FIRST GRADE…The Greatest Adventure/Riddles in the Dark
JRR Tolkien’s literary classic, The Hobbit, reads like a novel but it’s actually a fictional memoir written by Mr. Bilbo Baggins himself: There and Back Again, a Hobbit’s Tale. I can picture Bilbo now as he sits by the crackling fire in Bag End, puffing pipe weed, dipping his quill in the inkwell and laying out the epic chronicle of a single year of his life and his modest role in some Middle Earth changing events — finding the One Ring, saving the Dwarves from giant spiders and asshole wood elves, even chatting with a dragon. It’s great stuff, chock full of details only someone who’s been there could share.
Clearly Bilbo has a photographic memory but we never question the veracity of his tale, even though it was written long after the events occurred. 50 years after leaving his comfortable hobbit hole for the dangers of the road, Bilbo glances down at blank parchment and struggles to remember what they ate for brunch in Beorn’s hall or the exact riddles told by Gollum in the dark…tries to channel the memories into tangible form — the written word — before they fade away forever.
The list of those who could tell the tale gets smaller as time passes, and it seems that none of his fellow travelers kept a journal. We’re counting on Bilbo to keep the story alive, yet, like the rest of us, his memory is fallible. We’ll never know what he has confused or forgotten entirely. And surely he edited the tale for clarity and brevity — we don’t know what he has chosen to omit. And we’ll never know which events were simply too much for his hobbit brain to process at all: some memories are lost forever.
1978: Bricks and mortar, a coal furnace roaring down in the basement and a chimney jutting into the sky. Creaking and clanking metal radiators along white plaster walls kept us warm while we watched snow fall on the other side of the window panes. It was the old school, built in the 1930’s, when civic pride mattered and schools didn’t look like warehouses or electric shavers.
First grade meant a full day and hot lunch. First grade meant mingling with the big kids on the battlefield of a playground, where tackle football was okay as long as there was a bit of snow on the ground, and snow ball fights were generally overlooked by teachers as long as nobody got hit in the face. First grade was a big deal.
The first day of school: a night of fitful sleep, followed by a quick bowl of multicolored cereal and the flash of the Kodak as kids with fresh haircuts and crisp clothes from far off Denver department stores smiled for photos and clutched boxes of virgin crayons. Outside, the mountain air was crisp, and a thin layer of frost on the car windows combined with the back to school bustle to announce that summer was officially over, regardless of what the calendar said.
Miss Harman was our teacher. She was young and short, although we didn’t notice those traits at the time. As far as we were concerned, anyone at least 5 feet tall was tall and anyone older than a teenager was old. She leaned towards the stoner ski bum side of the local culture, in sharp contrast with her boss and the school principal, Martha Vernon. Miss Vernon was a strict but respected schoolmarm who might quietly inform a teacher that their car had been spotted outside the local bar a bit too often for her liking.
School days were short compared to now: class started at 9:00 and dismissal was at 3:00, with almost a full hour of recess in the mix, but the learning time was rigorous. Somehow, despite the fact that I had been among the last of the kindergarten crew to learn how to tie his own shoes or write his own name, I was assigned to the smarty pants reading group, and our Dick and Jane books — the yellow covers battered from decades of use — told the world that we were (potentially) going places. When not sounding out the fact that Dick was running, we slogged through blue inked mimeographed math worksheets and sessions of penmanship practice on the classic three-lined paper, over and over again until the top of the small “a” was fully closed and the “s” wasn’t backwards.
The three Rs were balanced by music, gym, art and library. Music was taught by a bearded and mellow Mr. Brenn, who would play the piano and lead us in song, sometimes with the assistance of a mysterious lady with frizzy hair who strummed a zither and taught us Kumbaya. The first thing we did upon entering the music room each day was grab a green music book, sit “Indian style” on the floor and check to see if the back cover had piano keys printed on the inside. If so, you pretended to plunk the keys and taunted those whose back cover was blank. Similarly, as soon as you got your half pint of milk in the morning or at lunch, the VERY FIRST THING you would do was look at the bottom to see the tiny number that was stamped there. A bigger number obviously being automatically cooler, just as seven-year-olds among us were clearly cooler than mere six-year-olds.
