October 15, 2007
By Jenifer Scharpen
Age 6 at the time
My first grade teacher was maybe not the most insightful woman to ever pass out a Dick and Jane reader, and I really don't remember many things about the days I spent in her classroom. I do remember though, what divided me from my classmates and made it impossible for me to have any friends: I could read.
I started first grade when I was five, but just weeks away from turning six. My parents had (rightfully) convinced the school district to let me jump over kindergarten because I could already read and write without much help. If my father were telling this part of the story, he'd point out that I liked to read him the newspaper, and that I used Perfect Grammar when I spoke, from the time I was tiny until the end of that first week of school. The grammar didn't stand a chance once I was hanging around with actual children. There were two other kids in first grade who could read: Deborah and Michael. We sat huddled together in the back corner of the classroom with our pencils, books, and Big Chief tablets, away from the kids who were learning the basics.
This of course was bad. You'd think that we'd have had each other, but even my socially-challenged brain figured out that we were so uncool and unwelcome it would be best to act like the other kids and just hate each other and ourselves. Our teacher loved to use us as examples for the class, "Someday you'll be reading like they are!"
I remember sitting at my desk on one of the first days of school and watching a kid cut up his lunch money, a dollar, with his safety scissors. He did a great job, ending up with tiny and even squares. I was horrified. Somehow it seemed worse to me than cutting up an American flag (which I likened it to at the time) and I knew I had to tell. I did. And the kid was sent back to kindergarten. Thirty-one years later I still feel guilty. Peeing my pants at the zoo didn't exactly help my social standing, either. Nor did the fact that I was so small and so allergy riddled and so, so freckled.
But, I think what really did me in was my job as classroom monitor. I still dream about it. I had to stand up on a chair parked by the chalkboard at the head of the class. I held a thin piece of chalk in my hand and my instructions were to write down the name of any child who talked. The teacher would leave the room and give me this look. This look that was like, "Okay, you are totally more responsible and mature than these other kids. You're just a small adult. So, help me out, give me a break from this and do my job for me so I can go out for a smoke." I may be misinterpreting this memory a little, but the next part is unforgettable: the sound of kids talking and laughing loud enough to be heard through the classroom door. The closed classroom door. The classroom door through which I could hear the teacher's shoes clomping down the tile hallway.
Talk about damned if you do and damned if you don't.
I don't remember what I did. Sometimes there's a flash of the teacher demanding to know who was talking, but I really don't know what happened. Probably, I tattled. At least the teacher seemed to admire me and I sure didn't want to lose that.
One time during the school year a girl from my class asked me to play. Come with me, she'd said, dragging me by the shirtsleeve. We ended up underneath a tree near the seesaw and the chain link fence and the street. Bury my hands in the dirt, she commanded. Look down close at them now. I was fascinated and did as I was told. I figured it out only when I saw the flash of her hands flinging the dirt into my face. And of course that was too late. It wasn't bad enough that everyone thought I was weird and a teacher's pet. Now I had dirt in my eyes and in my mouth and up my nose.
Still, I remember the day that I did come home with that Dick and Jane reader. I remember my parents being happy for me, telling me that they'd read it when they were little, too. I remember showing it to them as we walked through the parking lot of the apartment complex where we lived. I remember taking it out and looking at it as I walked home from school. I knew it was cool to be able to read.
I knew first grade wouldn't last forever.