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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: 3 Memories from Washington Elementary 6/15/21

I recently took Mrs. Ednold by my old elementary school so she could check out the humble place where I began my education. It looked enough the same as it did that I was able to recognize it, but it's a charter school now that goes by some other name and somehow it looks nicer than I remembered it looking back then. Washington school was named for the street it’s on, which I assume was named after the father of our country, and it wasn’t the only grade school in town. Big bro went to the real school about a half mile away, while I took a shuttle bus each morning to Washington. Apparently they had more first-through-third-graders than would fit in the big school so instead of setting up a prefab building next to it like they would these days, they bused us extras across town to what was probably an old converted storage unit or something. I don’t know how they decided which of the students were assigned there. My brother would probably tell you Washington was for all the rejects, but I like to think it was a school for the talented and gifted. Mrs. Ednold and I were only there for a few minutes. It’s a tiny building with three classrooms so it doesn’t take long to take it all in, but that’s all it took for some memories to come back. Don't ask me why I'm writing any of it down and sharing it, because I don't know either, but here are my three memories from Washington Elementary.

The Good

Tetherball seems to have lost some of its popularity over the years and Napolean Dynamite probably put the final nail in its cool-factor coffin, but at Washington Elementary it was THE thing, and I was a tetherball prodigy. So it was a sad moment when I noticed that one of the upgrades to the school, in addition to new siding and windows, was removal of the tetherball poles. There used to be three of them, in a row maybe 20 yards east of the school building. I guess maybe kids don’t play tetherball anymore and there's no need for the poles. Maybe one too many little players got bonked upside the head, creating a liability cost that schools weren’t willing to pay anymore, but it’s a tragic loss for the sporting world.

At Washington there was one tetherball pole for each grade, and you had to play against your classmates; no mixing of ages was allowed, and my friend Kim and I ruled that first-grade tetherball pole for eight months. I don’t remember anyone other than the two of us ever winning a game. We were that good. I went to Kim’s house one time for a play date. She had a freakin’ tetherball pole in her driveway! And that’s what we did the whole time I was there, just the two of us going head-to-head without any of the riff raff waiting in line. Thinking back on it now I’m amazed that there was no rivalry between us. If I had been a few years older and my only challenger had been a girl I would have built my own tetherball pole or tied a football to a tree or something and practiced until I could beat her every time. But at the time we each just had a mutual respect for each other’s mad tetherball skills and enjoyed playing each other, win or lose.

Anyway, at the end of the school year the teachers thought better of their silly rules and allowed Kim and I to play at the second grade pole to give our classmates a chance to experience some success. So, for the final few weeks of that year we got to play against the second graders. We didn’t dominate like we were used to, but we held our own and enjoyed an unprecedented level of esteem from our fellow first-graders. The fact that tetherball was only ever a grade school game and didn’t become an Olympic sport was just one of the many cruelties that life had in store for me. Kim and I would have had a whole drawer full of gold medals as the most successful mixed doubles team in history. In fact, it was probably my focus on tetherball that caused me to prematurely give up a promising wrestling career and my first-grade tetherball experience was to be my biggest athletic achievement until I ran a 4.5 second 40 yard dash in Mrs. Samek’s 4th grade PE class. I don’t think the fact that she was timing us using the sweep second hand on her watch should diminish that accomplishment in any way. It’s probably still a 4th grade world record. Did I mention I was a prodigy?

The Bad

As we quickly scanned the old school grounds, Mrs. Ednold and I also saw the blacktop area on the east side of the school, which I’m sure has been resurfaced more than once since I was a student there. That spot is memorable to me because I once found a dime there. Nowadays if I see a dime on the ground I get a message in my brain that says “Hey! There’s a dime! That’s 10 cents just lying there on the ground! It’s yours! It’s free! Just pick it up!” Sometimes I listen and obey because, well, it’s true. I’m going to be 10 cents richer just for bending over and picking something up? Why not? But usually I don’t. I do a lightning-quick cost-benefit analysis and the debit side of that balance sheet always wins. I have to bend over all the way to the ground? For a worthless 10 cents? No thanks. Of course, when you're in first grade and you see a dime on the ground that balance sheet tips a little differently. At least it did back... (Let’s see: I’m 39 now, so…) well, a long time ago. Anyway, maybe kids today wouldn’t put any more effort into retrieving a dime than I would.

