Porter Elementary wasn’t a school for ambitious kids. At the end of fourth grade, if you could tie your shoelaces in under eight minutes, you received a poster-sized gold star to hang up on your bedroom wall.
And then it was on to fifth grade, which, if I remember correctly, consisted of either eating paste or sharpening pencils, depending on what teacher you got.
Learning wasn’t something any of us knew how to go about doing. The teachers apparently thought it was less stressful to spend the day reading at their desks while their students sang songs, drew pictures, ate Juicy Fruit by accident, and shot staples at each other with rubber bands.
Just as the classroom was not associated with learning, the playing field was not associated with healthy physical activity. The football/baseball/soccer/fighting field was infested with patches of thorns–affectionately known as goat-heads–sharp and everywhere, waiting to puncture soft flesh. A girl named Tiff in my third grade class ended up in a goat-head patch after going back for a deep fly ball. I can still hear her screaming sometimes, and I can still see the goat-heads covering her like angry bees.
On special occasions the teacher would read to us from whatever book he or she happened to be reading at the time. This was the source of our education. A favorite among the female teachers was about Tom and Steph, two wealthy tennis pros, who were secretly having affairs with the hired help. This quickly became our favorite, too, until we were introduced to the violent, alcohol-leaden stories of revenge and murder preferred by the male teachers.
In the sixth grade, when the teachers decided they should prepare us for Junior High, we had a spelling test every week, but it wasn’t very challenging. They were all three letter words, and they all rhymed: Bat, Cat, Pat, Sat, Fat etc.. We had no idea that other fifth and sixth graders were learning fractions and how to diagram sentences. For us, it was seven years of kindergarten. I can still remember the first fifty agonizing minutes of seventh grade English class. A Gerund? No thanks, I’ve already eaten.
Oddly enough, none of our parents knew any of this. Not having done any real work, the teachers never had reason to give us poor grades, so everyone (even the kids who couldn’t speak, only point and grunt) received excellent marks.
Extraordinary. Outstanding. Exceptional. Ivy League. These were words our parents used to described us to their friends. And us kids, having gotten a twenty-five percent allowance increase because of our high grades, kept our mouths smartly shut.
That is, until one day when we were bullied into reciting a poem before Thanksgiving dinner, during which Mother began crying softly and had Father racing to his medical journals, frantically searching for something that would explain how a child destined for Harvard could suddenly forget the alphabet and the various sounds associated with it.