More Notes From A Curmudgeon
I was not a good student. School, to me, was a source of absolute misery. Between being beaten up by bullies and teased and called names, (skinny and sissy being at the top of the list) there was my incapability to understand basic math. Numbers scared the shit out of me, literally. Bathroom breaks were necessary when it was math test day. I couldn’t memorize my timetables beyond my fivezees, and addition and subtraction stopped when I ran out of fingers and toes. Long division? Forget about it.
That miracle, the battery-operated calculator, hadn’t been invented yet and, unlike that aforementioned amazing hand-held computer, my brain was not wired to handle arithmetic.
I was dreamer trapped in a nightmare. Seated at a desk, too small for my long legs, inside an over-heated room with twenty-nine other restless third graders, I was being introduced to the joys of the three R’s by a terrifying ogre named Miss Fortune. (Her real name by the way.) My only escape was through one of the large windows that ran parallel to the rows of desks and displayed the glorious blue sky and fluffy white clouds that formed shapes like elephants and a skyscrapers and---
“Herbert! Pay attention! Eyes on the blackboard, Please! What is the answer to number three?”
This is when my life ends. I find myself sweating in places I shouldn’t. My breathing has stopped and the blackboard is doing a wavy dance with the usually somber Miss Fortune joining right in.
“Number three, please,” she repeats, pointing to the offending problem with her all-purpose ruler.
The numerals are doing a square dance and it takes all of my minimal powers of concentration to stop the hoedown. I squint, bite my lip and clutch my crotch.
8 + 12 =
Writing about it now, decades later, I want to scream out “20, you revolting old hag!” But I’m sure she was suffering as much as we were. It must have been hell trying to control a room full of antsy eight-year olds let alone trying to teach them anything. And just for the record, Miss Alma Fortune, I’ve learned enough math to get along fine and there’s always my iPhone if I need a little extra help.
The only gold stars I ever got were for acing spelling tests. Every Monday morning Miss Fortune handed out a mimeographed sheet of the words that would be on Friday’s spelling test. So, we had four days to study them. There would be no surprises. What you saw was what you got.
This I could deal with. However, how I dealt with learning the words was not the method Miss Fortune put forward.
“Sound out each syllable,” she recommended, “Break the word down into each of its separate sounds.” She pointed her all-purpose twelve-inch ruler to a word she had chalked on the blackboard:
“Listen to the sounds: ree-spawn-seh-bull.” Her mouth wrapped around the syllables like she was eating them and then spitting them out.
As for me, I had a much simpler method. I would just memorize each of the ten words typed on the sheet of paper like you would learn lines in a play script. Sometimes I would attach an image to the word, like for fatal---a picture of Miss Fortune lying in a pool of blood.
When Friday came around I was fully prepared. Miss Fortune would sound out each word, with a definition, and I would end up getting a 100%, an A+ and a gold star on my test. I’d add another tongue-moistened glue-backed paper star to the chart on the bulletin board. I was a winner!
However, there was a small hitch to my methodology. When we were assigned a book report to write or an essay, such as What I Did Over Spring Break, I would misspell most of the words I had aced on the spelling tests because I hadn’t really learned them. I had just memorized them long enough to pass the exam. Bummer!
What I Did Over Spring Break
My pairents and I went to Auntlantick City and I swam in the Oshun. It was warm and the sand got into my sanwitch. The seagalls pooped on my dad’s head.
Now, in my defense, back then there was no Spellcheck. I honestly never understood why, if we were supposed to spell a word by sounding it out, why many of the words didn’t actually look the way they sounded. For example, in my essay on Spring Break, the word ocean didn’t sound like oshun to me. Ocean sounds more like; oh-see-Ann, whoever she is.
Okay, as an adult, who has written a few tomes in my rickety life, I have learned a lot about the derivation of words, the influences of other languages, how the insertion of a letter can change the sound of a vowel and all the other cockamamie rules found in proper English. Like double letters when one letter is plenty enough. For example, Cafeine will still give you a jolt without that extra F.
But, please, you language specialists, here’s where I really need some help. I don’t understand the purpose of the silent letter.
Imagine, for a moment, an eight-year old getting his book report back with a big red D- smeared across the top of the page. And all because of too many misspelled words.
And don’t tell me to do what Miss Fortune suggested, “Look it up in the dictionary.” How could I look it up if I didn’t even know what it started with. I didn’t know ‘rinkle’ started with a W or ‘neumonia‘ began with a P. Give a guy a break. Remember, this was back in the dark ages before you could ask a disembodied voice, “Siri, spell ‘neumonia.”
I am not alone in observing the absurdity of spelling in the English language. Ben Franklin, Noah Webster, G.B. Shaw and Teddy Roosevelt, men much more intelligent than I, tried to make radical changes to the weird way some words are spelled. They were not successful. So we are still stuck with silent K (knock and knee) and silent C (muscle and scissors) as well as the silent versions of the letters H (anchor), B (subtle), W (sword) and G (gnat and gnaw.)
Good old Ben once said that the best spellers where those who couldn’t spell. In not knowing the rules they used their ears and spelled the words the way they sounded. But that didn’t work when a silent letter reared its useless head. Okay, enough whining about an eight-year old’s unhappiness with spelling. It’s never going to change.
For me, happiness in school was three things; lunch, recess and Art Class. Until the third grade I felt safe in the room that smelled of tempera paint and white paste. We had Art every other day. It alternated with Gym, which I hated and feared and a room in which I didn’t feel safe. I couldn’t dribble, climb a rope, leap over a hurdle, hit or catch a baseball or pin someone to the mat. I realize, as I am writing this, that not only could I not accomplish any of those things but I really didn’t want to. But back to Art Class.