But, back to the memory. I wanted that dime, badly. But, in another of life’s cruel jokes, it was the middle of winter and that blacktop was covered in a thick sheet of ice. I don’t know how thick; a half-inch, maybe less? But I could see that dime clearly through the ice, and I saw it each time they would let us out for recess. Even at that age, I knew a dime wasn’t a LOT of money, but it was worth enough that I was willing to work for it. And besides, it was mocking me just sitting there like that, so easy to see and yet not so easily gotten. So, a day or two after spotting it I found a rock and tried to crack that ice. It was cold out, obviously, but each recess for two or three days I would grab my rock and try to free that dime. I chipped it, I bashed it, I clawed it. I became obsessed with the challenge and spent time between recesses trying to think of ways to get it, until possession of the actual dime became secondary to succeeding in the quest to get through that ice. Unfortunately, my ice cracking skills were not on the same level with my tetherball prowess. Again, if I’d been just a little older I could have thought of a dozen ways to do it, and you’re probably reading this wondering why it was so difficult. I can’t explain it, but at the time that challenge was just beyond me. Somehow, I never was successful. I finally gave up in frustration to retake my place as king of the tetherball pole and I never did get that stupid dime. And, of course, by the time the ice started to melt I had forgotten all about it. Mrs. Ednold and I didn’t walk over to see if it was still there but if it is, there’s probably a first-grader who would appreciate me leaving it right where it is.

The Ugly

Another memory brought back by the sight of that old building was a little more disturbing. In fact, it’s been on my mind ever since that day and I wish it had stayed buried under all the other crap cluttering my head. My first grade teacher’s name was Mrs. Andrews. Wilma Andrews, though I didn’t know that at the time. Mrs. Andrews must have been about 80 when I was in her class. You know how sometimes people seem really old when you’re a kid and then later you see a picture of them as they were and they were like 40? Not Mrs. Andrews. Looking at a picture of her today from that time I may have underestimated: She might have been 90. And she was a tough old lady who demanded that we learn to read well. She scared me into reading well, and I have always been indebted to her for that. That approach probably didn’t work as well with kids who were dyslexic, or had other learning disabilities, but at that time you weren’t allowed to have learning disabilities. You just did what the teacher told you to do or else, which worked for me and was a good lesson to learn at that age.

There was one girl in our class who probably didn’t emerge from first grade having learned the same lessons that I learned. I guess it would be redundant to say she was a little girl, seeing as how we were in first grade, but she was little. I don’t remember her name. She wasn’t a friend of mine, or probably anyone else now that I think about it, and she had footwear issues. This girl wore boots to school every day. They weren’t wellingtons, or cowboy boots. They weren’t hiking boots. They weren’t those hideous Ugg’s that girls wear nowadays that look goofy no matter what they’re worn with. (And while I’m on the topic, has there ever been an item of fashion quite as ugly as Uggs? Let me answer that: No, there has not. It is impossible to wear them without looking like a complete ninny. But that’s not the “Ugly” that this story refers to, so let’s get back to that). This girl’s boots were just big clunky leather things that were probably a few sizes too big and made a lot of noise wherever she went, and for some reason Mrs. Andrews had a real problem with those boots. I can’t imagine what section of the school dress code forbid the wearing of ugly boots that didn’t fit quite right, but, according to Mrs. Andrews, the girl was breaking that code with her choice of footwear.

