I started Kindergarten two months after turning five, and eight months after my father died. My teacher was Miss Neronovich. She smelled wonderful. She was young and pretty with a tall golden beehive hair-do, short bright-coloured skirts, and the most inviting smile and warm eyes I could imagine. I fell in love with her on the first day we met, which was a special date when my Mother and I went together to her classroom so that she could meet me and show me around. My Mummy was just starting to eat again, and no longer stayed in her housecoat all the time on the weekends, and I remember clearly before our special meeting that she coached me on how to say “Miss Ner On A Vich,” and told me what a nice lady she was, and how I was lucky because I was going to a special class that was going to be a school family. It was 1973, and our local school was trying out a new-fangled style of classroom called “family grouping.” My mom said Miss Neronovich especially wanted to meet me.
The class consisted of children from Kindergarten to Grade 3; we sat at tables together, and we little ones were invited to ask the big ones for help if we needed it. We got to choose our own work, moved around the classroom freely from one “centre” to another, and when we needed help or had completed any work, we took it to Miss Neronovich to tell her about it, and she would look at it with us one-on-one, and make a comment, or show us something we didn’t know, or help us with something hard. When I close my eyes I can still remember leaning on her knee with my little notebook in her lap, her arm around me, and our yellow heads close together while I dictated a story, and she printed it neatly for me under my crayoned illustration.
The only difficult time on my first day was a cruel invention called “recess.” I clearly remember my sense of panic when we were ushered outside without Miss. Neronovich. Thank goodness I was only alone for a few moments, though, as Mr. Greyall came to my rescue. He was the Principal, and he walked the playground at recess. On my first day of school he saw me and held out his hand to me so that I could walk with him. I don’t remember talking to him, or what he said to me, but I do remember the feel of his big warm hand around mine as we walked. I don’t remember ever being told to go play with the other children, or to leave him alone, or that he was too busy, or that someone else needed him. My memory is that I walked with him every day, and that I was safe. Kindergarten was a dream – a beautiful dream.
Grade 1 was the same – because of “family grouping,” I got to stay with my Miss. Neronovich, only now I stayed all day, and so I got to walk with Mr. Greyall at lunchtime too. I also got to help the little Kindergarten kids who were a bit scared and didn’t always know what to do, and as the year went on I even started playing on the playground sometimes, as the big children taught me to play hopscotch, and to skip, and to play cats cradle. I remember that Irene, one of the big Grade 3 girls stopped a little boy from calling me “Baby ears.” She told me if he did it again I could come and tell her, and she would get a grown-up for me.
At the assembly at the end of the year, Mr. Greyall announced his retirement and gave a long speech about all the things he would miss about Norquay elementary school. One of the things was “walking every day with little Pammy.” I knew I mattered to him, and that he would remember me.
My report cards for Kindergarten and Grade 1 were glowing. I was smart and good, and a delight to have in the classroom.
In Grade 2 we moved to a “better neighbourhood,” from East Vancouver to Kerrisdale. My new school was a “better school.” My mom was so happy to be moving her little family (my sister and me) up and away from a time of great sorrow, and so glad to be able to offer us “better” than the little pink house on E. 29th St.
My new school was a traditional school, not given to flights of fancy such as “family grouping.” No-one there seemed to understand that I came from a school with a somewhat unconventional approach, and that I didn’t know the rules for a “normal” classroom. Certainly I was not in any way oriented to the change of expectations. I didn’t know that we children were not allowed to talk to each other; I didn’t know it was cheating if I asked a classmate for help with a question; I didn’t know I was supposed to raise my hand and ask before getting up to get a tissue; I didn’t know that I couldn’t walk freely to the window to look at the robin on the grass, or freely to the teacher with my work to ask for feedback or help. I didn’t know.
I also didn’t know anything about math. In our “family grouping” system, the idea was that children had until Grade 3 to accomplish a particular set of competencies. We had to do a minimum of two activities from each centre every day, but once those were completed we could do as many extras as we wished, from whichever centre most interested us. I was interested in reading and writing and music, and I loved the dress-up centre, and the big blocks, so I chose to spend much of my time in these pursuits. I had completed many grades worth of reading and writing modules, but was still at the manipulatives stage with math. I knew my numbers, perhaps to 20; could do all kinds of geometry puzzle games; could sort beads by their attributes and string them into patterns; I could arrange Cuisenaire rods from shortest to longest, but I could not manage much more than that. Nobody had been concerned about this at all, as it was felt that I still had two years to “catch up”. I had no clue that such a thing as “behind” existed.
