How My Elementary School Education Molded Me into the Man I Am Today

I don’t have a great number of memories from elementary school. This doesn’t surprise me — if my report cards are any indication of the way things were, I wasn’t paying attention. But there are some moments that stick out.

Kindergarten

My teacher’s name was Mrs. Martini. She was in her final year before retirement after a long career. I don’t remember much about her, but my parents have told me that she taught like she was ready to leave. I do remember one seminal moment. I informed a girl in my class that Santa Claus is not real. She began crying. Mrs. Martini sent me up front to sit against the wall behind the piano, and then promptly forgot all about me. I was there for about half an hour when she took the class out to recess, leaving me alone in the empty room. Only when she returned did she notice me. She was properly horrified at what she had done.

I’ve always had something of a fatalistic streak. It may have been birthed during those 50 minutes behind the piano. I wasn’t sad or angry or scared. I just sat there and thought, “This is weird. There IS no Santa Claus.”

First Grade

Ah. Miss French. My first crush. My memories of her are interlaced with the smell of ink on fresh-printed Ditto machine copies. She seemed to take a particular interest in me, although I’m not sure why. She wrote a note to my parents in my report card, “Roger must learn to differentiate between time for work and time for play.” And she gave me a grade of “Needs Improvement” in the category of “Avoids Disturbing Others.” But I can distinctly remember a couple of occasions when I was in fifth and sixth grade when Miss French came by my classroom and asked my teacher if she could borrow me for a couple minutes to help her move boxes. If that isn’t romance, I don’t know what is.

That’s me on the left with the nifty sweater over the white shirt.

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Second Grade

I have no memories whatsoever of second grade. The class picture, if there was one, has disappeared. I do have my report card, signed by a Miss Mackley, but even that name rings no bells. For one quarter, she gave me an “Unsatisfactory Achievement” in “Avoids Disturbing Others,” but by the end of the year I’d managed to get that up to a lofty “Satisfactory Achievement.” She alone, of all my teachers, gave me poor grades for language and vocabulary.

Third Grade

I have just one distinct memory of Mrs. Eckert. A boy in my class was refusing to settle down, and she began chasing him around the room, climbing over desks and running down the aisles. As he was a 10-year-old boy and she was a woman in her 50s, she never got close. I recall sitting at my desk thinking, “This can’t be the best way to handle this.” I think she finally gave up and went and got a male teacher to deal with it.

I’m standing second from the right in the third row next to the girl with the bow.

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Fourth Grade

I have a vague tendril of memory of Miss Mussar being a strict, no-nonsense woman. She gave me quite a few “D”s, including one in reading. I loved reading. Reading was pretty much all I did with my life when I wasn’t in school or outside playing. I was reading at an adult level already and won the church reading contest that year. For me to have earned a “D,” in reading was, I think, more a testament of her teaching methods than of my abilities. She must have made it no fun at all. She also gave me “D”s in conduct. That may explain both the look on my face and the reason why I was standing right next to her. There can be no rational explanation for my white pants.

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Fifth Grade

I remember Mrs. Olson as being fair. She wrote a note on my report card that said, “Roger is an exceptional student in many ways. He has a general enthusiasm for learning. I would like to see him participate in class discussions more frequently.”

Then there was the segment on prepositions. Mrs. Olson explained what they were and how they were used and as if someone had turned on a switch, I understood immediately and completely. Eight minutes into the lesson and I had it. I could list them, I could identify them in a sentence, I could use them correctly. I had to sit there bored for the next six weeks while my classmates struggled to understand. The teacher explained that a preposition was “anything you could do with a table.”

Mrs. Olson: Robbie, can you find the preposition in the sentence, “My mother put the walnut bowl into the cabinet?”

Robbie: Walnut?

Mrs. Olson: No, Robbie.

Robbie: But my parents have a walnut table.

Mrs. Olson: Can anyone help Robbie? Anyone? Isn’t there anyone who knows which word is the preposition? Anyone? Roger, do you know which word is the preposition?

Roger: Into

Mrs. Olson: That’s right. Why didn’t you raise your hand and answer me?

She didn’t teach Science. She would switch with the other fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Hough (“As in rough and tough”), and teach her class English while Mrs. Hough taught us Science.

As a sidebar, this was the year that the gym teacher, Mr. Lodding, had a major impact on my life.

First a little background. Every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, my family would go to the International Livestock Exposition and Rodeo at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, next to the old stock yards. We’d wander up and down the aisles, looking at the back end of cows, attend the rodeo and eat a Hickory Farm Beef Stick. This delicacy looked like summer sausage but tasted much, much better. Dad would buy a chunk about a foot long and as big around as a baseball bat. He’d pull out his pen knife and cut off slices and hand them around as we wandered past pigs and sheep and horses and whatnot. I couldn’t get enough.

Back to my story. One year we had some Beef Stick left over. I went home for lunch one day (kids could do that then) and, on my way back to school grabbed the last couple inches to eat as I walked. There was still quite a bit left when I stepped on school grounds. Mr. Lodding saw me with it and confiscated it. There was a rule that we couldn’t bring food out of the lunchroom. I tried to explain that I had brought it from home, but he called me a liar.

Later that afternoon I walked past his office and saw him leading back in his chair, feet on the desk, eating MY BEEF STICK. I gave forth with a silent scream for justice. I may have been scarred for life.

I’m in the top left corner.

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Sixth Grade

Mr. Marecek probably saved me from a life of crime. He may have been warned about me, because from the first day he took me on as a special project. He often kept me after school, not as punishment, but to help him decorate the bulletin boards and tape up the best class homework assignments on the wall. (Teachers could do things like this in those days without being accused of anything.)

He gave us a lot of assignments in history and science that involved maps. “Here’s a map of North America. Draw in the major weather patterns.” That sort of thing. I would go far beyond the assignment. I’d pull out my colored pencils and color the whole thing. When Mr. Marecek noticed my interest, he encouraged it. This got me more interested in homework in general and before you knew it, my conduct grade reached its all-time high, a “B—.” He sent news of this notable achievement home to my parents in the form of several notes that all include variations of “There has been a marked improvement in Roger’s conduct and attitude toward school.”

This qualified me to be a patrol boy. I got to wear and orange belt and leave class 15-minutes early to take my station on some neighborhood corner and usher younger kids across the street.

I joke, but things got pretty rocky for me academically again in junior high. Being able to look back at one fleeting year of success may well have kept me from giving up entirely. In retrospect, I’m sure growing up had something to do with it. But the biggest factor was probably that I’d finally found a teacher who cared.

I’m in the second row from the top, third from the left.

My second major crush was in my class. I’ll let you guess who she was. I never summoned the courage to talk to her, but there was this one time when I was by my hall locker and she walked by and said “Hi, Roger.” I lived on that moment for months.

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