There is a certain safety in regimentation and rote memorization. I didn’t know either of those terms at the time but thinking back to my first-grade class in my Delaware school, this is the way I learned most often—as part of a large group with no real attention on myself. That was the part that was safe.
In our small, overheated classroom, was Miss Clark, a short, plump woman with gray permed hair who directed the class like a dark clad drill sergeant, her only ornamentation the silver whistle that hung from a black cord around her neck. She used it often, blowing short, sharp notes that ordered our class to attention: Stand up, sit down, line up. And we obeyed, stalwart little soldiers who wanted to please her and to be told we were good children—which for all her sternness, she told us often. In her right hand she grasped a long wooden pointer which she directed to various charts near the chalkboard at the front of the room. In unison, we recited the alphabet and numbers, always in order, as she pointed to one symbol after another. Even the color chart, which was marked with single coordinating dots next to the written names were practiced in the same way every day—so much so that even now, over 60 years later, I can recite them in order: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, purple, brown, black. Together, our thirty voices were as one, as we sang the Good Morning Song at the beginning of the day, the Pledge to the Flag immediately after, and the Lord’s Prayer right before lunch—this was a public school but in a time that prayer in all schools was the norm. Kindergarten was not a requirement then, so for me this was the first time I had ever been in a classroom setting, save for a few sporadic Sunday School classes. Here I learned how not to draw attention to myself and to comfortably be one of the crowd. I learned not to speak too loudly in case I made a mistake so I would not incur Miss Clark’s scolding. I learned that if I didn’t know the numbers or the letters to move my mouth up and down to look as if I was calling them out, but also to not look directly at Miss Clark so she’d be less likely to notice me. I learned that Sandra, the tall brown-haired girl, was smart and that Miss Clark smiled at her a lot, so Sandra was the one to copy if I wasn’t sure when to raise my right hand or my left hand—a skill that confused me greatly. I was quiet, well-behaved, and generally happy. I was one of the crowd—until one day when I wasn’t, and I was completely alone.
It was winter, and our recess had been confined lately to the tiny courtyard off our class. Courtyard is being generous—it backed up to the school cafeteria and was covered with gravel, a gray, dismal place. But the gravel meant that we wouldn’t track mud in on our shoes, and no matter how cold, Miss Clark insisted we bundle up and play tag or follow the leader while she stood near the door, shivering, miserable looking, until she blew her whistle three short times and hastened us inside with complaints about the bitterness of winter.
After this morning recess, we always gathered around Miss Clark in a semi-circle on a large rug, where she would ask various questions which we answered by raising our hands.
“Raise your hand if you can count to 10.” Our hands went up.
“Raise your hand if you can spell your name.” Our hands went up again.
The questions were always like these, but on this Monday morning she added a new question:
“Raise your hand if you went to church yesterday.” All the students’ hands went up, except for one—mine. I had not gone to church any Sunday that I could recall recently. My family rarely went to church, and we certainly didn’t now that my dad worked on Sundays as a mechanic at Connelly’s —we were a one car family, and my mom didn’t drive then anyway.
Miss Clark’s next question was for me alone. “Who didn’t go to church yesterday? “She already knew the answer, but I did as was expected of me.
I raised my hand.
“Stand,” Miss Clark ordered.
So, I stood, alone, in front of my classmates.
“You are a very bad child. You must go to church. If you don’t, you will go to Hell.” She continued to chastise me, and I continued to stand.
At the age of six, the concept of Hell held little meaning for me. After all, I wasn’t a church goer either. I had heard Hell was where you went after you died if you had been bad, that it lasted forever, and it was very hot. It did occur to me much later that this experience had all these components. My cheeks burned with embarrassment, and I was uncomfortably aware of the warm, always stuffy room. Although Miss Clark’s admonishments probably lasted only minutes, they seemed to go on forever, and I was being told I was bad by someone who seemed to have the ability to judge me. But, despite my embarrassment, and maybe because I was only six, I forgot this incident until the next Monday morning when it happened again. And the next Monday, and then again until one Monday when Miss Clark asked, “Who did not go to church on Sunday”, my classmate Lester, also raised his hand. One child who didn’t go to church was almost too much for Miss Clark, but two children completely unnerved her.
Our punishment was to stand on top of our desks so everyone could see exactly what Hell-bound children looked like. “Take a good look,” Miss Clark told the rest of the class, “and don’t be like these bad children.” I glanced over at Lester, already standing on top of his desk, his face red, but his shoulders straight, sentry-like, as boys had been taught to do for generations—by rote, in unison, in regimentation.
