I cried all the way home on my first day of school.
I had not learned how to read.
I was very disappointed with myself and my first grade teacher.
It was the first of many disappointments with the steely-haired, be-spectacled woman. Why harsh Mrs. Lawrence taught six-year olds, I would never understand. Why some of my fellow classmates adored her would always remain a mystery to me.
When I returned to school the next day, I learned to print the letter “A,” one of the letters in my own name. It was a small victory, but the days and letters couldn’t come fast enough. Mrs. Lawrence introduced us to our first reader Off to School, and finally, the exciting business of learning to read could begin.
By some strange miracle, the first words “John” and “Look” leaped off the page and made sense, even though I didn’t know the letters “J” or “L” yet. Years later, I would use the double “o” trick looking like wide-open eyes to help my children recognize the work “look.” Mrs. Lawrence knew many such things.
I remember the moment when t-r-e-e ceased to be meaningless symbols and became the Christmas tree at the top of the page. Did she see the dawning in my eyes and share the wonder with me?
Arthur, a very polite, bright boy, made it his business to scurry up and pull Mrs. Lawrence’s chair out for her every time she sat down. I watched this performance a dozen times a day. It didn’t make sense to me, for the woman was as irritable as the day was long, but to Arthur, for a moment, she was gracious.
“Why, thank you, Arthur.”
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Lawrence.”
The block table was my favourite place to play; I can still hear the clink, clink of the plastic, multicolored math sticks. So, while I usually did well in Arithmetic, skip counting eluded me, and after a desperate morning that resulted in a blank page, I found myself in a line-up of confused children, each of us receiving a smack with the ruler for our unfinished assignments.
The humiliating burn still shames me.
Come spring, some of the children brought Mrs. Lawrence flowers. I did, too, for there was some semblance of affection in my heart for the stern woman who had, after all, taught me to read and opened a world of fascination and awe.
I had learned to read rapidly. I knew what my report card said inside its blue and yellow construction paper cover: I was too eager and must relax and enjoy Grade One.
Enjoy Grade One?
“There’s a conveyor belt going to Grade Two. If you don’t learn to read and add and subtract,” Mrs. Lawrence warned ominously, “it’ll bring you back to Grade One.”
I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, go back to Grade One.
In our class picture, Mrs. Lawrence is standing stiffly beside us, as somber and miserable as she had been all year, in her grey-toned dress, her grey hair crisply curled in precise grey waves. Forty years later, I think about her life and wonder what had caused her to be so colourless and thin-lipped. What hidden burden or sadness did she bear?
She was faithful and diligent, to be sure, but never once did I see her smile or laugh. Meticulously, she taught Arithmetic, Phonics, and Reading, then taught us to comprehend what we were reading.
Then, why don’t I understand?
Why didn’t she seem to delight in opening eager eyes and fresh minds? Was she not able to smile in response when the light of comprehension glimmered in our young hearts? Then again, maybe teaching six-year olds gave relief from the miseries she was possibly carrying in her life. Perhaps, without us, she would have given up in quiet despair.
Now, almost a half century old, I am still eager to learn, and the process is enjoyable, relaxing, yet wildly exhilarating. Whether she knew it or not, Mrs. Lawrence ignited a flame in me when she drew open the reader, stroked the chalk across the blackboard, and sharpened the pencil. And learn I will, not leaving any pages blank, undaunted by any challenge.
T-r-e-e is a perfect tree. Look! Did you not see the flicker of understanding in my eye?
Thank you, Mrs. Lawrence, wherever you are.
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