Missed Lessons

Laurie Joan Aron

You never stop learning, and if you're lucky, you'll have some kids in your life - your own or others - to help you along. For all the good grades I'd gotten in grade school, it wasn't until my daughter Rachel cruised through third grade that I learned how to ditch years of learning to be nobody and to reemerge as somebody.

I don't want to complain, especially about my third grade teacher, Mrs. Thompson, whose gray hair was molded into a bee hive and lacquered so it didn't wiggle or quiver, even when she strode across the room in her black, side-laced space shoes. Mrs. Thompson was O.K., even if she did have me and Ginny and Amber and Letitia, all skipping up from Mrs. Perricone's second grade right in the middle of the year, stand in a row against the blackboard to read aloud the stories we had written for class.

Mine was a typical female, second grade product: three or four sentences in excruciatingly neat printing with the pencil gripped all wrong. "My blah blah is blah blah. I love my blah blah." Something like that. Mrs. Perricone couldn't get me to change the way I held a pencil, and the resulting callous on my right ring finger is permanent.

I don't remember being nervous about standing up in front of all these kids and Mrs. Thompson in her bee hive and her space shoes, even though Ginny was just about dead from fear, and Amber and Letitia Carroll were swaying back and forth nervously, their papers crumpling in their sweaty hands. I thought it was nice to get the attention.

There was something really special about skipping from second into third grade. My mother sat down with me every night to catch me up on the work I had missed, like multiplication tables and cursive writing. No one could blame me for not knowing these things yet. We had four different composition notebooks, each for a different subject. The first few pages of each have my mother's tight, pale, precise writing in them.

My mother had quit her job to stay home with me when I was three. She still resents "those women's libbers," as she calls them, who made her feel that she should have been out working. "I just wanted to enjoy you," she has told me, although I have no recollection that she did. With two draft-age sons, she was preoccupied with events playing out in the larger political world, like Vietnam. She and my father held meetings at the house, and took me to march on Washington and to candlelight vigils.

My parents also took me to avant garde theater, where people on stage took their clothes off. It humiliated me to watch it, as strict as my parents had always been about proper dress and behavior, but they stayed mum, leaving me to puzzle out the contradictions.

Paper dresses and mini skirts were part of the anxiety attack of the '60s for me, a symptom of how everything was going horribly wrong and weird. One day, I was sitting next to my mother on the love seat in the living room in our house in Bayside, idly flipping through one of those tiny catalogues of clothing that used to be packaged with Barbie dolls and outfits. My parents were talking heatedly about the latest escalation of the Vietnam War, but I must have been absorbed in my fantasy about the Barbie clothes as I quite unthinkingly, quite stupidly, I guess, said, "All the Barbie outfits in this catalogue have short sleeves. Isn't that funny?"

"Our boys are getting killed, and all you can think about is Barbie clothes!" A small shell exploded on the other side of the love seat. My mother didn't yell, but her anger cut nevertheless. The shrapnel flying from my mother's outburst shut me up. I heard the quiet voice of my father, just across from us in his wing chair, saying, "Oh, Bea, she's just a kid," but his comment was like a tiny bandage on the gaping wound. I took my mother's disapproval to heart and became a more compliant child out of fear. From then on, I restricted myself to saying things that would elicit her approval.

Some 25 years after that incident, my eight-year old daughter Rachel is an unrestricted artist, fearless in her responses to authority. When her third-grade teacher Susie had the children make daily entries in a writer's notebook, Rachel felt strongly that she not need to learn how to write in this manner-she is an accomplished writer.

But Rachel didn't see the necessity of complying. She assumed that she could object to the assignments. Quite on her own, she explained her views, in writing, to her teacher: "You're teaching the kids how to write, but I know already. It makes me angry to think that someone is making me write a different way. I hope you understand."

I empathized strongly with her, remembering those countless occasions when adults made decisions about me over my head, and I could do nothing but comply because of fear of reprisal, but I was more than a little nervous about Susie's reaction to a student calling the writing curriculum into question. My mother worried that Susie would punish Rachel for her bid for artistic freedom. She made me promise to call her as soon as I knew what Susie was going to do about Rachel's letter.

It ended up that Susie thought the letter was great, and readily agreed to let Rachel go at her own pace. This wasn't the Sixties at P.S. 41. Teachers have certainly come around to the view that children learn in different ways.

But I got to thinking about a callous on my right ring finger, my only badge of the childhood rebellion in my heart. And in wonderment about the fact that for all my childhood passivity, I'm raising a daughter who has no qualms about questioning authority, and that as one of the important authorities in her life, I'm not passive any more.

© Laurie Joan Aron

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