My Grade 2 “teacher” (who shall remain un-named), had only one agenda on the first day of class, as far as I could see: she wanted to trick me. She stood at the front of the room and talked at us while she wrote on the board. I could read, and what she was putting on the board didn’t make any sense at all: it was some kind of trick. She wrote a series of numbers something like this:
and then asked us what the answers were. I got the numbers, but what were those other weird shapes? I knew it was some kind of code – that the numbers were meant to relate to each other in some way, but I couldn’t find the pattern. I realized within minutes that the other kids seemed to know the code. I remember the white panic as I realized that I didn’t know what to do, and that I wasn’t allowed to ask for help – it was as if my ears started buzzing and my eyes lost their ability to make sense of what they were seeing. When called upon, I made random guesses, calling out whatever number first came to mind, but I didn’t know anything. It only took me a couple of hours to realize how stupid I was, and only a couple of days to realize what a bad child I was. Because I was so bad and stupid, my teacher didn’t like me. I was always in trouble for not following the rules – I tried to anticipate them, but who knew that reading a library book or sharpening one’s pencil so that work could be done, required permission?
I hated being in that classroom. I was in a special reading group (I thought it was because I was dumb and bad, but looking back, I realize that it was a pullout program for advanced readers), and we got to escape to a special classroom two or three times per week. To get there we walked through the library. As we were walking back to the classroom one day, I felt more and more sick about being with my “teacher” again. I was at the back of the line, and as we passed through the library I found myself ducking behind a bookshelf while everyone else kept walking. My heart was beating, but there before my eyes was an interesting looking book. It was a book about children who found a secret world. I stayed in the library and read it until lunchtime, and nobody noticed, and I didn’t have to be with my mean teacher. I knew it was wrong, and I wasn’t allowed, but I couldn’t help myself. I managed to do the same thing again a few days later, this time on purpose. Unfortunately, though, someone came and found me, and I got in trouble for being sneaky and skipping out of class.
On the playground there was nobody to take care of me, and all the other little girls were friends from the two years before. There was another new girl, though, called “Julie.” She talked funny because she was from Australia, and she was bad. She got in trouble all the time, and even had been sent to the principal’s office. She invited me to be her friend, and I said yes, but I was trying to be friends with the good girls too. At lunch they said I had to choose between Julie and them, but Julie was already my friend, so I had to choose her or I would be mean.
One day Julie said, “let’s dance on the grass!” There was a grassy place at the front of the school where we weren’t allowed to go – it was just grass for decoration, not for playing. I knew that, and I said that we weren’t allowed, but Julie said if I was her real friend I would go with her, and I wanted to be a good friend, so I did. Then we danced, and actually it was really fun, and when Julie held her skirt way up as she danced, I joined her. We got sent to the principal’s office. My mom was engaged to be married at the time, and the wedding was coming up in just a few months. The principal told me that I would disappoint my mother and ruin her happiness at her wedding if she knew what I did, and so she wouldn’t tell her this time, but I had better not do anything bad again or she would tell. So I had to keep the painful secret from my mother.
My Grade 2 report card was less than glowing.
That summer my mom got married, and we moved to a fancy big house and I switched to a new school again. It was Grade 3 and I met Mrs. Tiller. She was VERY strict and no nonsense. And she loved me. She loved me right away. I could tell from the twinkle in her eyes when she met me at the door and welcomed me to her class. On the first week she handed out a mimeographed math test. I had finally figured out minus and plus by the end of Grade 2, but I had never seen a division sign. The kids at the new school started division in Grade 2, but we hadn’t started it yet in my old school. So when I was given a sheet of division problems, I thought all the little dots were some kind of malfunction of the mimeograph machine, and answered the questions as if they were subtraction questions.
Later that day Mrs. Tiller came over to my desk and leaned over to talk to me quietly so nobody could hear. She said “I think you haven’t done division yet, but don’t worry, I’ll show it to you. It’s easy, and you’ll figure it out in no time.” So I knew for sure that she would help me and that I was safe. Mrs. Tiller invited me to read when I was done my work, and suggested new books she thought I might like. Once when my cat followed me to school I was afraid to go into the class, because I thought my cat would be lost and get hit by a car. A classmate alerted Mrs. Tiller to my problem, and she came outside, picked up my cat, took her inside with us, and announced to the class that we had a very special visitor for the morning. Then at lunch she carried my cat all the way back home for me. I was lucky to be in Mrs. Tiller’s class for Grade 3, and got to stay in the same school and have her again in Grade 4 even though my mom’s new marriage had not gone well – there was a divorce and we moved into a townhouse.
My report cards show that I was both smart and good again in Grades 3 and 4.
In the summer before Grade 5 we moved to Richmond, so I switched schools again, but I’ll end my story here saying that at the end of Grade 4, knowing that I was moving, Mrs. Tiller gave me her home phone number and said she would love to hear how I was from time to time. My mom bought me my own little phone book just so I could keep my teacher’s number somewhere that was especially mine. I did call, at first every few months, then every year or two, and then just to share big events like my marriage and the births of my children.
I was dumb and bad; I was smart and good. My teachers showed me so.