I went to my first day at a new school and sat in the class with all of the other children. We were all there for the same reason. We had to be there and we had to learn. There were twenty or so desks lined up in rows facing the blackboard and the teacher’s desk at the front of the room. The alphabet in cursive was posted above the blackboard. I took my seat and I sat with all the other children and I didn’t know any of them.
The teacher’s name was Mrs. Robinson and I thought that was a fine name for a teacher. It was simple and easy to remember and disarming in its plainness. Mrs. Robinson had a kind voice and her hair was bouncy and suited her young age. The other children were not unpleasant to me and were mostly curious about who I was and where I came from. When I told them I had moved from Germany they were excited and shared their own stories of international living. Most of them were children of soldiers, like I was.
Saying the pledge of allegiance at the beginning of the school day was mandatory in those days. There was one student who didn’t have to say the pledge of allegiance. He had olive skin and dark hair and said that he wasn’t allowed to swear allegiance to a physical object. It was against his religion. I told the teacher it was against my religion as well so I could go out into the hall and not have to stand up and speak with the rest of the class. It also made me feel different, like I was standing out for the right reasons.
I did very well in school because I was smart and curious and all the things that would make me not be well had not happened yet. Mrs. Robinson noticed my achievements and my perfect grades and spoke to my parents about it. This was unknown to me until my parents told me that I would be changing classes.
“I don’t want to change classes,” I said. “I like Mrs. Robinson and I like my friends.” I felt safe and comfortable with the teacher and had grown attached. I also liked reading and she encouraged me to read in front of the class.
“We know you do,” my parents said. “You’re doing very well, so the school thinks you should be moved to a more challenging class.”
“But I get perfect grades in my class. Shouldn’t I stay where I am successful?”
“You need to be challenged.”
“Why should I be put in a situation where I am working harder for the same level of success?” That’s not exactly what I said because I was seven years old but that is what I meant.
The following Monday I had to round up my things in Mrs. Robinson’s class and move next door to my new classroom. My friends saw me cry and Mrs. Robinson saw me cry and she cried a little too. I picked up my ruler and my notebook and my pocket folders that were multiple colors and felt a little rough under my fingers. I stuffed these things in my knapsack along with my binder and my bag of pencils. I couldn’t look at the other students as I walked out of the class. They all knew I was going somewhere that was considered better than where we were, but I knew that what was to come was far from better. I looked at my friend that didn’t say the pledge of allegiance and I thought about what that meant.
The desks in my new classroom were arranged in sets of four with the students facing each other like two couples having dinner. This was quite different from the desks lined up in rows facing the teacher and the blackboard that I had seen in movies and in my other classes. I wondered how we would be able to learn if our backs were to the teacher and each other. When couples dine together in restaurants their conversations are limited to their own tables except for what the waiter hears and other couples listen to. Maybe the teacher walks around the classroom like a waiter, I thought, and students learn from each other in the way gossip spreads.
I met the teacher. Her name was Mrs. Folgers. Her name was not a fine name like Mrs. Robinson. Mrs. Folgers was a large woman with her hair pulled into a severe bun on top of her head. She wore a dress that started at her neck and ended at her ankles. The wrinkles on her face were taut from besmirching and her hands looked as if they had survived both world wars. She was severe and imposing and looked down to me with displeasure.
"You are starting in this class later than the other students. You are already behind. You will need to work hard to make up time." She gestured toward an empty seat in one of the desk four-squares.
I took my seat and surveyed my new mates. The boy to my left had a Vietnamese mother and a white American father, and he had a box of crayons that I had never seen before. They were set in a clear plastic box with no cardboard insert and no sharpener. The boy to my right was large and otherwise unmemorable, except for the time he completed an assignment first and Mrs. Folgers awarded him a Burger King meal and he sat at a table by himself, wearing his crown and eating his hamburger. The girl in front of me seemed soft and quiet, and I watched her paint the outlines of a mockingbird with magic markers.
For several weeks in Mrs. Folgers class it seemed I could not do anything right. She introduced rigidity I was not accustomed to, such as which colors we could use from the box of crayons and the order in which we would line up to leave for the lunchroom. In Mrs. Robinson’s class I felt like I was intellectually free. I could study what I wanted and present my findings to the class. Mrs. Robinson would stand in the corner and smile as I talked about the book I was reading or the story I had written. She told me about books that would challenge me, books that gave me choices in their outcomes, and books that introduced new concepts that I could write about, like mysteries of ancient Egypt and people who believed in ghosts. School was the only place that was mine, where I set my own destiny and made my own decisions and I could be smart and express my ideas, and Mrs. Robinson knew that.
Mrs. Folgers had no interest in my writing and I was forbidden from reading books that were not prescribed by her and I was most certainly not welcome to present my thoughts to the class as a whole. When I turned in my homework she deducted points from my grade if my name weren’t in the correct position on the paper or if the line that crossed a ‘t’ was too close to the middle. She punished me for writing out numbers like "zero" instead of "0". I grew to become very fearful of her and she set the tone for fears I would have well into adulthood.
On a March day I was working on the stuff that earned my classmate his crown and Mrs. Folgers was gone for quite some time. She would leave the classroom for extended periods of time. She trusted us because we were gifted but in reality we were all extremely afraid of her. I wasn’t eating very well at the time because we didn’t have good food at home and meals were irregular except for what was provided at school and I was not used to eating breakfast meats. My stomach was hurting very bad and I knew I had to go to the bathroom. I stayed in my seat waiting for Mrs. Folgers to return but with each passing moment the pain grew more intense and my body begged for release. I stood up from my seat and walked to the door to see if Mrs. Folgers was in the hallway but I didn’t see her, so I returned to my chair and waited. I grew very desperate and checked again to see if Mrs. Folgers was coming back and I saw her in the hallway. I felt much better and calmer because I knew that I would be comfortable again. She walked into the classroom.
"Mrs. Folgers, may I go to the restroom?"
"No," she said. "I saw you peeking out in the hallway. I know you were going to sneak out of class. That’s why you were looking. Go back to your seat."
"I need to go to the bathroom really bad."
"Return to your seat. Now."
I turned to walk to my seat and felt my stomach tighten and then relax as I involuntarily relieved myself. My face showed my shame and my ears burned very hot. Mrs. Folgers looked disgusted. The lines on her face were even tighter and her eyes were squinted and her nose was turned up. I could feel the heat and the wetness and the weight of what I had done. I felt ashamed and embarrassed and worried about what my parents would say.
"Return to your seat."
I turned and walked toward my seat and my classmates laughed and gagged and pointed at me. I sat down in my own filth and could not muster the courage to cry. When it was time for recess I was able to finally go to the restroom and clean myself up. My body was chafed and red with irritation. The rest of the school heard the news and directed their attention toward me and away from the physically challenged child that was their regular victim. After school I walked home and threw the pants in the trash and washed myself further. My mom asked me where the pants were and I had to lie to her and I wanted to tell her the truth because I wanted her to comfort me and punish Mrs. Folgers. It was the first time I wished death on another person and it wasn’t the last.
We moved again several months later and I didn’t miss that school or Mrs. Folgers or my classmates. I missed Mrs. Robinson. Even though I moved around and changed cities and parents Mrs. Folgers was not out of my life. Eventually she found death on her own and I wondered if she was buried wearing a crown.