: a person, place, or thing. The “idea” piece didn’t get incorporated until the 4th grade. The day after we learned the concept, the teacher gathered us around to review. I was bouncing in my chair as he asked the class what a noun was. No one answered, but I knew! He then asked one boy what a noun was. The boy pointed to a cardboard cutout of a cartoon character. The teacher made him clarify. He said he was pointing to the character itself. The teacher was unimpressed. Again, “idea” had not been included. What a dummy, I thought. Clearly the only noun he was pointing to was the physical cutout, NOT the conceptual character.
That day we had an assignment. We had to take the textbooks for the class and find ten nouns, then draw out each one on a piece of paper and write down what it was. I had this! I enthusiastically started flipping through the book, knowing exactly what a noun was and what I was looking for. I flipped through those pages so fast I somehow convinced myself there wasn’t a single noun in the entirety of the book. No matter, I thought, shutting the book with confidence. I know exactly what a noun is. I’ll make my own. Dog, cat, tree, …. The list went on, with pictures included, until I had ten. I finished before any of the other kids were done, got up, and proudly walked over to the teacher to show him my creation. He took it in his hands. His expression went from curiosity to a sneer in the blink of an eye. He took out his bright red marker and wrote a giant “F” across the top of the page. To ensure I hadn’t missed it, he circled it as well and handed it back to me. I started crying. I had to sit behind his desk until I stopped crying. It took a while.
Lesson Learned: We aren’t always as smart as we think we are.
I spent the second half of first grade in Augusta, Georgia. I didn’t like the other kids. I think I felt better than them, but that’s giving a first grader a lot of credit. Really, I think I might have just been afraid of them. I was afraid of not being able to connect on their level. I didn’t seem to like talking about the same things they did, so I avoided them for the most part. I remember really liking the teacher’s assistant though. She was probably about 30 and on the slightly bigger side. I remember thinking she looked like a nice warm hug on a cold day (not common in Georgia). When it was time to go out on the playground, I hung back with her. The other kids ran to the jungle gym and I remained by her side to chat with her the entire recess. One conversation we had revolved around her having a twin sister, a set of twin brothers, another set of twin sisters, and a single youngest brother. I asked her if the youngest brother felt lonely that he didn’t have a twin. She raised her eyebrows at me and smiled. “No,” she said gently. “I don’t think he feels lonely.”
Lesson Learned: Sometimes our authentic selves are a little weird. It’s still ok to put them out into the world.