It was heaven to be able to scribble, splash colors, create weird monsters out of clay and
to not have to study for a test. I was always drawing funny faces in my math notebook and my ABC’s often morphed into dragons or giraffes or mermaids. Miss fortune, as you can imagine, was not a fan of such behavior and whenever she caught me sketching, instead of staring blankly at my time-tables, my drawing hand received three healthy blows from her handy-dandy wooden ruler.
Therefore, the first two and a half years of Art Class, were paradise; my escape, for an hour and fifteen minutes, from the horrors of math and the unkindness of Miss Alma Fortune. But, like all good things, it didn’t last. Miss Baker, our art teacher, whom I adored, left Centerville Grade School to marry a Mister Pettigrew, who I detested, even though I had never met the man. So, starting in the spring of my third grade, we had the pleasure of being taught by a Mrs. Estelle Manders, who approached art the way Miss Fortune taught her subjects. Rules were meant to be followed, certain colors were not to be used with other colors because they clashed, realism was the only style of any importance and we were given specific assignments in that style in every class. None of this ‘modern art’ nonsense for Estelle! No melting watches or purple cows! No spatters or sprinkles or streaks or circles of solid color. “Good god, Mrs. Manders, we were eight-year-olds, not graduate students at The Rhode Island School of Design!” (I found out, years later, that Estelle Manders lied about her qualifications as an art teacher and that she was actually a former Physical Ed instructor desperately looking for a job.)
Anyway, I did my best to follow the ‘rules’ but, one day, I slipped up, or maybe I had just had it drawing and painting real things. The assignment was to paint a tree. Mrs. Manders had brought in some large photographs of big trees, oaks and elms, and rested them on the chalk board ledge. We all went to work.
At the end of class, in the remaining ten minutes, Mrs. Manders walked around the room and commented on what she saw.
“Very nice, Clarice.”
“Ah, Robert, good job.”
“Looks very real, Jo Ann.”
And then she came upon mine. After a moment of stunned silence she responded.
“Trees are round, Herbert, not square. And the leaves are never striped like a zebra. The trunks are never hot pink and they are never ever shaped like a fish. This is not acceptable!” and with a very dramatic flourish she picked up my circus themed tree and tore it into three pieces.
I finished out the third grade and was passed into the fourth. To me the fourth grade was a lost year. I hardly remember it. I know the teacher was a man and that was good. I stumbled along and I guess I must have learned something. I took music instead of art to avoid spending time with Mrs. Manders. I did something with a tambourine and listened to a recording of The Young Person’s Guide to The Orchestra and then the year was over.
All of this has been leading up to the grade that changed my life and the person who made it all happen. I wish to dedicate this last section to Mrs. Josephine Heiner who really knew what teaching was all about. Okay, so it’s Fifth Grade and I’m at a very low point in my life. On the first day of class this very tall lady, with a halo of rust-colored hair, enters the classroom and hikes her rear end up on her desk. She adjusts the hem of her skirt, crosses her legs and welcomes us to her world.
“Today is the first day of a journey you and I are going take to places you’ve never been before. I have been told by your former teachers how exceptional you all are so I know we’re going to have an extraordinary time together. It won’t all be smooth sailing. Every trip has its rocky moments. How many have you gone camping with your family and it rained the whole time? Or your car had a flat tire miles away from your grandmother’s house on Thanksgiving Day? Well, when we have a bump like that on our journey, we’ll work together to get beyond it. How will we do that? We will use each other’s strengths and talents. And that’s why I want to learn all about what you feel you are good at and what you aren’t so good at. I’m going to go around the room and ask each of you to share with us what you do well. But before I do I need to tell you about my strengths and weaknesses. It’s only fair.
I’m great at listening. All ears, “she said, touching her own. “My favorite subject is English, both reading and writing and I’m very good at teaching it. I’m not so good at Science so I’ll need some help. How about we learn about it together?” She then started talking to each of us. At first it was scary and it took some encouragement to get people to talk. But eventually it got to the point where the person talking had to be told their time was up.
I was so ashamed of my lousy math skills I could hardly speak up when it was my turn.
“Okay, Herbert, thanks for that information. Very brave of you to admit it’s a problem. But how about what you’re good at?”
I told her about my liking to draw. “I guess I’m pretty good at it.”
And here’s what happened as the year progressed and why I’ll always be beholden to dear Mrs. Heiner. She called me up to her desk one day and sat me down in her chair while she perched on her desk, which she seemed to prefer to the chair.
“Herbert, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but our classroom is kind of dull. It could use some brightening up. What do you think?”
“I was wondering if you had any ideas about what we could do to improve the space.”
I told her a few paintings placed here and there might help.
“Great! Now, I know you’re still struggling a little with your math so in exchange for some help from Robert (he’s really a whiz and said he’d be happy to help you) and a little tutoring from me would you provide us with some of your art?”
That, dear reader, is what great teaching is all about.
While I’m sure, after all these decades, my contribution to the décor of the fifth-grade classroom at Centerville Grade School has long disappeared, it was certainly the talk of the school
for quite a while. Using a role of heavy craft-paper, I painted a mural entitled the History Of The World, which took me several very happy months of after-school activity time. With the help of several of my fellow fifth-graders, we mounted it above the blackboards and all the around the room, even above the bulletin boards and windows. I laugh now when I think of my take on world history. It started with Adam and Eve, in fig leaves, and ended with the mushroom cloud of an atom bomb. Somewhere in between I depicted the Rape of The Sabine Women and Washington Crossing the River. I can’t remember what else I inserted.
God bless you, Josephine Heiner!
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