Saturday, March 08, 2014

Elementary, my dear!

I moved back to my hometown in the middle of second grade. On my first day at Bowie Elementary, I was wearing my dark blue fake fur coat. I loved that coat; I have a picture of myself in my coat, sitting on the back of a huge Galapagos tortoise. The coat was warm and cuddly, like wearing a teddy bear. I felt the eyes of all my new classmates boring into me as I took my seat, so I pulled my coat up around my head. The teacher kept asking me to take it off, but there was no way I was going to do that. I eventually lost my shyness and settled into small town life. Some girls wouldn't play with me at recess because their parents had told them not to. My parents were divorced, you see. That somehow tainted me, but I wasn't sure how that related to my influence on my fellow second graders. My Mom and I lived in some apartments directly across the street from my school. She and I were both sick with the flu on the day my 2nd grade school photos were being taken, so I have no photos of my first or second grade classes.

My third grade teacher at Bowie Elementary was a sour faced old woman who was probably only a year or two before retirement. She would always find a way to punish the whole class for the most minor infraction, such as someone coughing during a film or talking out of turn. A girl named Sarah gave us all head lice that year, so Mom had to comb through my short blonde hair with a nit comb and wash the sheets in special detergent. I started hanging out with a girl named Dee Ann, who looked just like Ruth Buzzi. She was a bit too goody-goody for me; she seemed to be mortally shocked by even the least "naughty" things I said.

My mom threw an 8th birthday party for me that year. My friends Cathy and Kim and my step-sister Nicki all came to my party. Dee Ann was out of town and couldn't make it. I had a Pentecostal friend, who came to a sleep over one Friday night. She had been bugging me to accompany her to church, where her father was the Pastor. I kept saying no, because Mom had told me stories about how wild the Pentecostal services were. She referred to them as "Holy Rollers". My regular family life was wild enough for me; I didn't need to go to a wild church as well. My friend was enjoying the sleep over until she asked to try on my new striped jeans. Pentecostal women and girls could not wear makeup or pants, so putting on jeans would be a first for her. She pulled them on and almost immediately burst into tears, blubbering that she was now going to hell. She got so hysterical that my mom had to take her home. I felt so bad that my pants were involved in her downfall into the pits of hellfire, I actually agreed to go to church with her.

Sunday came and we walked into the room for Sunday School. The teacher started to relate the trials and tribulations of Job, with rivulets of tears streaming down her face. My friend and I were still at an age where, if adults were crying, something was WRONG. My friend was crying sympathetically like everyone else in the class, while I stared at the floor and waited for it to swallow me up. My alarm level was already raised but it immediately shot through the ceiling when we entered the sanctuary for the main church service. As soon as my friend's father the Pastor walked to the pulpit, he slammed his fist down on the wooden lectern, looked directly at me in the first row sitting next to his wife and daughter and shouted "YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!!!" The effect was like flipping a switch. All around me, men started pounding the sides of the pews, shouting "AMEN!!", "PRAISE GOD!" and "HALLELUJAH!"; women began to rock back and forth, tearing at their hair, all the while speaking in unintelligible gibberish, moaning and screaming. I was eight years old and absolutely terrified. I crawled on my hands and knees underneath the pews to the back door of the sanctuary. As soon as I saw the door open, I burst through it and ran as fast as I could all the way back home. My mom was frying chicken for lunch when I staggered through the front door, babbling nonsensically about the crazy people who told me I was doomed. She tried her best to calm me down. My friend's mother called later that afternoon to see if I had made my way back home. My mom told her that the experience had been a "little too much" for me.

My Southern Baptist church experience was trying to stay awake through Sunday School (boring), then singing hymns during the church service (not boring, actually very nice). I liked to watch the hands of the little old lady who played the piano for the services. Her gnarled, arthritic hands pummeled the keyboard like she was kneading dough. At the end, we would sing "Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling" and whomever needed "saving" could go down the red carpeted aisle to the Pastor, get dunked and ensure their divine rewards. Any kind of overt emotion was frowned upon. I remember my Mom mentioning that the Pastor would cry during his favorite hymn "Bringing In The Sheaves". She thought that was entirely unnecessary.

Fourth grade was a big change. My teacher was a lovely black woman with a tall bee hive hairdo that landed on her slim shoulders with a small flip. She was my favorite teacher of all time, because she could tell that I was from a dysfunctional background and she took extra care to include me and praise me when I did well on my lessons. On the first day of class, I noticed my classmate Miles perusing a copy of "The Guinness Book of World Records". I asked if I could take a look at it and Miles calmly murmured "", never once looking up. Mrs. Gilstrap reprimanded him and he sulkily thrust the book at me. I'm sure if you looked up the definition of "teacher" in the Oxford English Dictionary, there would be a small picture of Mrs. Gilstrap there. She didn't just teach lessons, she taught me Life. She taught me how to listen correctly and comprehend what I heard. My subsequent successes in my school years were entirely due to my year in her class. I was very sad when fourth grade ended and I'd have to go down the hall to Mr. Caldwell's fifth grade class.

