Thursday, January 17, 2008


Second grade was scary. We had moved from the only home I had ever known to a cramped rented house in a strange city in a distant state. We had running water in a kitchen sink, but no bathroom, only an ancient outhouse. World War II roared in full swing, and housing was at a premium. Funds for updated school buildings had been frozen "for the duration." Energetic young teachers threw over their jobs by the battalions to take good-paying defense work. Decou School was left in the palsied hands of a few tired, old warriors.

Mrs. Church, doughy and slow-moving, knew nothing of my stellar skills in reading. We must have had some reading instruction, but I remember none of it. My unfamiliar classmates and I never sat at Mrs. Church knees reading the thrilling adventures of my old friends, Dick and Jane. ("See Dick run. See Jane watch Dick.") No academic limelight came my way in second grade.

We must have had instruction in various subjects, but I recall none of them. I have no images of any particular book, any specific body of knowledge. But we did encounter yet another skill to be learned. Gone were the Crayolas, the scissors, the construction paper, the paper chains. Welcome to PENMANSHIP.

The subject was new to me, and we seven-year olds were new to almost everything, but the rest of the setting was old and weary. The walls of the classroom had faded to an anonymous color. The floorboards were warped and splintered. Our small desks were furrowed and scarred. In the upper right-hand corner of each desk (no accommodation made for the sinister-handed)was a squat inkwell sunk into a round hole. Most days, the inkwells were dry. Mrs. Church might be ancient, but she was not foolish: you did not give second-graders unsupervised access to INK!

Twice a week, Mrs. Church would walk slowly up one aisle and down the other, carrying a quart bottle of Schaffer's blue ink. Down the long corridor of memory, the image of that bounteous ink-bottle is as shiny as an uncirculated copper penny, even to the details of the scripted name on the label. With a seasoned if shaky hand, our teacher poured a dram of ink into each well. Ready on our desks were the wood and cork straight pens, often sporting teeth-marks but their steel nibs bright.

(Yes, of course fountain pens had been invented by this time, but they were not generally used by children. Often, your first fountain pen came as a graduation present. Ballpoint pens would be put on the market a year later, in 1943.)

Mrs. Church then lumbered to a glass-paned and locked cabinet at the back of the room. From the shelves, she took twenty sheets of paper. This was not the usual grey newsprint, on which we labored over our pathetic arithmetic or printed our lists of
-at words: bat cat fat hat mat pat rat sat. This penmanship paper was satiny smooth and pure white, with faint blue horizontal lines to help us on our way across the page, and a single vertical red line to the left. Even the class hellion, Buster O'Brian, would never dare to make a mark beyond that warning boundary.

I loved that smooth white paper with a pure and sensuous love that has never dimmed.

Mrs. Church would place one sheet of paper on each desk. We would dip our pens in the ink well, look up at the blackboard at the example of elegant Spencerian handwriting, and practice the loops and swoops, the straight under-the-line downs and the tall, above-the-line ups.

For my part, I was all eagerness. I loved the paper, I loved the pen, and I loved the idea that I could not only read words, but write them. I would take up the pen, place my forearm steadily on the desk as instructed, try to keep my fingers relaxed, launch out, and SPLAT! Also streak, smirch, scratch and smear. And above all, spoil. Any promise the white sheet of paper might have held drowned beneath the blots.

When my report card came out in December and again in June, the D's in "Penmanship" did not bother me. I did not yet care about symbolism or the generalized, third-person judgment a D might convey. All I knew was that, having mangled scissors, crayons, and rhythmic wood blocks, my stubby hands likewise had not mastered the pen.


Tuesday, January 15, 2008


I came very close to flunking out of kindergarten at Muhlenberg #5 grade school.
Luckily, my Gramps (with whom our family lived)was a regular customer at Emil Muller's Butcher Shop, a cash customer, rare in those Depression days. Mrs. Muller taught our class, so I squeaked by. But the kindergarten curriculum nearly sank me.

Coloring inside the lines,
cutting neat strips of construction paper and pasting them into long frivolous chains,
lying quietly on a mat on the floor, listening to the pipes in the school basement and pretending to nap,
standing quietly beside my little wooden chair and pretending to sing "God Bless America" ("stand beside her and guide her/ through the night with a light from a bulb"),
holding the thick green Ticonderoga #1 pencil and drawing something, anything, on soft grey paper--
it was all beyond my talents.

I used the blunt scissors to see how many tiny pieces I could make out of one big Crayola. (Nanny called little pieces of stuff like these "snibblings," a word I've always loved.) I ate the white library paste because it smelled interesting. Lying on the mat, I passed the time by kicking my heels vigorously on the planks of the floor, driving Mrs. Muller to pull my curls and hiss. I held the green pencil as if it were an ice pick. And when Bobby Fridley tried to kiss me one day in the middle of "God Bless America," I grasped my little chair by its curved back and smashed him.

First grade was more of the same, or so it seemed at the start. Mrs. Howell formed us into a little band, some of us with kazoos, one lucky fellow with a lovely silver triangle, some kids with big wooden rattles. After experimentation, Mrs. Howell gave me two rectangular blocks of wood, about the size of blackboard erasers. My job was to bang them together rhythmically. I actually got the banging part down pretty well, but counting and banging was something of a challenge. Before I really got the counting and banging synchronized, Mrs. Howell started having headaches, and the band's Halloween concert had to be cancelled.

But right about that time, we were issued the Dick and Jane books, and launched into Reading, our wooden chairs drawn into a semi-circle around Mrs. Howell's knees as she sat before us, hopeful and tense with responsibility. Now there were no scissors, no crayons, no blocks of wood. Instead, there were words, and I was home free. Suddenly I began to notice what a pretty smile Mrs. Howell had, and how differently she now said my name. She would call on Bobby, who stumbled over two or three sentences; then it was Myrna's turn, pretty, quiet Myrna who made such long, neatly pasted paper chains, and who now ended her stints with Dick and Jane by crying quietly but moistly into the sash of her flouncy dress. Finally Mrs. H would nod at me, and I would read, sentence after sentence, on and on, while she gazed out the window and watched the leaves flitter gently to earth until the bell rang.