Monday, January 24, 2011

A heapin' helpin' of first grade

First grade. My parents were married. My sister would have just started high school. I lived next door to my mother's parents. I visited my dad's parents just about every Sunday. First grade was chock full of events that have stuck with me all these years. What follows is what I can glean from the innocent fields of early childhood in small town America.

I was a bully. Actually to be more correct I was a superhero. Superheroes are just bullies to other bullies and that was me. I was the protector of the weak. I stood tall where others could not muster the strength. On more than one occasion I put a successful beatdown on a bully wannabe. I would play like normal but whenever I seen a bigger kid picking on a smaller kid I jumped to the rescue ready to throw down. I was a protector. Maybe it was the first time I ever really had other people who needed protecting besides myself. Didn't matter. I was a hero on the playground. And I'm pretty sure I got my share of corporal punishment from it. Yes, it was the norm to get out the old wooden paddle and teach lessons to kids who couldn't quite learn the lesson by just listening. I didn't listen all that well but I learned about a million lessons. OUCH.

I discovered girls in first grade. Better yet I discovered girls were for kissing in the first grade. What the hell! I don't know where it came from but I thought girls were, well, girls. Not icky. No cooties. Not good to play with but good to play near. I think the first girl I ever kissed cried. I think her name was Debbie. I also kissed Sherrie and Nancy a lot. Strange how when you play cowboys and indians with girls there is always a magical cure to bring you back to life if you just happen to stray in front of a lethal make-believe bullet. All it takes is a peck on the lips. Amazingly enough I died a LOT. And I always managed to pull thru with a little help from my friends. Lucky me.

Our playground was vast, if you were a first grader. We had all the room we could ever need to run and jump and do whatever came natural. What came natural in the early 70's was to play army. There was surely a Vietnam component to our role playing but I wasn't aware of it in any way. In fact I learned about the Vietnam war from books so I was too young to comprehend any of it that I happened to see on tv or in the newspaper. All the army boys would split up into two groups and war would commence every day. I didn't care whose side I was on because I was in it for the drama. My acting skills were keen and sharp and I had one of the greatest shot-to-death moves in the entire first grade. I would always charge the most elite fighting force at a full run and just before I could pounce upon the enemy I would be riddled with machine gun fire. At a full run I would grab my stomach and somersault and cartwheel end over end till I laid to rest a fallen hero. Then of course I'd get up and go do it again. Isn't life grand.

I loathed mornings. I still do. My world doesn't begin till after 10am. I used to wake up and whine like a stuck pig all morning about having to get up. Going to school wasn't bad it was the pregame rituals that I couldn't stand. We had a heater vent that came out of the wall from under the kitchen cabinet just under the sink. In the mornings I would get up and cry and go lay next to the vent with the warm air blowing on me till I was threatened. I would acquiesce, find whatever I had on the day before in the floor and toddle my way to the school bus. There was always a half hour or twenty minutes from time the bus let you off at school before the first bell rang. This was always basketball time. I played every morning with Kenny Harris. There were other players but Kenny was always there with a ball ready to go. He graduated high school exactly the same way. Our courts were made up of dirt or fine pea gravel that had been beaten into submission years ago forming a firm crust on which to perform our advanced ball handling skills. One of the best skills was avoiding the big thorny stickers that grew in the grass adjacent to the courts. On occasion the rubber ball would get on embedded in it and when it finally turned face up to your hand when you were dribbling it would jam deep into your palm or finger. Always keep you eye on the ball was a real mantra and a practical way to not be in pain all day. We played in the coldest weather completely bundled up in our winter coats and hats and gloves. Amazing what kids will do.

Jackie "Hooter" Gray would become one of my BFF in first grade till we went off to college in separate directions. He was shorter than me but athletic and energetic just as I was. He did have one thing in first grade that I never had even when I graduated high school. A mustache. Yessir he had a bonafide mustache in first grade. The offspring of a lot of indian blood he had black hair and lots of it and the crowning achievement was a mustache that he was probably born with. Ain't that a hoot.

Besides lunch time we had an actual recess in the afternoon also. Every day we would all line up in the hallway and launch out the door at a full run toward a set of tennis courts that served as our recess area where a teacher would lead us thru jumping jacks and stuff like that. The courts were a ways from the door of the school...maybe 50 yards? I would hang out toward the back of the group when the door opened and I would run like the wind. I made it my goal to always be there first and much of the time I was. So much so that it became more fun to start in the back and pass everyone than it was just to get there first easily. Growing up in the woods climbing trees and throwing rocks and jumping creeks does wonders to a young boy's coordination and strength and speed.