Art was taught by the 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Howell, who somehow found the time to painstakingly trace — in thin, black brush lines — the outline of every object we had painted. It must have been a kind of meditation for her. Either that or she struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as every Halloween ghost, every Santa in his sleigh, every cabin in the hills, every Easter bunny any student at Fraser Elementary School ever dabbed onto paper underwent this time consuming process prior to being returned to us or — if she deemed it worthy — hung on the gym wall.
The gym teacher was also the third grade teacher, Mrs. Coblentz. Once, while we chatted in line and awaited our turn on the balance beam she told us to quit yakking…so I silently mouthed the words “yak yak yak”. She abandoned whichever kids was on the balance beam and stomped down the line, then clutched my jaw firmly in her hand, stared into my eyes and told me to “watch it.” She was gentle compared to Mrs. Thornton, who handled library time, a role that consisted of firing up a “film strip” now and then — a bit of technology straddling a slide show and power point — and supervised us as we browsed for our weekly book. Mrs. Thornton was the matriarch on a cattle ranch outside of town and was intimidating and grumpy. She also tracked attendance and tallied the daily lunch count in the tiny closet of a school office. This meant that if you showed up late to school she’d have to sign off on a tardy slip. I once begged my parents to cancel my dental appointment. My mom and dad refused, explaining how important it was to get your teeth checked. They even dredged up an issue of LIFE magazine that contained extreme close up photos of plaque growing on teeth and cavities that looked like black chasms. They assumed that I was scared of the dentist, but what I dreaded was arriving late to school and having to face Mrs. Thornton.
Halloween and a big snow storm arrived together that year which meant that everyone’s costume was buried beneath parkas and scarves, with only our plastic masks viewable. We crept slowly down the snowbound streets of town in the family Buick, my dad behind the wheel smoking a cigarette and the heater on full blast. He’d pause in front of houses with porch lights on just long enough for me to don my storm trooper mask, trudge through the snow for my candy, then hop back in and slam the heavy car door and then on to the next one. There were no school sponsored parties or anything like that back then, so your mask, the annual ABC network broadcast of the Charlie Brown Great Pumpkin cartoon (hopefully your mom had marked it in the TV Guide), and the loot provided by good townsfolk were the sum total of “Halloween.”
Back then, we ate our lunch in the classroom. We’d file out to the small foyer where hot food was being served one grade at a time. You could request “a little” or “a lot” or even “a teeny weeny bit”, but you couldn’t refuse anything. Regardless of what was on the menu, all first graders agreed on one thing: If there were orange wedges you put them in your mouth then flashed an orange peel smile at everyone else in the room. Even Miss Harman did it once, to the delight of the whole class who couldn’t believe a teacher would be so bold. Before being excused for recess we had to sample everything on our tray. I once tried to sneak past Miss Harman with untouched food on my tray but she stopped me cold and forced me to take a bite of coleslaw. The jagged texture and runny mayonnaise immediately caused me to throw up. I ran down the stairs and past 4th graders receiving their own glops of coleslaw, then across the gym to the bathroom — as far as one could possibly journey in that building — all the while holding back tears and vomit and vowing never again to touch anything involving cabbage.
Unless you’re too drunk to care, vomiting in public makes you feel exposed and embarrassed, so it makes sense that my coleslaw reaction had delivered me to the sole boys’ bathroom, which had been specifically designed to make kids feel exposed and embarrassed. I recall standing and peeing in the shared urinal with other lads when Brian announced that my penis was small. Some weeks later, all of us were again peeing in unison except this time I’m sporting the fading remains of a boner. Brian notices this and informs all present that my penis has grown. I accepted the compliment but stayed mum about the reason for the inexplicable growth spurt: A few minutes earlier Dee had placed her hand on my knee while we gazed at a dinosaur book together in class, causing my member to become as stiff as ankylosaurus armor.
