Dick, Jane, Sally, and Nicodemus: Memories of Summerville Elementary School

Last week in the wee hours after my perpetual nemesis Ol’ Man Insomnia banged on the bedroom door of my slumbers and roused me yet again, I decided rather than counting sheep, I’d attempt to short circuit my tendency to fret about upcoming responsibilities by seeing how many names of former teachers I could recall.

My academic career began in the school year 1958-59 at Miss Marion’s kindergarten, a one-room schoolhouse in the backyard of her home somewhere near the railroad tracks in downtown Summerville. I don’t remember Miss Marion’s last name, and what I do remember about kindergarten tends to be negative – getting in trouble with John Lang for sailing girls’ tea set dishes like Frisbees, Bert Pearce’s falling off a swing into a mud puddle and having to sit in the bathroom in his underwear until his pants dried, breaking my Davy Crockett thermos by pouring Coca-Cola into it instead of milk, a student telling me that my mother chose a black instead of a bright yellow raincoat for me because she wanted me to be run over by a car. I also remember Miss Marion’s reading bible stories from a gigantic book propped on an easel and my falling in love with nursery rhymes, which would bode poorly for my future employment as I ended up as an English teacher and hack poet.

Yet, as happens so often in life, I didn’t realize how easy I had it at my cloistered middle-class kindergarten until I entered Summerville Elementary with its all white yet economically diverse population of older kids. I got lost before school on day two. Guided by my infallibly fallible sense of direction, I lined up on steps among unfamiliar faces. It was the second-grade entrance. Some kind soul, however, led me to my proper station, but the damage was done. School was a scary place.

Nevertheless, my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Wiggins, was nice and nurturing. If you think about it, first grade teachers provide you with more education than any other teacher of any grade. They teach you to read, to write, to add and to subtract.  Back then I was always losing my crayons and books instead of like now when it’s passports and beers that go missing. 

The child is the father of the man, as Wordsworth wrote.

My second-grade teacher Mrs. Jordan was older and gruffer than Mrs. Wiggins. Plump, white-haired, Mrs. Jordan read to us out loud. Some of the books featured an African American boy named Nicodemus. These books, written in dialect, were rife with stereotypes, and Mrs. Jordan sounded very much like an African American when she read them. Meanwhile, actual African American students sat in desks across town at Alston, the so-called separate but equal alternative to Summerville Elementary. I remember that Mrs. Jordan only gave white drawing paper to capable artists; the rest of us got lower grade stock upon which we’d create valentines.

The older I get in school, the less I remember, oddly enough (as the following shrinking paragraphs suggest). 

I had Mrs. Montz in third, Mrs. Stall in 4th, and Miss McCue in 5th, perhaps the first pre-menopausal teacher I encountered. Redheaded and perky, she made school interesting. Unlike most years, I didn’t dread going to school in the 5th grade. In fact, I was chosen to be a patrol boy and got to sport a white chest belt with a badge, if I remember correctly.

Mrs. Altman was my 6th grade teacher, and it was in the 6th grade when arithmetic had turned into the new math and my grades began to suffer. Before the 6th grade, I could pretty much get straight As by merely listening, but those days were over, and the horrors of puberty just around the corner, along with Spann Junior High where I would witness an administrator bang two boys’ heads together in the lunch line Three Stooges’ style, but I’ll save that memory until a later bout with insomnia.

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