I walked towards my fifth grade classroom in 1970-something, where an elderly woman stood in the doorway. She wore an old-fashioned dress which hung almost to her ankles. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Are you related to Jim Hardy?” Her pale blue eyes widened behind her cat-eye glasses.
“He’s my uncle, but we never see him.”
“What?” She raised her hand to the top of her head, grabbing a patch of her gray hair.
“He’s my uncle, but we never see him,” I repeated.
“Okay,” she whispered. Mrs. Whitlock adjusted her glasses and looked toward the back of the room. “You’re tall, so you can take the last desk in the fourth row.”
Chalk dust invaded my nostrils as I walked into the classroom. There was perfect handwriting on the blackboard which read “Mrs. White” and a large American flag hung behind the teacher’s desk. I held my book-bag and brand new Peanuts lunch box close to me as I navigated the aisle. I plopped my stuff on my desk. Diagonally across from me was Abigail, a beautiful tall, thin blonde girl I had known since first grade. “Hi Abigail,” I said.
She turned around and frowned at me. “Hi.” She exhaled deeply and turned back around. Abigail resumed talking to Lance, the cute blonde-haired blue-eyed boy.
Mrs. Whitlock strutted to the front of the room. “Class, stand up and push your chairs under your desks. It’s time for the Pledge of Allegiance.”
We each put our hand over our heart, faced the flag, and recited:
“I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and Justice for all.” We scrambled to grab our chairs to sit back down.
“Remain standing for the Our Father.”
We looked at each other. Prayer? In school?
Mrs. Whitlock folded her hands, closed her eyes and bowed her head.
“Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in Heaven, give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
Mrs. Whitlock looked up, nodded, and we sat down. “Okay, class there is no talking. Take out a piece of paper and put a heading on the top like you see here.” She took the pointer stick and tapped on the blackboard as she read each item. “Your name goes on the top left side of the paper. Under your name is the subject, in this case “Essay” and on the right put today’s date, and under the date write, “Mrs. Whitlock.”
A unified groan filled the classroom.
Mrs. Whitlock’s jaw dropped open. “You will write about ‘What I did on my summer vacation.’ You have 30 minutes. No talking.”
Jail was now in session. As I searched my mind for something interesting to write about, I could hear talking and laughing from the classroom next door. Miss Karr also taught fifth grade, and since she was a generation or two younger than Mrs. Whitlock, she had different ideas about what school should be. I finally scribbled down a few sentences about swimming with my cousins.
“Okay, hand in your papers. This is how you are to do it. The last person in the row passes the paper to the person in front of them. That person puts their paper on top, and so on, up to the front. Then the papers are passed from right to left. The person in the front of the row puts their pile of papers on top, and passes to the right and then I collect them up here.”
Mumblings and grumblings filled the room.
Mrs. Whitlock collected the papers and placed them on her desk. She held up a book of poems. “I am going to read a poem.”
“If a task is once begun,
Never leave it ‘til it’s done.
Be the labor great or small,
Do it well or not at all.”
“We have a few minutes before English class starts, so I am going to show you how to line up.” What is she talking about? “Everyone stand up to the left of your desk and push your chair in.”
Like robots, we obeyed. “Now, everyone except the first row here, turn around and face the back of the room. First row, walk towards the door. Second row, person at the end, lead the line to the first row, then third row follows, then fourth, then fifth. Look in front of you and in back of you. This is who you will be next to in line for the rest of the year.”
Oh great. I stared at the back of Charles’ head, his short hair infused with dandruff. I inhaled a whiff of his ratty clothes. A whole year of this?
“Okay, return to your seats. Stay in line.” Mrs. Whitlock looked at the clock. “It’s time for English. The following people will be going to Miss Karr’s room for English.” I waited. Miraculously, my name was called. Get out of jail, free.
Miss Karr’s classroom was alive with chatter. Boys crawled along on the floor, holding matchbox cars and pushed them across the room. Girls sang Miss Mary Mac and patty-caked in rhythm.
“Come on in, take any seat,” Miss. Karr told us. She wore a dark brown dress, and had short brown hair. She looked like a barrel with a head.
“Okay, boys, it’s time to put the cars away and take a seat.” The boys were still smiling as they walked back to their desks.
“For those of you from Mrs. Whitlock’s class, I’m Miss Karr. My family’s original name was Kartoyevsky. We’re Russian. If we have time, I’ll teach you some Russian words this year.”
Russian? Isn’t Russia our enemy?
“Ok, here are the work books for this year. Dave and Frank, will you pass these out to everyone? We will probably not go in order, but we will cover the whole book this year. You will see in the beginning of the book is an explanation and an exercise. It will tell you the page number in the back of the book for ‘keys to language’ which tells you, for example, when to use a comma. We will be learning about verb tenses, pronouns and plurals. Be sure to write your name on the front of the book.”
Time flew by and soon it was time to go back to jail. “Okay, Mrs. Whitlock’s folks, it’s time to go back. See you tomorrow,” Miss Karr said.
As we shuffled back down the hall to Mrs. Whitlock’s class, the other kids were running out of her classroom and back to Mrs. Karr’s room. We took our seats.
“As soon as it’s quiet, you can line up for lunch,” Mrs. Whitlock raised her chin and glared at us. Silence. “Okay, line up quietly.”
Later in the day, after Math class, Mrs. Whitlock handed out textbooks. “These are to be kept in your desks. We will read these at the end of the day while waiting for the buses to be called.”
“Awww,” we moaned in unison.
We could hear the laughter from Mrs. Karr’s room next door.
“The next person to talk out of turn is going to get a checkmark on the board. Three checkmarks and you will be punished.”
“Like three strikes and you’re out,” Mike said. The class laughed.
Mrs. Whitlock furiously wrote “Mike” and placed a checkmark next to his name. Mike’s smile faded but his bright brown eyes still sparkled with mischief. Dave, who sat in front of him, turned around and they exchanged smirks.
“Everyone turn to page 10. Mark, will you read what is written there, just the title.”
“Bob rides his bike.”
“And to where does he ride his bike? Read the next paragraph quietly and raise your hand if you know the answer,” Mrs. Whitlock explained. We read quietly while laughter roared through the wall.
Lynn raised her hand. “Yes, Lynn.”
“To the store.”
“Yes, very good Lynn, now read the whole paragraph.
While Lynn read about Bob riding his bike to the store to buy a loaf of bread for 10 cents, song broke out in the next room.
“Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg,
The Batmobile lost its wheel and the Joker got away, Hey!”
The sound of laughter floated into our classroom, mocking us.
The final bell rang. The crackle of the school Public Address system, known to us as the PA, meant that Mrs. Mayfield, the Principal’s secretary was going to call the buses. “Bus 2 and 3, please come to the front of the building.”
Finally, my first day of jail was over.