It’s strange to look at this photo of me sitting with my class, age 8 or 9, familiar yet in ways another person. She was a fast runner, fastest in her class, tying with two boys. She loved to play pretend games with her sister, draw and have friends.
That third grade girl excelled in math—at least the kind of basic computation we used to do in third grade—straight forward times tables, long column addition. Our teacher, Miss McK, was on the scary side. If you finished column addition first, you raised your hand and went to the board to figure a problem with a competitor. If you beat the other person at the board, you got a star in your star book. One day I lost my star book. I stopped raising my hand when I finished first, terrified that she’d get mad at me for losing my star book. I had reason to be scared; in her silent, corrugated rubber sole shoes she snuck up on kids who were talking instead of practicing their flash cards, and slapped them on the back. Corporal punishment was still accepted in those days. Weeks went by and she started commenting that I’d stopped earning stars. I chafed and worried. Then one day, a girl—I’ll call her Jen—said loudly to Miss McK, “Ruth lost her star book!” I froze. How could this girl be such a turncoat, a betrayer, a …. tattletale?! But Ms McK just made me a new star book. In a sense, Jen had done me a favor, though it had seemed to be done in the spirit of getting me in trouble. But I was never in trouble with Miss McK. Being good at math can definitely make you teacher’s pet, with some. Not long after, my star book appeared. It had been used as a bookmark in an Encyclopedia Britannica. I think it was the E volume, in our full set, high on a shelf in the living room.
That was the year I had a nightmare that the field between home and school was covered in writhing snakes as I tried to cross wearing only my pajama top and underwear. It was also the year I peed when giving a presentation in front of the whole class; I hadn’t dared to ask to go to the bathroom because the rule was you went during recess. And it was the year of my first sweet friendship. She moved midyear from Texas. We walked holding hands, had sleep overs and made each other treasure hunts.
I think fear and conflict make indelible memories (I wanted to use indel as a verb—indel memories, “make marks that cannot be removed”—but it appears to only be an adjective). I remember more details about third grade than any other year of grade school. I think they’re ones I’ve gone over in my mind and therefore kept them fresh and alive, both the sharp and the sublime.