Worse than penis envy at the communal pissing trough was the fact that the single toilet stall had no door and faced the bathroom entrance, so the very first thing anyone walking into the bathroom would see is whoever was unlucky enough to be taking a dump. I avoided this by not pooping until I got home, but one time I just couldn’t hold it…couldn’t wait until 3:00…and was too nervous about some big 4th grader walking in on me at my most vulnerable with my pants around my ankles and my allegedly small penis showing. The obvious solution to the problem was to shit my pants one day at afternoon recess. There are few moments in life as surreal as consciously deciding that, yes, it’s definitely time to crap, standing up, in your pants, in public, and then deliberately taking action. The walk home from school that day seemed extra far.
Fortunately, what happened in the boy’s bathroom or in my TOUGHSKIN corduroy pants remained a secret — or at least no girls found out, other than my mom, who had probably thought she was done wiping her kids’ asses — which meant that my first crush was allowed to blossom one day when Kari showed up to school in a captivating green 7-Up shirt. It was a pure biochemical reaction, as suddenly, for no good reason, we developed an unspoken but deeply mutual connection. The rest of the day was spent gradually moving our desks closer together until they touched, passing sweet notes with badly drawn flowers on them, and even playing Star Wars together at recess — me as Luke, her as Leia, both of us blissfully unaware of our shared parentage (no one would know until Empire Strikes Back debuted in late 1980). The whole thing lasted less than 24 hours, as the next day she wore a checkered Raggedy Anne looking dress and the spell was broken as quickly as it had begun.
Kari was beautiful, but Greta was the one for me. Not just in first grade, but off and on until high school when I moved away to California. It was hopeless of course, something I knew the day I discovered I was trapped in a love triangle involving Greta and my former neighbor Paul. This painful truth was revealed as I sat at my desk and pointed at Greta then made big sweeping circles around her with my arm. She pointed at Paul and made the same circles, then pointed at me and started crossing me out, then back to Paul for more circles. Paul jumped right in, and soon I was being double crossed out while Paul and Greta both x’d me out then circled each before crossing me out again and again. I loved Greta — there was no other word for it at the time as a crush was the equivalent of true love — but she and Paul said they were going to get married. Paul then twisted the knife by reminding me that if I married Cara Brown my name would be Charlie Brown.
Already girls were starting to be important, but in 1978 first grade boys were more interested in bubble gum trading cards. Superman was huge that year — the first movie ever screened at our brand new local theater — and Star Wars was still fresh in everyone’s mind. In the days before internet or DVDs or even HBO and VHS (only the truly rich could afford a VCR back then) once you saw a big movie it was over and done with, and the only way to reconnect with big films was to own a poster (maybe from a box of Cheerios), order a book version via the Scholastic book order form, or collect and pore over random scenes depicted on trading cards. A quarter would get you a pack of a dozen or so cards, one sticker and a stick of gum that tasted like cardboard, but a quarter wasn’t easy to come by. So you traded away your doubles and slowly built a collection while waiting for your next tooth to drop and the next quarter to appear beneath your pillow. That’s how most of us did it anyway, but others — Chip and Scott — had started to shoplift by now, and their cards could fill a shoebox. I was still too nervous to steal, but was okay with trading for someone else’s stolen cards.
The only thing bigger than Superman or Darth Vader was Christmas, and when you’re 6 years old the lead up to this Emperor of Holidays is painfully slow. Mercifully, the last week before break was packed with craft projects, parties and the Christmas play — which was at least partially Jesus themed with no thought or discussion that it might be otherwise. We practiced for weeks, but on the big night we first graders bungled our song in front of what felt like the whole town, although later our teacher blamed it on the piano player. The final day before break was the best, as the pressure of the play was gone and we celebrated with a morning of cupcakes and games followed by an afternoon of reel to reel movies with the rest of the school in the gym: Davy Crockett I think, or maybe Uncle Remus mixed with old cartoons. As always, some kid puked up their cupcakes in the darkness and the janitor rushed in to cover the mess with a sickly sweet smelling sawdust. Meanwhile, the movie played on and we laughed in unison at the antics on the screen and shared whispered rumors about who had vomited.
