Cleveland Elementary School in Cleveland, Alabama August 1970. A newly fat, brown-haired, brown-eyed girl can barely contain her excitment about finally starting school. Back then kindergarten was not a requirement so first grade would be my first experience with formal education. Plus, I had been taught to read by my mama and although I did not understand why it was such a gift, I knew it was one.
What else would I be able to learn? I had no clue actually, but I was eager to begin. Mama and I walked into that classroom and the teacher tells us I can sit where I want. I choose the front row right in front of the teachers desk. I had high hopes for this woman before me.
Then a girl walks in, points at my seat and demands I let her have it. There were other kids there already but there were lots of desks left. Believe me, in my six-year-old mind I was not giving up my desk.
Before it became more than a flicker of a thought though my mother took my book bag, my hand and moved me to the back row, far corner, last seat. She hissed at me that the girl was the daughter of a doctor, they had money, who was I to take her seat?
Mama stayed with me a bit longer and then hissed at me again, “Do not upset the doctor’s daughter,”. Then she left.
It was not high on my list of things I wanted to do. I was puzzled. Though a part of me began to understand, I was not as “good” as the doctor’s daughter. But, the teacher was asking for our attention and the real school part was beginning. Hurray.
It took a while but eventually we got to take a book, sit in a circle and we were going to begin to learn to read. Nearly everyone could say their alphabet. Some could recognize the letters too.
For now we just looked at the page and pointed out our letters as she showed us what they looked like and read to us. She’d call on us one at a time to point out a letter. When she called on me I made the mistake of asking her if I could just read her the page.
Without her permission, Miss Eager Beaver who apparently needed another lesson about her station in life, took off reading a Dick & Jane book. Anyone familiar with the Dick & Jane readers know there are not a lot of words on a page, or more than two to three word sentences.
Faster than I thought an adult could move she snatched that book away pinching my fingers between the pages. Without explanation I was sent from the reading group. You guessed it, right back to my desk in the back row in the far corner to the last desk.
During recess Teacher kept me inside. She came back to my desk and managed to sit in the chair in front of me. “You can’t read,” she said.
I was confused. Had I not just read to her? “Yes, I can. My mama taught me.”
“No, you cannot, I have not taught you to read. You cannot read yet.”
I remember looking down at the floor. My six-year-old mind could not understand. Of course I could read. I read books with way more words than Dick & Jane. Why would this woman, who I thought held the key to everything, be telling me I could not do what I had been doing since I was four?
“You will never do what you did this morning again until I tell you I’ve taught you how to do it. Do you understand?”
“But, my Mama taught me…”
“And your mother taught you all wrong. You cannot read.”
I sat the rest of recess sitting in my corner with my head down on my desk. Of course, I cried. My cousin who was in class with me thought, as did the rest of the class, that I had done something wrong and had to stay in from recess as punishment. He went right home and told my aunt, who told my mother, who gave me a spanking.
When I saw my mother I was ashamed and afraid to tell her what the teacher had said. Maybe if she had asked me I would have, but she did not. She kept her and my father’s promise that if I got in trouble at school I would get double trouble at home, hence the spanking.
Now I feared if I did tell her she would get into trouble because I had told on her for teaching me to read. I never told anyone either until years later. Just my doll Tippy Toes, and she kept my secret.
Eventually the teacher informed me I could start to read words, but she kept the brakes on me. Maybe she thought I would appear to be a show-off to the other children? Maybe she did not know how to deal with a six-year-old who was already reading at a third to fifth grade level? I am sure she had her reasons. I am not sure any of them are good enough for what she robbed me of that year.
Where I had been excited about school I was now nervous. I had panic attacks at every test. Could not trust myself to believe I really knew the information. After all, I thought I knew how to read and it was a good thing and it turned out to be horrible.
I understood my station in life. It took one school year. One. Nine months. Afterall, was that not exactly the lesson I was taught? Turned out I was a good student.
In some ways, I am still that fat kid in the far corner, in the back row, in the last seat.
I cannot remember what that doctor’s daughter from the first grade looked like or what her name was though she taunted me for the entire school year. Is my memory void of small details for self-presevation or simply the fact we moved and I never saw her again? Or the result of getting older?
Nor can I remember my teachers name or appearance. I came back into possession of the yearbook from my first grade year when my mama died. I had no idea it even still existed.
Part of me wanted to look. Could I pick the girl out? Did I not want to see the teacher’s face? No. No I did not.
I simply threw it away. It held nothing I needed to remember. I remembered enough. The real story of my first grade year, the year I learned my station in life, was not recorded between those once white pebbly cover pages.