Smedley is wrapping up first grade this month. I remember first grade at her school; I started at that same school the first week of November in 1971. I was The New Kid; I was also The Fat Kid. Consequently my normally sparkling childhood personality was somewhat subdued.
It was about to get a lot more subdued.
My new teacher, Mrs. T., was very friendly and warm the week before, when Mom took me in to meet her after school, but she was still frightening to a first grader (and, frankly, to a lot of men). She was quite tall -- probably 5' 11", with a commanding presence. Her RIT-dyed auburn hair was neatly restrained by a hair net, and her hot pink lipstick was one of the few feminine touches, and, really, one of the few frivolities, that she allowed herself. I'm going to call her Mrs. Warhorse from this point forward.*
A woman as tall and as top-heavy as Mrs. Warhorse might be expected to lumber, but her gait was imperial, regal, graceful. She fairly floated across her classroom. Though she was in her 60s she had ramrod straight posture. She was old school; she defined old school. I noticed, once my new school experience had begun, that she called us "children," as in, "Now, children, please stand for the flag salute," which of course we did every day. Stand, salute, pledge.
Mrs. Warhorse stuck to her plan like a general. There were no deviations from The Plan. No one misbehaved, because there was a very palpable sense of fear in the room. (I'm not sure when the other kids picked up The Fear, but I had it from my first week, being The Fat New Kid and all.) So one morning when Mrs. Warhorse lined us up in rows according to height, tallest kids in back, and The Plan was in motion to do the daily flag salute and then to sing a couple of patriotic songs ("America the Beautiful" is one I remember), Laurie The New Fat Kid was in a crisis. A deep, personal crisis.
". . . for amber waves of grain . . ."
I knew that The Plan could not be changed, but on the morning in question I needed to change it. I didn't know what to do. Standing in the back row with the other tall kids, my crisis grew and grew, and The Fear had me in its grip.
". . . above the fruited plain . . ."
I broke out in sweat.
". . . God shed His grace on thee . . ."
Mrs. Warhorse, her broad back turned to us, played the old upright piano with passion and belted out the words for the children to follow. I was nearly in tears as I sang.
". . . from sea to shining sea!"
And then it was over. Single file, row by row we retreated to our little wooden desks. I sank into my chair in despair, my heart pounding and my face, I'm sure of it, florid. Waiting. Waiting for what I knew would come, but what I was hoping against all hope would not.
It came. The discovery of a puddle, on the polished wood floor, where seconds before a small choir of restrained children had stood cringing before the American flag. It was Michelle who discovered the new little Shining Sea on the hardwood. Of course, it would be Michelle. She of the perfect long dark ringlets -- a beautiful child with the personality of Nellie Olson and the intellect of a soft ball.
(Photo stolen from smalltownholly on Flickr)
Mrs. Warhorse did what any compassionate teacher of six- and seven-year-olds would do -- and I'm certain this was Page One of her handbook -- she went from tiny desk to tiny desk, inspecting the pants.
And then she found the pants she was looking for. Coincidentally, they housed Laurie the New Fat Kid, who was as miserable and frightened as a New Fat Kid could be.
I don't remember anything after that moment, but it was one of those defining moments in life. Maybe you're familiar with those moments? The ones you look back on as The Adult You've Become, for whatever that's worth, and you look at The Miserable Child You Were, and you yell, "Hey! You! Fat Kid! Yeah, I'm talkin' to you. This is IT, Girlie. This is the moment you get to decide. Are you a man or a mouse? Figuratively, of course. Are you pro-Establishment or anti-? ARE YOU GONNA JUST SIT THERE AND TAKE IT FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE? CAN YOU HEAR ME, GIRLIE?"
(Photo stolen from Zaccari on Flickr)
*My friend calls her Mrs. Battleaxe.