A “back-to-school” shopping commercial the other day brought back memories of the dreaded first day. The desire to fit in, be popular, wear the coolest clothes, carry the best backpacks, try the latest hairstyles … it’s all so nerve-wracking.
Compared to life today, filled with serious “adult” responsibilities, I suppose it’s easier to say life was better back then.
But dear old Mrs. Fuller made sure I experienced a memorable elementary school career.
My second-grade teacher resembled a Muppet. She had reddish-orange, tightly permed short hair, a haggard face with a long, crooked nose and beedy eyes. Her attire reminded one of a gypsy: jangly long earrings, gold bangle bracelets and flowing drapery she passed off as dresses.
In the second grade, we were learning addition and subtraction. Very basic mathmetics. Plus, we began taking spelling tests. Nothing too major at that point.
And while I enjoyed reading and books, math made for a strange and difficult concept for me to grasp. The numbers and symbols on the chalkboard baffled me, terrified me actually and I resisted learning it.
From Brad, the boy who sat behind me, I learned that Mrs. Fuller might be a tad crazy and also, consistently lazy in her grading.
I began testing the boundaries by turning in homework I knew full-well to be incorrect. Sometimes, I would even ride beside a classmate on the bus to school and copy their homework without asking if it was correct. But typically, my method employed the old “pick a number, any number.”
Yet each time, my ditto lesson smelling of toxic blue smudged ink returned with a gold star. Sometimes, a gold star with a plus sign beside it. I’d beam with false pride, just as everyone else in my class who hadn’t applied any sweat into the assignments.
My little games continued.
Not long after, I started brushing off my vocabulary lessons and soon, I was a regular scammer. I lied at every chance I had; it became something of a game.
I even lied at Sunday school and told a sustitute Sunday school teacher my name was Cindy. You can only imagine the suspicious looks she gave my father when came to pick up “Erica.”
But soon, the games came to a screeching halt.
“Boys and girls, next week your parents have been invited to come in and see your work, talk with me about your progress and learn about our lesson plans so far,” Mrs. Fuller announced to the class in her screechy voice.
A trickle of sweat ran down my spine. My parents were nobody’s fool and despite the wool being pulled over Mrs. Fuller’s eyes, my folks would “cut the shit real quick.”
The night of the open house, I yanked my parents around speedily to view my little desk, pictures I had drawn, and all my “star/ star-plus” lessons.
Mrs. Fuller gave a vague, glowing report to them of my incredible work and how well I was doing in school.
“She’s a bright child, but she talks too much,” she said. The phrase “excessive talking” appeared on every report card until the day I graduated high school.
At first, my mom began asking prodding questions of my work and then my father took over. Before you knew it, Mrs. Fuller’s own lies were unfolding as I tried to distract them. My father’s deep Southern voice began to boom in aggitation and like a true Mississippian, he began to repeat phrases.
“Now you say, you say that she’s doing well?” he asked. Mrs. Fuller exposed the whites of her eyes.
“Why, yes, Mr. Warren,” she said, appearing timid.
He walked his tall, lankey frame over to my desk, snatched up my math homework sheets in his fist and walked back shaking them in her face.
“Gold star, gold star plus, gold star … ” he said, displaying each page.
“Yes,” she said. “Why, she’s doing very well.”
“Really?” he said. “So, 5 plus 5 is 15?”
By this point, my classmates and their parents could no longer politely ignore the argument. Other scamming students were discovered and many classmates blamed me for being a sloppy liar.
My father, a math wizard, became my full-time tutor. Each night, we sat at the kitchen table and tried to make quick progress with less than a couple months left in the second grade.
The frustration hit dramatic highs; I would cry and protest that I couldn’t learn it hoping he would just let me fail.
“I’m too dumb,” I would say. Will Hunting would have stormed off shouting: “Do you have any idea how easy this is for me?”
But my dad remained steadfast in his determination to catch me up.
While I was allowed to pass to the third grade, my math and my reading skills remained firmly at the beginning of second grade.
I was in real deep biscuits and gravy.
After Mrs. Abraham recapped our addition and subtraction tables, she moved on to multiplication. Each day, I dreaded a math quiz almost as much as a vocabulary quiz.
When she would instruct us to rip a sheet in half, I would begin to cry. It was a truly frustrating time for everyone.
“One day, the light will go off and it’s gonna make all the sense in the world,” my dad said over and over.
The phrase haunted me.
I began praying for that light to go off every day. I wasn’t sure if I would see it, if it would feel like when I got hit in the head with a baseball or if I would have the kind of holy miracle like in the Bible.
However it would be, I wanted it. I wanted the struggle to end so I could get back to the most important thing in a child’s life: fitting in.
Half-way through the year, my father grew less patient and started to think I was resisting his tuteledge.
While waiting for my dad to come home from his saleman job one day, I sat staring at that blasted multiplication table sheet and the worn-out stack of flash cards. The idea of facing another frustrating night sitting at the kitchen table lay ahead.
All of a sudden, something clicked. I turned over one flash card, then another, and another testing myself.
“MOM!” I shouted. She came running downstairs, expecting to find me bleeding from the head.
“What is the matter with you?” she asked.
“I understand it,” I said. “I don’t know why I was making it so hard.”
She grabbed my study materials away and began to quiz me. I was right every time. We danced. My dad came home, I showed him, and we danced some more.
By the fourth grade, I was not just passing, but excelling in all subject areas. In high school, I took advanced English and math classes all thanks to my parents who wouldn’t take a gold star to mean anything more than a sticky piece of foil.
Good thing they were there to be my greatest teachers because I never really fit it. One out of two ain’t too bad.