First grade was my first year of any kind of formal schooling. That might seem to be obvious, but if you think about it is actually rare. Back in my day the norm was to go to kindergarten when you are five years old. Nowadays a child is likely to have been in day care from infancy, with progressively more formalized and structured playtime and early learning through various pre-school programs culminating in kindergarten. By the time first grade starts when a kid is six, he or she is a veteran of how the whole schooling thing works.
Day care was what Mom provided. She gave up her job in the hosiery factory around the time my 3-year-older brother was born, and didn’t go back until around the time my 2-year-younger brother became a mid-schooler. I was a bookish, eager to learn, kind of kid who read prolifically as soon as I could hold a book in my hands (of course, Mom and Dad read to us long before that, practically from the womb it seems). By the time I was five I had learned the alphabet and was reading way above my grade level, if I had had a grade level by this time.
Kindergarten alluded me, figuratively and literally. My older brother went to kindergarten at the French Church, officially, St. Stanislaus, which ran the lower grades and kindergarten school at the time. The school was both private and parochial, but like drug dealers giving out free first tokes, St. Stans let kids do kindergarten for free in hopes of getting their families hooked into both the school system and the church.
Three years later when my turn came around St. Stans had dropped the “free” part and now charged a fee for kindergarten. I don’t know whether the fee was considered steep at the time, but in our barely subsistence household budget any fee was out of the question. So I didn’t go to kindergarten. The very next year the town itself created free public kindergarten, so my younger brother got into that. Older and younger got kindergarten, I got an extra year of free time.
Which was okay with me. I’ve always been introverted (hence the “bookish” tendencies), so being able to stay at home and read was perfectly acceptable. Little did I know.
Eventually, all too soon it seems, I was headed to first grade. Not only had I missed out on the preparatory schooling, but I was just barely five years old when I started. Rules at the time were such that if you turned six years old anytime during the school year, you were eligible to start first grade. My birthday fell on the very last day of school the following spring. I was in! Later, for reasons that would become obvious in retrospect, they would change the rules and you had to turn six before Christmas to get in that year.
Introverted and inexperienced, not to mention prone to anxiousness (more on that later), I took my first bus to my first day of first grade. It’s a day that will go down in infamy. I don’t actually remember much of that day, but what I do remember has stayed with me my entire life. And not in a good way.
Mrs. G. greeted all the six-year-olds, plus me, barely five, as we entered our homeroom class. A few perfunctory salutations, roll calls, and spitballs later, we were on to the business of learning. First up was reciting the alphabet, conveniently written in big bold letters in both print and script above the chalkboards holding up two of the four walls of the room. The thirty or so of us kids took turns going to the front of the class and rattling off a few letters at a time in order. My turn came and I nailed my letters without hesitation. Piece of proverbial cake (by the way, cake would come to haunt me 10 years later as a sophomore in high school English class, but that story can wait).
I don’t recall whether we had reached the end of the alphabet or if Mrs. G. “saw something in me,” but when I had finished my letters and was flexing my leg muscles to begin the sprint back to safety in my seat halfway back in the room, she said “Stop!”
I froze. What had I done? I got the letters right, I knew I had. I’m reading at fourth grade level already so this “letters-of-the-alphabet” thing I could do in my sleep.
“Very, good, David. Well, done,” Mrs. G. says.
“Phew,” I think. She just wanted to pat me on the back and make me teacher’s pet (a term I would only learn several grades later). I nodded an imperceptible thank you and again flexed for the escape.
“Stop!” Mrs. G.’s voice was more emphatic this time.
The seconds ticked by without a breath from me until she said, “David, can you name the consonants and vowels?”
The seconds of silence seemed to drag by like hours. “Um, what the heck are consonants and vowels?,” I queried myself. I can read above my pay scale, but I don’t recall any classification schemes being part of the deal. “Dang,” I thought. So that’s what they learn in kindergarten.
So not having any clue about what consonants and vowels might be, I looked Mrs. G. straight in the eye (the last time I would ever do that) and said, “Of course I do.”
