I remember the summers, those glorious summers, back in the log shack my father built. My brother and sisters and I would run wild--in our bare feet--through the coulees, thick with bush and shrubs and all kinds of wild flowers. Oh those mud pies, and concoctions we created from "nature's garden" in the woods! Imaginary guests--and real ants--would join us for a gourmet meal in our stick-and-leaf playhouse. I enjoyed being a child.
But one day--a golden day, when sunlight danced on the leaves, and butterflies flitted, and birds twittered--my whole world fell apart. I got out of bed as usual, happy to be alive and eager to be outdoors running wild and free.
"Time to get ready for school, girls," my mother's voice rang out. Of course I knew she wasn't talking to me! It was always when the weather was the nicest that my sisters' freedom would end. How sorry I would feel for them, not being able to join my brother and me as we scrambled through the fields and gullies, splashing our feet in the cool stream.
I gulped down the last of my mush, ran my hand over my mouth, and made a mad dash for the door--and freedom.
"Hold on there, young lady.” Mama caught me by the arm and led me to the washbasin. "It's time to go to school."
"Me? Go to school? Why do I have to go to school?"
She scrubbed my face. "Put on your shoes and socks," she said, ignoring my questions.
My sisters dragged me down the path, across the wheat field, over the railroad tracks, to the little white schoolhouse. Hiding behind them, I listened as they greeted their friends. They sounded happy to be at school. But nobody asked me if I wanted to go to school.
I clapped my hands over my ears as the bell on top of the schoolhouse clanged its announcement that it was time to go in, time to meet the teacher…. What does a person do at school?…My sisters dragged me up the steps, through the cloakroom, into a room with desks and a potbelly stove.
"Welcome back!" Teacher said. "This year we have a new student. A beginner." She took my hand and led me to the front of the class.
What's a student? And what's a beginner? In panic I glanced around the room.
"You all know each other," she said to the class. "But do you know Helen? She's our beginner." Back at my desk, she introduced me to Alphonse, a first grade repeater.
The next few hours seemed like days. My eyes roved the room, spotting my sisters a couple of rows over. How come they got to sit next to each other, while was I stuck in the front where everyone could look at me?
Teacher was talking, but what was she was saying? I heard a rustling of papers, and then she was walking in my direction. She led Alphonse and me to the front of the room.
"This is a blackboard," she explained, pointing to a black wall. "And this is chalk." She handed me a stick that reminded me of whitewash Daddy put on the walls at home. I looked at the white marks it made on my fingers. On the blackboard in front of Alphonse and me, Teacher drew a straight line with two shorter lines attached. "This is an F," she explained. "I want you to trace over it until you can make the letter by yourself." I stared at it.
Alphonse picked up the chalk, knowing exactly what to do. I watched him going over and over the lines. But he had done it before. Teacher said so. Why would he want to do this again? I glanced in his direction. He was enjoying making those marks. I stared at the black thing in front of me and dropped my eyes to the white stick. What was I supposed to do with this thing in my hand? I gawked again at the board, then at Alphonse, then at the chalk. My eyes filled with tears. I could no longer see the board--nor the lines on it, that the teacher said was "F". I was afraid to look back at Alphonse. So, with tears streaming down my face, I did the only thing I knew to do. I ate the chalk.