I was always athletic and loved any kind of game that involved running or jumping or throwing. Tee ball was a natural for me. I have memories of several moments in games. Tee ball was the start of a long love affair with baseball that eventually ended somewhat sadly but the ride along the way was epic and full of learning and respect and discipline that was handed out by one significant figure. Our coach Wayne Gable. He was our coach all the way thru little league. He played ball at a high level, perhaps professionally, and was the dad of one of the kids on the team. He didn't treat us as little kids, he treated us as young baseball players. He would throw the ball twice as fast as any other coaches and hit the ball twice as high as any other coach and hit the ball twice as hard at us as any other coach. By the time we played other kids it was like playing in super slow motion. We almost never lost a game. It was a great time in my life.

In first grade we learned how to write our ABC's using little guides about a half sheet of paper in size. They were a greenish hue. They were treacherous. They had three or four lines on them for writing. On the top would be some print of the letters we were to form and we would trace those before setting off on the rest of the paper on our own. I remember the class bemoaning the teacher every time we got one because our hands would cramp from sooooooo much writing. Too much work for such delicate souls. How could they do this to us! Oh the humanity! We had a regular reading session where three or four kids would sit in a circle with the teacher and we would take turns reading from a book out loud. Near the circle there was a poster board with all the kids names on it and it was broken up into columns. If you read superbly you would get a GOLD star, a SILVER star if you were good and I think a COPPER star if you participated. I was one hundred percent absolutely positively no doubt in my mind the very best reader in the whole state of Oklahoma, much less a puny small town first grade class. However I soon learned that there is such a thing as perceived equality. I noticed that even horrible readers would get gold stars sometimes and that the best kids, ME, would sometimes not get a freaking gold star. It was an absolute travesty and a serious blow to my ego even if I did understand the teacher was only doing it to make the other kids not feel so inferior to me. (Yes, my granddad taught me to read very early. I would do the Jumble puzzle and the Word Search puzzle at the bottom of the comics page of the newspaper almost every night. Well, ok, I helped with the Jumble. But I was a Word Search master. I don't know if I read better or worse than any of the other kids but I certainly thought I was superior and that is all that matters.) This bastardization of the gold star standard caused me to take desperate measures. I took to calling my fellow classmates the D word. Yes, they were all dumbbells. OMG! So controversial! I remember the scolding I got for calling other kids dumbbells from the teacher and from my dad. I never uttered the word again that I know of. I had learned my lesson. You don't mess with the Establishment or they will TAKE YOU DOWN! I spent most of the rest of my school years messing with the establishment and receiving the state approved corporal punishment each and every time. (No I don't want your 2011 opinion on spankings. It was an art form then that was mastered by the elite educators over many years of careful experience. Nothing today can even remotely compare.) In fact I remember getting stood up in a christmas assembly and marched directly to the hallway for a swat on the butt. All the kids were in the gym being led by the music teacher in tumultuous renditions of the classic kid christmas favorites. Rudolph was always a favorite song for kids and I sang loud and clear for all to hear. Only I was singing RANDOLPH THE BOWLEGGED COWBOY at the top of my lungs after being told repeatedly to stop. Establishment 1, Kid 0.

I tried Cub Scouts in the first grade. I went to a meeting. I got my uniform. Actually the uniform was pretty cool especially that little bandana thing you had to wear and the sweet hat. It took a couple of meetings before we got our merit badge books, We got like little gold arrows or something like that to sew on our shirts for each goal that was reached in the official book. I was excited to get the book and the day I got home after a meeting I opened it and started to look thru the list of goals to accomplish. I.E. climb a tree over ten feet tall. Check. Done that. Skip a rock on the water. Check Done that. And it went on and on until I had checked every one of the Cub Scout guide goals. Growing up in the woods I had already accomplished every single thing in the book. What a disappointment. I think I may have went to one more meeting and then I quit. Paper mache held no interest. Neither did scrapbooking. I determined right then and there that the cub scouts was a secret organization for sissies. I'm sure it is a fine organization but the way it was presented to me just didn't work out. I didn't need an after school activity. I lived in the woods.

Around first grade my mom took me to an apartment where she was meeting someone. I do not know the reason we were there. I did not know the people who lived there. But they were the first black people I had ever been around. Ever. My mom had purchased me one of those jumbo sized bags of jelly beans earlier in the day and I remember taking them with me inside when we visited. At some point I remember moving off by myself away from the adults, maybe on a patio. Some other kids came over and I tried to make friends. They bullied me and stole my jelly beans. I sat there dumbstruck. That was my first experience with racial tolerance. It was not a good one. I didn't have to form my own opinion of black people because that was given to us at a young age. Our town was white. There were indians (native americans) and a smattering of hispanics but no black people. We were taught that black people were inferior. Period. It was college before I could shake off those old belief systems and form my own informed opinions concerning race. But for then, at that point, black people stole my jellybeans and no white people had ever done that. I'm sure it left a mark.

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