Except for the arm cramps of penmanship practice, first grade was generally fun, but recess was the daily highlight. Our playground was rough and tumble, and not just because of big kids who bullied with impunity: cut in line for the slide, steal your hat for “keep away”, or block a fat kid from joining a game. Besides the bullies, there were sharp edges and rocks, corners to hide behind, sticks and icicles, zero fences, and supervision consisting of just one or two teachers who tuned out anything not involving blood or tears. One of the slides, an ancient red monster, produced plenty of both. It was basically a tall ladder leading to a long strip of steel that tilted just far enough to the right to dump a careless kid onto chunks of old broken asphalt. Nearly as dangerous was the wooden merry-go-round — covered in thick layers of lead paint to keep the splinters at bay — which the big kids would occasionally spin with brute 4th grade force while the little kids chanted “FASTER, FASTER WE’RE NOT EVEN GOING!” until small hands lost their grip and children flew off and tumbled in the gravel.
Deep snows buried the merry-go-round for months at a time, but this loss was offset when town snowplows piled up a huge mound of snow big enough for tunnels and epic games of “King of the Mountain” — a crude Lord of the Flies style battle with one rule: Vie for sole control of the pile by standing on top and repeatedly pushing off all challengers. Even better was the curly slide: After a night of snow, the kid lucky enough to be first on the scene was blessed with a super fast slide. This was a luxury reserved only for the Fraser locals who didn’t have to ride the bus and could show up early enough to take advantage of the fresh layer of powder: One lucky kid’s reward for all those frigid morning walks to school.
But sometimes, once or twice a year, the slide would actually ice up. On those rare days every kid on the playground clustered around the slide. A slowly moving line of moon boots and snow suits stretched from the top of the ladder all the way down to the ground and beyond, as groups of twos and threes and solo sliders whooshed down the super-slippery twist, forming a pile of small bodies at the bottom. The joy would last until some reckless kid inevitably attempted to climb up the slide itself, resulting in high speed collisions complete with bloody noses and the occasional concussion. Injuries like these were devastating, for they resulted in the unwanted attention of teachers who shut down the slide, forcing us to return to more sedate games such as “Smear the Queer”, which also had just one rule: Chase and tackle whoever has the ball.
Back in the classroom, our sodden coats and mittens and hats and boots and snow pants peeled off and hanging on hooks or piled beneath them, some of us might finish our work and spend time at the record listening station, where a half dozen oversized, goofy looking padded headphones allowed kids to listen in unison to a collection of fairy tale records. Sometimes a kid would lug a record to school, and we’d get to hear KISS riffs or Saturday Night Fever grooves, or, my personal favorite, truck songs from the Convoy soundtrack. Regardless of which record was spinning, someone would immediately crank the RPMs up to 45 for a fast Chipmunks-style chatter, or, if the record was a 45, then down to 33 for a slow, molasses-like drawl, either of which resulted in endless laughter by all.
The record player also had speakers, and one afternoon Greta brought a record she had gotten at the town library. A double record actually, four sides of vinyl containing all of the songs and most of the dialogue from the animated version of The Hobbit. This cartoon movie had premiered on television a few months earlier, and the record was brand new — not yet the scratched and skipping mess library records tended to become, especially those borrowed by children. We sat in a cluster and Greta stood before us with the enclosed booklet while Ms. Harman graded worksheets on the other side of the room. The record played, but there was no “turn the page at the sound of the bell” announcing when to proceed, so Greta got confused…turning pages too early, or too late, or having to turn back. Maybe I was seeking revenge for her snubbing me for Paul, or maybe I truly felt it was important for the pictures she was holding up to precisely match the story we were hearing, but for reasons that surely seemed important at the time I repeatedly ran to Miss Harman’s desk to tattle on Greta for committing the grave error of turning pages at the wrong time.
At the end of the day we’d stack our chairs atop our desks then form parallel lines of boys and girls at the door and await the 3 o’clock bell. Once excused, we charged down the stairs and out the front doors to partake in the unscripted and unsupervised revelry of near total freedom known as the walk home from school. Sometimes there were fights: a writhing melee of yells and flailing metal lunch boxes and mittens flying off small but angry fists, with kids jumping in and out of the fray as necessary. But usually packs of kids simply wandered towards home, cracking jokes with bad words in them and throwing snowballs or rocks at passing trains. We might stop at the New Fraser Market for Bubble Yum, or expand a network of snow caves, or swing on the creaky gate at the old stockyards. Eventually we’d each go our separate ways, hopefully getting home in time to catch the last few minutes of Bullwinkle or Popeye cartoons on channel 2, followed by the commercial free block of Sesame Street/Mr. Rogers/Electric Company on Channel 6 — somewhat misleading since there were only 5 channels to watch.