I was humiliated. Not because I might go to this place called Hell but because like all girls of this era, I had to wear a dress to school. The school yard chant, “I see London, I see France, I can see your underpants,” had become my reality. I pressed down frantically on the gathers of my skirt to hold the fabric close to my stiff legs so no one could look up my dress and see my underwear. This was worse than any Hell Miss Clark worried so much about, and I thought this punishment might not ever end.
This time I not only remembered Monday’s question about my church going, but I also brooded about it all week. So, when Sunday night came, I told my parents that I could not go to school the next day and explained what had happened. My mother’s eyes grew wide, and her lips pursed tightly. “How long has this been going on?” she asked.
“Forever,” I answered, “At least four or five times.”
My dad’s eyes were steely. He said nothing but got up from his chair and headed to another room where the phone was. He shut the door but, in a few moments, I could hear his murmuring voice and then his loud, distinct words, “Miss Clark, you will never humiliate my child ever again. You will never ask her again if she went to church. Do you understand?
When he came back, he said simply, “Don’t worry about this, Janie, Miss Clark will never ask you about church again.”
So sure I was of my father’s power, that when we sat in the semicircle Monday morning, I sat straight and confident knowing that Miss Clark would not be asking her weekly question. Even when Sandra, the tall brown-haired girl said, “Miss Clark, you forgot to ask if we went to church,” I just smiled.
“That’s enough, Sandra “Miss Clark said.
“But Miss Clark, you always . . .”
“I said, ‘That’s enough.”
And it was. Miss Clark never asked again who went to church and who did not.
Almost eight years ago and a year after I had retired from teaching, I returned to this tiny classroom for the first time since I had been a student there. My husband and I had traveled to Philadelphia for my cousin’s 80thbirthday, and we took a day trip into lower Delaware so I could see my old house, my grandparents’ old house, and this school where I had attended for 10 years. It was a weekday, around 4 PM, so the students had gone home but the school was still open. I went to the office and spoke with the secretary. “I had been a student here many years ago. Would it be okay if I saw some of the classrooms.” She obliged pleasantly and gave me a tour—there was the library, the gym, my old study hall—all looking pretty much the same as I had left them.
“Is there a room you’d especially like to see?” the secretary asked.
“Yes. The first classroom on the left after you pass the cafeteria—that was my first-grade class.”
Things do look so much smaller than how you remember them—this room certainly proves it. But then I remember, it is a room for very small children just as it was so long ago. The posters and desks are a little more modern, but otherwise the room is essentially the same. I picture Miss Clark at the front of the room, pointer in her hand, and it startles me to realize that she was about the same age as I am now. I also picture my classmates and myself seated at these tiny desks—impressionable, unsure, unknowing. I see my classmate Lester, standing stoically on top of his desk for the sin of not attending church and feel resurfaced anger that any child of six must be stoic for any reason. And I see myself standing on top of my desk, humiliated, and frantically pushing down the poufy gathers of my dress.
I never saw Miss Clark again after I left this first grade classroom so many years ago. I was told that my class was her last one and that she had retired from teaching. I also heard she moved to Florida because she was tired of the cold Delaware winters and (this part makes me smile a bit) she wanted to be somewhere where it was always hot.
Throughout my teaching career, and especially during my last year of teaching, people would ask me who inspired me to be a teacher. I gave credit to my parents, my first teachers, who taught me to value curiosity and to learn for learning’s sake, that education was as near as a book, an open field, or a shady wood. Most of all, they believed me at a time when it was far more customary to believe the teacher—and to believe the words of a child is one of the greatest acts of respect a teacher can give to a child.
I gave credit to my paternal grandmother who taught nursing in her later career to young adults. I recall her animated, happy voice as she relayed her teaching experiences, and thought so many times that I wanted to be like her. She was the one who, after I showed I was serious about getting my education, financed my second two years of college—she was my champion who believed in me—and because of her I always remembered that successful students had someone who believed in them.
I was inspired by my second-grade teacher who showed me that good teachers can smile and still manage a class adequately and that it was just fine to sing off key if you did so loudly and with confidence. From her I learned that if you were going to teach, to believe in yourself—and to encourage students to believe in themselves too—their real selves, their individual selves.
Standing here, though, in this tiny, still stuffy classroom, I realized how much Miss Clark had also inspired me, not by being someone who I would ever try to emulate but by being an example of what kind of teacher I didn’t ever want to be.