The Tale of Two First Grades

Being shy and having been sequestered for three months by rheumatic fever, for me at first public school proved challenging. We lived on Laurel Street back then, across from the playground, and during my convalescence, I was confined to a wheelchair. If being in a wheelchair wasn’t bad enough, I also suffered the affliction of being red-headed, so in a town of only three-thousand or so residents, even children I didn’t know would approach me, once I was ambulatory again, and say, “Hey, aren’t you the crippled kid who was in the wheelchair?”

After my recovery, I attended Miss Marion’s kindergarten, whose students were all middle-class and, of course, white. I don’t remember anyone ever even misbehaving, though once when we were told to stay off the swings because of a previous rain storm, Bert Pearce fell backwards out of one and landed butt-first in a puddle of water. He had to spend an hour or so in the bathroom in his underwear while Miss Marion dried his pants, a fate to me that made confinement to a wheelchair seem like a ride in Flash Gordon’s rocket ship in comparison.[1]

In fact, the only negative experience I remember from kindergarten is pouring Coca-Cola in my Davy Crockett thermos, only to discover at lunch time that carbonation – or something having to do with the Coke – had broken the glass inlay of the thermos.[2]  

This is the one I owned.

I entered Summerville Elementary in the fall of 1960, and my mother accompanied me to class on the first day where we met Mrs. Wiggins and the rest of my classmates, who were more economically diverse than my kindergarten peers.[3] I remember one boy whose single mother didn’t have a car and walked with him to school and back the first couple of days. They lived literally on the other side of the tracks, so it was quite a trek. My mother, a kind soul, somehow got wind ­­– perhaps we passed them on the way to school – and started offering them transportation until the school bus situation was straightened out. I recall that his smallpox vaccination had gone spectacularly wrong – he suffered an enlarged stomach-turning eruption on his arm. I also remember they had a handmade sign in their dirt yard advertising fish bait worms for sale. 

I may have the world’s worst sense of direction.[4] On the second day of school, I got lost among the swirling hordes of screechers and stood in line on the steps of the wrong entrance. Once I entered the hallway and couldn’t find my class, I was terrified, as if l’d entered a Twilight Zone episode. I don’t exactly remember how it got straightened out, but it did, but afterwards I emerged with a palpable dislike for school. I much preferred my shared bedroom at home to the light green concrete walls of Miss Wiggins’ classroom with our bubble-headed self-portraits displayed on bulletin boards. The boy who rode to school with us had scribbled slashes of purple crayon for his self-portrait, but it was displayed with all the rest with his name printed under it.

As it happened, in December, our family, which then only consisted of my younger brother David, my parents, and me, moved to Aurora, Colorado, where my father attended some sort of training program associated with his civil service job. We moved into a tiny three-room apartment in an establishment called The Big Bear Motel, located on Colfax, a busy four-lane highway. Although the school was only four or so blocks away, I would have had to cross on foot those lanes of heavy traffic headed to Lowry Air Force base, so Mama drove me to school in the mornings and picked me up in the afternoons.

My brother David (on the right) and I at the Big Bear Motel
The Big Bear, now known as the Aurora Motel

Unlike Summerville Elementary, Aurora’s primary school, Crawford Elementary, employed two first grade teachers per class.  I remember on my first day being introduced to the students and placed into one of the reading groups that sat in a circle and read out loud while the other teacher drilled the rest of the students in some other activity. They had divided the class into three reading groups based on skills and named them after birds – the Eagles, the Blue Birds, and the Crows.[5]  Perhaps because of my scruffy appearance (the only pair of shoes I owned were cowboy boots), my Southern accent, and that South Carolina ranked somewhere like 48th state-wise in education, they assigned me to the Crows. However, once it was my turn to read and I could fluidly decode the “oh-oh-ohs” and “look-look-looks” of the text, they immediately promoted me to the Eagles.

I loved living in Colorado in the winter with its mountains and snow. Unlike in Summerville, we ventured on family outings most weekends, visiting Buffalo Bill’s grave on top of Lookout Mountain and the mining town of Central City where we saw Face on the Barroom Floor, a painting rendered on the floor of the Teller House Bar. As the story goes, the artist, Hendron Davis, had been fired by the Central City Opera Association in 1936. He wanted to leave his mark on the town and asked permission of the bar owner to paint the portrait portrayed in the poem. They refused, but aided by an employee, he sneaked in after midnight and painted a woman’s face on the wooden floor of the saloon.

Another drink, and with chalk in hand, the vagabond began,

To sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man.

Then, as he placed another lock upon that shapely head,

With a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture — dead!

The Face on the Barroom Floor

But I digress. School for me in Aurora was great, both socially and academically. I gained a great deal of confidence and was eager to return to Summerville, now considering myself, if not a man of the world, a first-grader of the world.

Only a couple of weeks remained in the school year when we made it back to Summerville, and Mrs. Muckenfuss, the principal, explained to my mother it didn’t make much sense for me to return to class, but my mother insisted, and I did, very full of myself until I realized that I was the only one who couldn’t do long addition. I had no idea what carrying numbers to the next column was all about. Summerville Elementary was more advanced than Aurora Elementary! 

No doubt the excellence of Summerville’s public schools has played an important role in its exponential growth. Now according to Wikipedia, Summerville is the seventh largest city of South Carolin (though, after reading a couple of articles on my hometown and one article on one of its famous citizens, I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it). At any rate, I’m thankful for the education I got at Summerville Elementary, for teachers like Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Jordon, Mrs. Montz, Miss McCue, and Mrs. Altman. 


[1] By the way, the spacecraft spewed fiery combustion in the void of outer space. 

[2] The Moore and Blanton families’ addiction to Coca-Cola is legendary. In her adulthood, my Aunt Virginia lugged a 2-liter bottle with her everywhere. 

[3] Back then, there were no public kindergartens, so we who had attended private kindergartens enjoyed a great academic advantage because we already knew our ABCs and could perform single digit arithmetic.

[4] After my niece’s Hanahan High graduation ceremony held at the North Charleston Coliseum, it literally took me over an hour to find my car, and I was able to do only because the parking lot was virtually empty when I ran across it.

[5] Actually, I don’t remember what birds designated what level of accomplishment. 

2 thoughts on “The Tale of Two First Grades

  1. Yeah, kids used to live for that kind of info. I don’t know why it’s a part of their news cycle. Any kind of broken bone or trip home had to circulate. Hope they weren’t too obnoxious abt it. Knowing kids, though…

    • I just got done with schoolwork so I sat down to reread your blog. When I did I realized I missed the point earlier. It’s such a great story and it does a good job of carrying you back to those early years. (I loved the Flash Gordon analogy.)

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