Mrs. G. was my first grade teacher. Now, keep in mind I’m from a small town in South Central Texas and this little hamlet wasn’t very enterprising. In fact, I think back on it now and I believe progress scared the hell out of the City Fathers (this was 1965, there were no City Mothers yet). Construction of a Dairy Queen in late 1972 made some quake in their boots.
Even so, many who graduated from High School especially after World War II went to college and then came back for some reason. Family perhaps; it was easy and familiar. Others left and never returned. Still, a few went home the night they graduated from High School and just stayed there.
My father and mother dated in High School. Both went to college and both came back home. They got married and spawned three girls. I’m the youngest. Many of my parents’ siblings also came back home, settled down and had kids, so it wasn’t a big deal that my first grade teacher and a few subsequent teachers in later grades, also taught my older sisters, most of my cousins, my parents, every aunt and uncle. They were also either friends or members of the same clubs and organizations as both of my grandmothers.
So misbehaving in class: not an option. Comparisons to older family members: a constant occurrence.
I was hardly unique. Lots of kids I knew were second generation students, especially in Mrs. G’s. class. She taught everyone in my family. She was also principal of the school which housed first and second grades. She was kid savvy, large and imposing. She could be stern when need be, but basically, she was good teacher and above all, she was extremely patient. One would have to be in order to teach students with varying degrees of aptitudes.. And back then, kids were piled into three separate first grade classrooms. I’m not sure of the methods used in terms placement, but I remember my first grade class being a mixed bag of quite gifted kids and others who (in the simplest terms) weren’t.
For privacy’s sake, I’ll call him Carl.
He came from a large family from “the wrong side of the tracks” as they say. He sat across the aisle from me in Mrs. G’s class. He was very tall, lanky and shy. He kept to himself, in class and during recess. He’d talk infrequently. Occasionslly, he’d initiate a conversation. At other times, you might attempt to talk to him, but he’d ignore you and look straight ahead. When he and I did speak, which was rare, conversations were always brief and about mundane things, such as the the Friday night football game or the raging thunderstorm that blew through the night before. Yes, Carl was different, but he remains a very vivid first grade memory for two reasons.
Reason #1: I remember looking at him; his long legs, the well worn, hand me down “highwater” pants he wore. I stared at his profile and saw longish, blond whiskers growing above his upper lip. At the time, I didn’t quite understand what that meant since none of the other boys in the entire school were as hairy or as tall. Later on, I realized he must have been held back several grades. It was either that or Ma Nature cruelly bestowed puberty upon him at the tender age of six, which college biology later taught me, was highly unlikely.
Reason # 2: One day in May, when the end of first grade loomed near, Mrs. G decided to test us on spelling and our familiarity with the alphabet. She’d hold up photos of simple objects and we would either be called upon or we’d raise our hand s to tell her what the object in the drawing was and then we’d spell it out now for her. These were easily identifiable things, nothing above our reading level.
For example, she’d hold up a picture of a boat and Sheila would raise her hand and tell Mrs. G that the item began with a “B.” It was boat and spelled B-O-A-T. Gold star for Sheila. Then, she’d hold up a pic of a car and Timmy would get a chance to demonstrate his spelling prowess.
Mrs. G got all the way down to “S” without a hitch. Then came the next letter in the alphabet. She held up a photo of a common vegetable, a terrific side dish, often baked or mashed, great with fried chicken or diced and fried, making it the perfect accompaniment for a hamburger.
Carl uncharscteristicslly raised his hand and announced to Mrs. G and the entire class that the object in the drawing began with the letter “T”. Mrs. G stopped him before he could say anything else. I distinctly remember the perplexed look on her face.
“A “T” Carl? Why would you say the item in this picture begins with a “T”?, she asked.
To which Carl replied adamantly, “Well, it’s a tater, ain’t it?”
I don’t remember how Mrs. G handled it. I don’t remember how the class responded. But I remember thinking it was funny and to a six year old girl, it was. I knew what a tater was a slang term for a potato. I was six. Name a youngster who doesn’t like Tater Tots or know they are born from potatoes. But for me, it was also the emphatic way Carl answered Mrs. G’s questiin, as if every other human was an idiot for NOT knowing the object in the photo wasn’t commonly called a tater. There was an unusual certainty, a surprising confidence in a voice rarely ever heard. There was no gold star for Carl that day, but you have to give him credit. If the bulk of what’s learned in childhood comes from home, he merely proved that point, whether right or wrong and in his In his world, a potato was a tater. Case closed.
My childhood memoties are getting blurrier everyday, but while I clearly remember Carl’s tater comment, I honestly don’t remember him after that. I can’t remember him being in any my other classes. I have no point of reference, either. After a million moves, I have no idea where any of my yearbooks are and I’ve only been to one of two class reunions. I went to the first one, 30 years ago. And I don’t keep up with my classmates, so I’ve no one to ask, not that they’d know of his whereabouts either. You see, this particular class of 1977 has never been very close. But if I were to see Carl today, I’d ask him if he remembered me then I’d hug him, if he’d let me, and I’d ask him about his life, hoping he’d be willing to fill me in on things since 1966.
At the appropriate time, I’d say goodbye and wish him well. And I’d silently apologize to him for being a victim of ignorance to certain disabilities, which at the time, was also used as another means of exercising prejudice. Once again, I don’t know what happened to Carl, but it was obvious his problems hadn’t been properly dealt with by his family, but due to certain circumstances, might not have even been aware there was a problem. Nor was he properly dealt with by the educational system in the place I once called home. I’m currently far removed from anything school or student-related, but I’m pretty that 51-years ago, having developmental issues, coupled with being from a poor, struggling family meant it was easier for educators to label, allow those particular kids to slip through the cracks, then simply look the other way.
I think Carl was a prime example of an unspoken caste system that once existed in public education.