What I Learned in First Grade

Meredith Sue Willis

(From After the Bell: Contemporary American Prose About School, edited by Maggie Anderson and David Hassler (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2007).


When I was small, I used to make up stories about freedom-loving wild horses and brave Indian princesses. Sometimes I wrote these down, often in the form of comic books, but I never wrote directly abut my own life experiences until I was thirteen and recorded for posterity how much I had hated first grade. When my mother read that piece, she was shocked. She said she always assumed that because I was good at school I must like it.

I had looked forward to starting school. School was our family business: my father was a high school science teacher, and my mother had been a teacher too, although she stayed at home with me and my baby sister. That's what women did then, and she considered housekeeping a high moral calling. She indicated that it was a sign of righteousness to give up nice clothes and a salary to stay home and iron. She hated ironing, but said it was especially important to do the things you like least.
School, my father's domain, sounded better to me. Daddy came home every day and told us stories abut school: he had tales of his colleagues' foibles and his students' struggles; he had a human tapeworm in a jar; he had jokes from The Readers' Digest to keep his afternoon classes awake. I think I expected first grade to be my father's world.
We walked nearly a mile to the Shinnston Grace School, from East Shinnston into town along a brick sidewalk, past houses, past undeveloped fields. Coal trucks rattled by. After a while, the houses came closer together, and the grade school stood in front of us, a long brick block with tall windows and high ceilings. It smelled of floor oil and bag lunches. All the first grade classes were on the main floor, Miss Shreve and Miss Radford to the left and Miss Oliverio to the right. Forty of us sat in desks bolted to the floor. Our most important activity, as I remember it, was holding still, not an easy lesson for six-year-old bodies used to running, climbing, and curling up at will.

My mother and father told me that my teacher, Miss Shreve, was the best one because she was so strict. Miss Radford next door was strict too, and the two of them had gone about as far as an unmarried woman could go in the work world in those days. They were straight-backed and pigeon-breasted, and wore what would later be called power suits. They had their hair done at the beauty parlor every week. They could, either one of them, have run a corporation or a small country.

At the other end of the floor was Miss Oliverio, also professionally coifed and neatly suited, but there were rumors that she was easy on kids. That she gave out treats. That she hugged the littlest ones when they cried. This seemed somehow to be related to the fact that she was Italian, as if being Italian gave you, along with a propensity for pierced ears and cooking with garlic, an unprofessional tendency to be kind to children.
I understood that control over children was an essential part of the teacher's job. Like a child who identifies with the company because his father is a shop foreman, I understood that I was supposed to be on the teachers' side. In practice, what this meant was that I was excruciatingly attentive to following Miss Shreve's instructions. I was terrified of getting paddled, but mostly I wanted to be a good student. Therefore, when she told us to put our heads on our desks and keep quiet, I did precisely that.

Sometimes Miss Shreve had to go out, to the bathroom I suppose, or for a smoke, and Miss Radford would stand in the doorway and watch us and her class, too. We were even more afraid of Miss Radford than of Miss Shreve because Miss Radford paddled you and then made you sit in the wastebasket. But sometimes, no one watched us. It didn't take long for most of the kids to figure out when we were really alone and start buzzing and twisting in their seats and making faces and giggling and whispering, and some even got up and made breathless forays up and down the aisles. But I kept my head down. The boy who sat behind me would tap me with his finger and say my name over and over, urgently trying to get me to join in the fun, buy I kept my face pressed into my arms.

Occasionally Miss Shreve also told us to put our heads down when she was in the room. Maybe she wanted to do her grade book or look out the window. Maybe she thought we needed a rest. One day she said, "All right, class, that's enough. Put your heads on your seats."

Always before she had said, Put your heads on your desks. I don't know why she changed that day; it was perhaps merely the human desire for a break in routine. I was puzzled, but determined to follow orders. The other kids were, as usual, cradling their heads on top of their desks. But I got down on my knees on the splintery oiled wood floor and put my head on the varnished seat, still warm from my behind.

The room became unusually quiet.

She had been pacing in the front, but I heard her stop short, reverse direction, and come up the aisle toward me.

I looked out from under my arm and saw her sturdy two-inch heels and the nylons on her well-shaped calves that seemed too young for her face. When she got to me, she stopped, and I looked over her skirt, over her crossed arms, to the grimacing yellow teeth and the purple splotches of rage on her cheeks.

"Meredith," she said, in a voice like a jackhammer, "exactly what do you think you are doing?"

That was when it struck me that the other children, who I knew were not nearly as good as I was, had done the right thing, and I hadn't. It was one of those breathtaking flashes of bright comprehension, an epiphany: doing exactly as you are told can be dangerous too.

"Get up into that chair!" she shouted. "Right now! Don't you dare make fun of me! Get your little behind in that chair!"

She didn't hit me– maybe she didn't trust herself in her fury, or maybe she saw in my eyes that there had been a terrible mistake. It didn't stop her from being angry, but she didn't hit me. Another time, she smacked every hand in the entire class with a ruler, including mine, but by then, I was entertaining the possibility that she was a tyrant, and that it was unfair to hit everyone if a few misbehaved.

I also discovered in the coming months that, if I did my work quickly and neatly and sat very still, I could escape first grade. My body would be there, but my mind would follow some graceful imaginary figure who danced on the chalkboard ledge and then passed through the window glass into the open air.

By second grade, I had begun to draw what I was seeing in the margins of my papers.

They didn't let you read books in my school, but I found that, during the spelling and grammar drills and during handwriting practice, I could hold onto the thread of my stories of wild horses and great battles with evil that were won by heroic girls.

I don't think it would have destroyed my imagination to have been in Miss Oliverio's happy class; I don't think it would have been destroyed if I had been in a school where you could sit on pillows in a reading nook or go to the science corner and chart the growth of tadpoles.

But we live the lives we have, and I learned the discipline of imagination in the first grade, which, white not necessarily the best thing, was what happened to me.