As I write this, it's the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 2013. But I'm thinking of the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 1952.
I was in first grade and on that day, school could not get out soon enough. Thanksgiving vacation would start then, and it was a much-needed vacation indeed.
Simply put, first grade, even though I'd been in it only three months, had been a brutal grind. But in order to understand the brutality of first grade, you must first understand my kindergarten experience.
Kindergarten then, was nothing like it is now. Today, from what I gather, no child gets out of kindergarten without first mastering calculus, at least one foreign language, organic chemistry, and an in-depth understanding of the rise and fall of the Toltec empire.
But back in my childhood, back in the stone age of education, it wasn't like that. Back then, people thought 5-year-olds were well, 5-year-olds. Pretty much babies. As a result, they figured kindergarten was less a stepping stone for MIT than a playpen where you liked your teacher, you got along with other kids, and you played a lot. Additionally, if things panned out, maybe you learned a few things, like the alphabet, some songs, and how great Elmer's school paste tasted.
I learned all that, and some other things too. For one, I learned how to spell my last name. It was no small deal figuratively and literally.
Playing with toys especially those huge wooden blocks in the Broadway school -- was a blast, as was drawing and having milk and cookies. Naps were a drag, since I never took one, but I learned how to fake it. Faking was a skill that stood me in good stead ever after.
As for liking my teacher? That was no problem because my teacher was Mrs. Eldrett. As my kindergarten classmate and current chum Robin Smith said, "Everyone loved Mrs. Eldrett."
And best of all, kindergarten was only a half day. If I ever had a bad day (and I can't remember one) it was no problemo, since it couldn't have lasted very long anyway.
But as much fun as kindergarten was, it did nothing to prepare me for first grade.
Into the cauldron
First grade, Petrova school, 1952: Gone were the half days of lounging about in idle chatter and unfocused activity. Gone were the wooden blocks, the milk and cookies, and the naps. Gone was the May pole, tra-la, tra-la.
Instead, it was an eight-hour drag, sitting in desks, hands on top; slaving over reading, writing, 'rithmatic. And we got graded on all of it. Oh yeah, there was a break for lunch, but it was always too short, and there we were, back in the Gulag again.
Also gone long gone, in fact -?was my darling Mrs. Eldrett. In her place was her polar opposite - Miss Starr.
Though ancient to me, Miss Starr was in her mid-thirties, very pretty, and was an accomplished teacher. Unfortunately, in order to be an accomplished teacher, she also had to be an accomplished authoritarian, since her charges, having spent the previous year hanging loose, were in effect feral children. We really didn't have any educational skills, or any discipline, either.
But if we needed skills and discipline, you can bet your bip we were going to get them under Miss Starr's auspices.
While I never was authority-defiant, I never was authority-compliant either, so first grade marked the end of my carefree childhood, and my entry into the dog-eat-dog arena we fondly call "the real world." While I could never earn the Good Citizen Award that all the toadies and brown-nosers got with ease, I could do well academically. As a matter of fact, as I look back on it, I think my academic achievement peaked in first grade. It was all downhill from there.
But here's the thing: I think I did well, less out of a drive for success or pat on the head, than for the stickers.
The pumpkin predicament
And what were the stickers? Just this: If we got 100 on a test, Miss Starr put a sticker on the top of the paper. And that's what propelled me to levels of excellence never since achieved.
I loved those stickers. They were brightly colored and had delightful images - unlike everything else in the school, including the teachers. They were also seasonal. So when school first started, we'd get green trees. Later on, we'd get trees with fall colors. After that, pumpkins, and so on.
I was done in by the Thanksgiving one -?the turkey. And it did me in because I didn't get it.
It was the first test I didn't get 100 in -?a math test. Details, details, details?- I missed one somewhere and got a 99. Good enough, you think? Well, think again. Because even though 99 was only one point away from 100, I got no sticker.
I was furious.
Of course I said nothing to Miss Starr (at that point I understood my place in the school hierarchy, which was the rock bottom). But when I got home, I was seething and I vented my wrath on my mother.
Now, just as teachers were hardcore disciplinarians, so too were parents. And since my mother had been a teacher in New York City, she was doubly endowed ... and I was doubly cursed.
I'd just laid it on her - he injustice of it all. How I got a 99, which was almost perfect, but Miss Starr, the rotter, could not find it in her heart of stone to give me my turkey sticker -- me, who'd gotten 100's on everything else.
"I deserved that sticker!" I shrieked.
My mother, who neither suffered fools nor negotiated with terrorists, fixed me with her death ray stare.
"You done?" she said.
I nodded, too outraged to talk.
"Good," said. "You did not get a perfect grade, so you did not deserve the sticker."
I started to say something, but she cut me off.
"And I deserve some peace and quiet. So, shtunk, if you want to tell someone what you deserve, go upstairs right now and tell Piglet, because this discussion is over."
Piglet was the little stocking doll my Great-Aunt Frances made for me when I was an infant and which was never out of my sight thereafter.
Knowing a losing battle when I'd just had one, I stomped upstairs and into my room. There, I picked up Piglet and was about to lay my whole self-pitying trip on him, when two things dawned on me. One, he was a doll, and thus inanimate. And two, even if he were animate, he deserved better than listening to me whine about being screwed out of a verkochte sticker that I never deserved in the first place.
It was the first time I learned that close enough is not good enough. And though I learned it very early in life, I now know I did not learn it too early.