I never attended Kindergarten.
I’d like to say it was because I was so darned clever I tested out, but that’s simply not the case. In our town, Kindergarten was something that was paid for, and, as I was already proficient at reading the backs of cereal boxes at age four, it was deemed an unnecessary expense. Or, so the legend goes.
Frankly, school and I were kind of at odds from day one. It all started with my teacher, an ancient lady called Mrs. Pratt. Actually, she was probably in her 50s at the time, but when you’re four, that was as close to death as I figured anybody ever got without actually being there. As I recall, she was pretty scary looking with her tight, brunette beehive, and coffee stained teeth that rendered her smile a terrifying grimace. When she would speak, I would go into a sort of trance; I was that fascinated by the yellow teeth and the deep, brown lines between them. They were scary teeth. Bear teeth. They were dragon teeth.
Needless to say, I was not her star pupil.
One of the highest awards anyone could get in a 1970s first-grade classroom was the coveted Gold Star. Some kids seemed to get them all the time. I got stars, alright – blue ones, green ones, red ones. But never a Gold Star. I was sloppy. I was careless. I did not pay proper attention. (Did I mention I was four?).
One day, though, all the rules changed and my universe was up-ended. I cannot tell you how excited I was to receive my first Gold Star. The first one ever!
But then, I looked around the classroom. Everyone had a gold star; apparently, Mrs. Pratt had run out of the coloured variety, and now, the new standard to reach for was two Gold Stars. For truly exceptional work, some students even boasted three Gold Stars. The goalposts of my star universe having been effectively moved beyond reach, I remember looking again at my measly single gold star and feeling the crush of disappointment.
I believe there were two first-grade and two second-grade classrooms in our small school. After recess each day, a different student was picked to dismiss the four columns of 15 students back to their respective classrooms. I never was quite clear on the criteria for who was picked to make such a dismissal. Perhaps it was explained and I was in one of my many tooth-trances. All I knew was that to be selected was a privilege, and it was a privilege I wanted for myself.
As my first year of school wore on and each day a different pupil was chosen to dismiss classes at recess, I was perplexed to find that some students had been chosen multiple times, whereas I had never been chosen. This, my friends, was my first real glimpse of that ugly academic reality that is blatant favouritism, the “teacher’s pet” syndrome that became the bane of my existence.
One day, after months of frustration in being overlooked, I decided to take matters into my own hands. When we were all lined up for dismissal back to our classrooms, somewhere in my now 5-year-old reasoning, I decided that enough was enough. I was going to have to take a stand. Don’t ask my why it seemed so very important – it just was.
Bucking up all my courage, I stepped out of line and marched up in front of the 4 noisy and untidy classroom queues. I took a deep breath, and began dismissing students.
I had two classrooms dismissed before Mrs. Pratt spotted me. I think her head actually swivelled 360 degrees in her rage, and before I could dismiss a third class, she was ON me, her beehive transformed into a nest of snakes, and her forked tongue slicing my little ego to shreds. I was in serious, serious hot water. Hot water that involved a trip to The Principal, a Mr. Sherban, who was at least as old as Mrs. Pratt. He was a big man, scary – no, terrifying. His cold eyes glared at me from behind old-fashioned spectacles. I had Broken A Rule. I was a rebel, a troublemaker. A nonconformist. I was an outcast.
This was going on my permanent record.
The lesson I was meant to learn that day was to remember my place. I was never, ever going to be a teacher’s pet. It was just not going to happen, and so I needed to get over it. Having stepped out of my aforementioned place secured my position forevermore at the back of the line, and thus I remained for the rest of the year.
Looking back, I think my takeaway lesson from those times was to be kind to little ones. The power we hold as adults is immense and can be terrifying. I think what I learned from first grade was that a sense of humour in dealing with children is absolutely essential. Little ones are daft. They are silly and impulsive and cannot always explain WHY they choose to do anything. They say and do all the wrong things all the time, they are easily embarrassed, and it is important to let them know that nothing they say or do is so terribly awful that it cannot be rendered right again. Discipline is necessary, of course. But at the core of discipline is teaching, is it not? And how much simpler is it to teach with kindness and humour?
Some of the best lessons in my life I learned early. I regret nothing from my first year at school, and I have been happily stepping “out of line” ever since. Who cares about gold stars and goalposts? Doesn’t real success and self worth start on the inside?
Plus, I have excellent dental hygiene. When I smile at my grandsons, at least I know they are not fixating on my teeth…
Disclaimer: No disrespect is intended to my former teacher, Mrs. Pratt, who I am sure was a very nice lady in real life. I thank her for the important life lessons she taught me. I am not sure how well I would have learned them without her.
feature photo: Shutterstock
gold stars: theguardian.com
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