Mr. Caldwell was a jovial man with a smile always on his face. He was also a bus driver. We did fun stuff in class, like talent contests and "Bring Your Pet To School". My grandmother brought up my pet coyote to show off and he was a big hit. I can just see my Mimaw driving her huge, boat-like LTD through Greenville, with a coyote in the back seat. On the talent show front,  my pals Jimmy and Miles and I opted to lip sync the Steve Miller song "The Joker", complete with sunglasses and energetic smoking with rolled paper "joints" in our lips. We also had to choose whether we would continue choir or start band the following year. I chose band and although I wanted to play the glockenspiel, I was forced to choose the more lady-like flute instead. I think the band instructor saw my world-class buck teeth and knew that I had a fine embouchure for flute playing. I did eventually get to play percussion, but not until my junior year in high school.

On the playground during recess, the boys and girls were not allowed to play together. All of the girls would run to the merry-go-round or the monkey bars when the recess bell rang, because we got to play on those first. The boys would start playing dodge ball or climbing the flag pole. Then, about 15 minutes later, the PE teacher (?) would blow a whistle and the boys and girls would switch. One day, I was a little too slow getting off the merry-go-round when Mark grabbed my arm and pulled, making me trip and fall to the hard packed dirt. When I got up, I looked down at my left wrist and noticed an S-bend in it that wasn't there 10 seconds before. That sent me screaming to the Office, where a secretary tried to get my mom on the phone to tell her to come and take me to the hospital. Mom was at lunch at the time, so they didn't reach her for another hour. I sat there next to the secretary's desk whimpering with my arm cradled inside an ice bag. Finally, Mom came and we went to the hospital, where we spent another 4 hours in the ER before we got called in, me on the verge of puking and/or passing out the entire time. I held it together until the Radiology technician helped me  stand in position in the X ray machine. He looked at me hopefully and said, "You OK?" I looked up at him, then projectile vomited all over his crotch and legs (he was really tall).

The bone doctor injected me with painkillers, then set my arm in a hard cast. I wore the cast for 2 weeks. I could move my broken wrist inside it, so I thought that I was already healed and celebrated that belief by bouncing a rubber ball on my cast. When I went back to the bone doc for a check up, he noticed in the new X ray that I had knocked my delicately set wrist out of alignment. I waited on the table for another painkilling injection, but instead, very quickly, he grabbed my hand and my forearm and roughly jerked them apart, giving them a short sharp grind before satisfying himself that my wrist was again properly aligned. He had probably learned that technique in 'Nam, or in a Viet Cong prison. I only had time to croak "aaaahh!" , which brought my Mom rushing over, ready to punch the doc in the face. He stepped back and growled, "Maybe you'll remember this the next time you play ball". I was hysterical and Mom burst into tears. A trip by the doughnut shop on the way home helped us both feel better. Years later, I was visiting my Mom in that hospital when I recognized him in the elevator. I held my wrist up and said, "You set my wrist without painkillers when I was in 5th grade." He held my wrist up and muttered, "Did a good job, didn't I?" I wish I had a rubber ball with me then, so I could have shoved it up his nose.

Fifth grade was especially memorable because I met my BFF that year. Misty and her older sister Robin had moved there from Lubbock. Misty and I were inseparable from first sight. She was my secret sister from another mother, my other half. We completed one another like only giddy fifth graders can. We would have slumber parties and walk through the rural neighborhood where she lived. My Mom had started working for Misty's dad at his insurance office, and I loved her mom and her sister, so we made one big, happy family. Misty and I would dance around to her "American Graffiti" soundtrack and her "KC & the Sunshine Band" LPs. We were both closet hams; we would have been welcome on any stage, I'm sure. We could make each other howl with laughter, plus Misty had a Barbie townhouse. We made Barbie and Ken hump enthusiastically on all floors (and in the elevator) of the Townhouse. We would write notes to pass in the halls at school, complete with portraits of teachers we didn't like. Even when I talk to her now, it's like no time at all has passed.

During sixth grade, our little group of friends has broadened to include Sherry, Ann and Pam. Puberty had made us all start to notice boys, but we were still too young to do anything about it. We were all looking forward to junior high the next year....


Tracey Fields said...

Love this post!!

Misty Brown said...

Ahhhhh how I loved listening to that record and singing and dancing with you!! That was one of the best times in my life!!! I knew Ms. Gilstrap, but I had some old nasty lady...don't even remember her name...