The water test

I went to grades one through 12 in Petrova School. But even though all grades were in the same building, for the difference between grades one through six and the others, I might as well have gone to school on different planets.

For me, grade school was a diddy-bop through paradise. I breezed through all the subjects, got A’s in everything, and found it — all of it — easy. Actually, it was too easy. Or more exactly, too easy for my own good.

For when I hit seventh grade, it hit me. I rarely had a grade above C and had a whole lot below it.

The reason for this sudden reversal was simple: I didn’t study. So when it came to tests and other scholastic impedimenta, I had little idea what I was talking about. And since the teachers had neither senses of humor nor appreciation of alternative facts, they gave me the grades I deserved, damn their eyes.

But if I can say nothing good about my grades, I can say one good thing about my behavior: No matter how bad a pounding I took, I never cheated.

Before you start thinking about my essential decency, stop right now. My refusing to cheat was due not to ethical reasons but to pragmatic ones.

And uncertain boy

in uncertain times

It started in third grade.

I had a hard time in third grade due to the teacher, Miss Brunette. She wasn’t mean, or even overly strict, but had she been, it wouldn’t have bothered me anyway since I’d just survived second grade with Mrs. Smith.

Ah yes, Mrs. Smith.

It’s been 64 years, but I only have to close my eyes and I can still see her standing in front of the class. She was a tough old bird, who even looked like one — a bird of prey. She was thin, unyielding, and her gimlet eyes didn’t miss a thing.

She had only two goals. One was to educate her charges; the other was to enforce total obedience — and not in that order.

At the time I thought she had no sense of humor, but as an adult, I found out she did. However, it was adult humor. To say she was no Miss Francis, Shari Lewis or Pinky Lee is world-class understatement.

She also was no warm fuzzies kinda gal. Actually, the term “warm and fuzzy” didn’t hit print till 1970, but if Mrs. Smith had seen it then, I’m sure she wouldn’t have cared one tiddly-doo.

So what does this all Mrs. Smith-second-grade-stuff have to do with Miss Brunette and third grade?

Just this: After a year with Mrs. Smith, I could’ve handled anything, including the French Foreign Legion’s boot camp, if I was ordered about by someone solid and steady. The problem was Miss Brunette was a nervous, jittery character. She even had a weird tic I’ve never seen since: At odd moments she’d snap her head down and up, apparently bouncing her chin off her chest.

All of this, after dealing The Rock of Gibraltar, made me nervous. I spent all second grade off-balance, jumpy and suffering a full-blown case of the shpilkes. This undermined my self-confidence and I was no longer sure if I was saying or reading things right. And this led to my sole excursion into the dark world of academic dishonesty.

We were taking a test, and while I can’t remember the subject, I remember one question perfectly:

“A peninsula is a body of land bordered by water on: A. One side B. Two sides 3. Three sides

4. All sides.”

I knew the right answer was three sides and if you’d asked me the question outside school, I would’ve given it to you. But having become a Nervous Nellie and having to put my answer on paper, in ink, and get graded for it, I lost my cool. I then did what too many people who lose their cool do — I committed a crime of opportunity.

At the desk on my left was arguably the smartest girl in the class. She was one of those people who did everything to perfection, from printing her worksheets to braiding her pigtails. She was modest and low-key about it — doing things they way they should be done wasn’t something she did to impress anyone; it was just who she was.

She was also a completely trusting soul, which is why her test lay on her desk in plain view of anyone nefarious enough to look at it. I was nefarious enough.

I snuck a peek at her answer.

She had circled “4. All sides.”

Suddenly, I was struck by my first full-blown attack of cognitive dissonance.

My brain slammed to a halt.

I reviewed what’d just gone down.

I knew a peninsula was bordered by water on three sides. I also knew an island was bordered by water on all sides. But most importantly, I knew that girl was a whole lot smarter than me. I got most things right, but she got everything right. So if she said a peninsula was completely surrounded by water, then somehow it had to be.

I circled Answer 4.

When we got the test back, there was a big red check mark over my answer. I was furious at myself for having been such a dunce. And that’s probably a good thing, because if I’d copied her answer and it’d been correct, I might’ve embarked on a life of villainy, right then and there.

I never forgot that experience and I always appreciated it, not just as an object lesson about cheating, but for the irony of it all.

But a few years later, that irony went super-nova, when the girl and her family moved to Florida.