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Previous Challenge Entry
Topic: First Day of School (06/28/04)

TITLE: The Day I Ate The Chalk
By Helen Dowd


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.

Member Comments
Member Date
dub W07/05/04
Loved the essay, and particularly the end. A perfect chuckle after a morning of reading these articles, I saved this one for last. thanx, dub
Mary C Legg07/05/04
very vivid writing--and somehow I understand the paralysis of standing there in front of a class-- eating the chalk is a reaction to fear, failure and flunking--all those big F words that kids learn very quickly. But my reaction is that the teacher was a bully in putting someone unprepared into such a vulnerable possition and making them chalk F. Success is always associated with A, not F and this kid didn't stand a chance from the beginning.

personally I'd eat the chalk,too--but more likely I'd wet my pants. School terrified the heck out of me year after year on both sides of the desk.
Corinne Smelker 07/05/04
Great story - and one to which many people can relate.

Personally I landed up beating up a boy on my first day - something to do with being put in his "girlfriend's seat" by the teacher, and he took umbrage to it! Of course I was not unscathed, had to be taken to the ER because I cut my head open. :)
L.M. Lee07/05/04
oh Helen, this was so pitiful...poor dear! It brought a smile to my morning!
Marina Rojas07/05/04
Absolutely outstanding.
Stephanie Frelone07/05/04
I enjoyed the imagery you used in this article, as well as the first-person point of view; it worke really well for this story. One suggestion I have is to maybe reconsider the title. It is very eye-catching, but I think the ending might have been more dramatic and effective if the title didn't give away the climax, especially if you were going for a surprise effect. If you were telling the story so as to entice the reader to see how the events that led up to the chalk eating, then this title is perfect. I guess it just depends on what your vision for the story was. Anyways, all ramblings aside, this was so well-written! You definitely have my vote.
Barbara Ann Smith07/06/04
Helen: What an exciting story - filled with images that flooded me with beautiful pictures of the gifts God gave to us for enjoyment. I enjoyed! Barbara Ann Smith
Theresa Knight07/06/04
Well done and humorous at the end.
Kevin Kindrick07/06/04

Great story. Well written. Ejoyable read. I have just one question, did this really happen to you?
Helen Dowd07/07/04
Yes. This is a personal experience. It may have been a long time ago, but the first day of school shall never fade from my memory. Long gone are the days of one-room schools--at least here in our part of Canada. And where we lived, there was no such thing as kindergarten to get a child used to going to school. I was still one month under 6 when I started school. We lived in a very small town in Northern Alberta--Meanook, was the name of the town. It is still a small town, but the one-room-school is no longer. They now bus the children to the nearest large town.
Mary Elder-Criss07/07/04
This was outstanding. You did an excellent job of reflecting a child's thoughts (guess it was easier, since you were the child) and placing us in the classroom with you. I absolutely LOVE your closing, poor thing..you definitely have one of my votes. Thanks for sharing!
Sylvia Spielman07/07/04
I love how you never strayed from the bewilderment of the child. As a teacher in preschool ministry I try hard to help the children understand their world and new circumstances. This piece really expressed well how confused a child can be. I hope you try to get this out where parents and teachers can appreciate a child's perspective. Great writing! Sylvia
Melanie Kerr 07/08/04
This reminds me of Laurie Lee's "Cider with Rosie" - the clarity with which you remember and the detail of the story are excellent.
Gary Sims07/08/04
Helen - evidently your following days at school were not as traumatic as you have developed some very good writing skills. Thank you for sharing.
Linda Wright09/01/06
Dear Helen, I can see from the dates on all the other comments, that I am reading this quite late! But how delightful it is! The title was so fascinating. You wrote so simply... just like a child.... but with beautiful descriptions. I am thoroughly enjoying your writing. You obviously received a very good education in that one room schoolhouse! Linda
Lisa Johnson08/14/09

I enjoyed the vivid descriptions included in this story. I could almost see yuor fields, and flowers...and that awful blackboard.