Argh, why did I say that? Only many years later would I understand the whole mumble jumble of letters used to define various psychological paths, but I was scared to death to say I didn’t know. So I figured I would wing it. Bad idea.
“Okay, good, David. So, please tell the class which of the letters in the alphabet are vowels.”
Another period of not breathing, this time it seemed like minutes instead of seconds. Okay, David (I said to myself), you can do this. I betcha it’s a trick question.
“Excellent, David,” Mrs. G exclaimed.
“Yes!,” I almost said out loud. I knew it was trick.
“B,” I said with confidence.
“What? No. Are you kidding me? B isn’t a vowel. Try again!”
“C?” I said as in my mind I crawled away into the cracks in the floor.
“No. C is a consonant, not a vowel. Are you just guessing?” Mrs. G. didn’t look happy.
“Um, D?” By now I was mortified.
“NO! Listen, I’ve had it with you. You can’t be that stupid not to know which letters are vowels. It’s A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y! Everybody knows that.”
I stood in shock. What? I’m stupid? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Is that window open? Should I just jump out now? Darn, we’re on the second floor. Dang it, I’m going to jump out anyway.
All of this mortification took something along the lines of a millisecond (I self-deprecate quickly), but it seemed like I was in front of the class for hours. I couldn’t even look at them, but I could hear them laughing.
“I’ve had it, Mr. Kent.”
Suddenly I’m Mr. Kent? Kill me, kill me know.
“Mr. Kent. Clearly you are playing games with me and with the rest of the class and making fun of the learning process. Follow me.”
As I followed Mrs. G. out of the room I figured that at least my embarrassment would end in the principal’s office, though I probably didn’t know what that meant at the time given it was my first day of school. But we never made it there. Instead, immediately after exiting the room, Mrs. G. placed me up against the wall and told me to stand there until I learned that education is a serious endeavor and that she was not going to stand for snotty kids like me toying with her mind.
No more than an hour or so had passed on my first day of school ever and I already was being sternly punished. Worse, the public humiliation standing in the hall was akin to putting an offender in stocks, you know, the hand and leg restraints the Puritans put in public squares to shame fornicators and coveters into never ever breathing in public again.
After what seemed like hours but had been only minutes I started to calm down and figured Mrs. G. would come back out and let me into class again. After all, I was only five. Corporal punishment had been (more or less) removed from the powers of teachers by that time (except for the occasional ruler on the knuckles), so there was already an awareness that childhood trauma could have long-term impacts.
And still I waited.
Okay, now it’s been an actual hour out here (which I confirmed by sneaking a peek through the little window in the classroom door). In first grade we stayed in one classroom with one teacher the whole day, not like later on when were moved from room to room each period for different subjects with dedicated teachers for each subject. But not yet. You got a homeroom teacher and she (and usually it was a she) taught you all subjects. Not a big stretch since first graders weren’t learning much more than basic stuff, which apparently includes which letters of the alphabet are consonants and which are vowels.
After three hours on the wall clock and three years on my biological clock, Mrs. G. came out and found me. Yes, found me. Seems she had forgotten she had put me out there, or perhaps assumed I would have run home long ago. In any case, she let me back into class where I finished the day successfully avoiding eye contact with both her and every other snickering kid in the room.
From that day on I rarely spoke in class, a trend that continued throughout grammar school, junior high school, and high school (with one unfortunately memorable exception, see “cake”), through my undergraduate life, and even into my graduate school. The trauma of that first day stayed with me, along with Mrs. G.’s name.
Christmas break finally came after two quarters of “Quiet Dave.” I was the shy one, the quiet one, the introvert. It’s possible I may have been anyway, but the trauma of that first day of my first grade of my first schooling ever hadn’t helped.
The new year arrived with Miss B. as our new teacher. No one said anything to us, but it’s a small town so we all heard it through the grapevine; Mrs. G.’s new residence was the euphemistically named State Hospital, though we all knew its other name. Many years later, in retrospect, I hold no ill feelings despite the memories, and fully believe that I’ve carved my own path through life. I never found out whether she found peace or a cure, but I hope she did. Somehow I feel she was a good person, though as a five-year old I likely had a different opinion.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.