A year of elementary school is the hourglass equivalent of a decade as a working adult. Slave to the grinding pencil sharpener. And winter in some parts of Colorado is nearly as long as the school year, which meant that by April, the snow was still deep and often still falling, and we were restless. The first hints of spring were the town streets turning from packed ice to slush, followed by the return of the merry-go-round, which had been buried since Thanksgiving. By May, patches of brown grass revealed themselves, and the slush became mud then regular dirt and most of the snow disappeared, although a couple of wet and heavy May snowstorms were inevitable.
Suddenly, it was June, and our first year with the big kids was under our belt. Maybe we were even big kids ourselves now. The final bell rang and the Fraser locals gathered out front of the school, where the tougher kids popped wheelies on banana seated bikes while out of town kids filed onto the bus for the last ride home. Few moments in life match the last day of school for pure hopefulness, especially after a long winter. The creeks were running high with melted snow, meadows were turning green, baseball practice was about to start, and the siren song of a Rocky Mountain summer promised three months of uninterrupted free range fun.
Like the travels of Bilbo Baggins, first grade is a great adventure, and the events and characters from those months — your fellow travelers — are larger than life. For years afterwards, your elementary school teachers loom large in your psyche like third parents. If you’re lucky they were kind and fun enough to flash the orange peel smile. And except for those few with whom you never lose touch, and who therefore remain human, your brain prunes your classmates of unnecessary details and gradually transforms them into archetypes: the bookworm, the bully, the bullied, the nose picker, the full blown booger eater, the crier, the puker, the jump rope goddess.
The events themselves — a thousand formative hours spent in a classroom — slowly become a blur of random and fragmented memories punctuated by vivid moments that are never forgotten: the first feeling of romantic love, the fear of a bully, the silent shame of crapping your pants. Taken together, the fragmentary and the monumental become our memories — our tale — which, along with scattered photographs, a scar from the rickety slide and perhaps a long forgotten art project boxed away in an attic, are all we have to show that, yes, first grade actually happened. These things really did happen
Bilbo Baggins filled a book with vivid memories, but he misses out on the climax of his own story: The Battle of Five Armies. Just as the battle begins he’s knocked unconscious and avoids the horrors of war, or so we are told. I wonder if the experience was simply too overwhelming to put into words. The stench of orcs, the cries of the wounded, the death of beloved companions and the and the clash of powers far beyond his control would be a nightmarish combination, and one that doesn’t mesh well with the heretofore personal narrative of his “Hobbit’s Tale”. Maybe he just chose to edit it out. Or maybe he blocked it out.
First grade ended in 1979. More than 40 years later I still recall many moments from that year, including this one: Standing on a snowbank in my blue snow suit and waving at an orange car as it passed by on the highway. The driver waved back. It was my dad. He was, at that very moment, leaving town for good, although I didn’t know that at the time, and can’t recall his permanent exit from our family. All I know is that he’s part of the memories and then, at some point that’s unclear to me, he’s not. The biggest moment of my year, and one of the most pivotal events in my life, has been erased from my story.
But that’s okay. As I recall, it was a very good year, and I’ll cling to the memories that remain. The brightly colored race cars on the side of Joel’s lunchbox. The jiggle of green jello on a yellow lunch tray, and the shredded orange carrots suspended within it. The decorated paper bags hanging from our desks on Valentines Day. The first spring dandelions nestled against the tan bricks of the school. The sound of Ace Frehley’s guitar solos at 45 rpms, or Bilbo’s calm voice on the record as he solves riddles in the dark. And the godawful stench of cafeteria sauerkraut, the only thing grosser than the coleslaw. I wouldn’t mind blocking both of those out.