Why nobody ever required ME to dress differently, I’ll never know. Looking at pictures of myself as a kid I wonder why any of my teachers EVER let me in the classroom. The plaids and stripes and clashing colors must have made my classmates dizzy. I can’t believe my parents ever let me leave the house in the hand-me-down clown outfits I walked around in. I remember one outfit I was especially proud of. I must have been 7 or 8 and I had a pair of green TuffSkin jeans. Within a matter of months, unfortunately before I had outgrown the pants, I somehow acquired a green shirt, green shoes, and a pair of green socks. Dressed entirely in green, I just knew I was looking good! I would have looked like a big green bean if any of the shades of green had matched, which they didn't. Luckily for me, dressing like a total freak was very popular at that time and lots of the other kids looked like freaks too. Apparently, it was the thing to do back then, so I really didn’t stand out too much. But for some reason those boots really rubbed Mrs. Andrews the wrong way.

For a while it was a daily routine for her to call out this girl in front of the whole class and remind her that her boots were unacceptable and that she needed to start coming to school in proper shoes. After a while, maybe a week, the girl answered that her mother had promised her new shoes next month. I, being six years old and fortunate enough to belong to a family that didn’t have to wait til “the first of the month” for my essentials, didn’t understand why her mom might be able to get her new shoes next month but couldn’t get them for her today. For many years that was a mystery to me. I think we all secretly prayed that her mom would come through before then so we could be spared the embarrassing ritual of that conversation each morning. But she didn’t.

This is the part of the story where I wish I could say that I was the hero. I wish I’d had the six-year-old guts to do something or say something at the time. I wish I had spoken up and asked Mrs. Andrews why she was being such a bully. I wish I had told that girl that I liked her boots, no matter what the stupid teacher said. I wish I had told my mom about it, who wouldn’t have rested until that little girl had new shoes on her feet. But, of course, I didn't do any of that.

The whole episode probably only lasted about three weeks, but it seemed much longer. Eventually the mom did come up with some shoes for her daughter. Whether they were brand new or not, or what they looked like, I don’t remember. But I do remember the relief I felt. Of course, that relief wasn’t for the little girl. I wasn’t very concerned about what kind of shoes she had. I felt relief for myself not having to feel embarrassed for her any more. I had no empathy for her or what she must have gone through. How mortified must she have been showing up every morning knowing she would be humiliated in front of everyone each day? Why didn't Mrs. Andrews just send a note home to her mom, or called her on the phone to let her know her daughter needed different shoes? I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is not a single person reading or listening to this who wouldn’t, once they understood the situation, run out and buy that girl a pair of shoes and anonymously drop them off on her doorstep, or found a similarly considerate way to solve the problem.. Trust me, you wouldn’t have the address to this website if you weren’t one of those people. Not Mrs. Andrews. I understand teachers don’t exactly rake in the money. Believe me, I know. But she could have spent $1.99 at the Goodwill and slipped that girl some shoes instead of doing what she did.

Mrs. Andrews wasn’t completely heartless. When she found out that my family only had a big bushy sagebrush for a Christmas tree she let us take home the tree from the school. That was nice. And I’m thankful she taught me to read. Later, at other schools, I discovered that most kids hadn't had anyone to scare them into learning to read well like I did. But looking back on it she was really a cruel old lady. Why did she have to treat that little girl like that over a pair of boots? It was really abusive, and the poor girl wasn’t the only one she harmed by doing what she did. I still feel guilty for being a witness to something she did years and years ago, and I’m probably not the only one who remembers it.

It would be nice if people like that were gone from the world; that we’d evolved beyond that and now everyone is conscious of the damage they do when they’re nasty to other people who don’t have any control over their circumstances. Either Mrs. Andrews is dead now or she’s closing in on 130 years old, but people just like her are still around. I’ve encountered them myself; those people who get to be 80, or close enough to it to know better, and somehow don’t. How do people go through an entire life without acquiring the ability to put themselves in that little girl’s boots? How does anyone, as an adult, not have any compassion for a little girl whose parents can’t afford to buy her shoes? Maybe people spend so much energy making sure their kids have what they need to avoid being that little girl that they forget to teach them to try to feel what she’s feeling.

Sorry if this story ended up being a total downer. Since seeing that school and remembering that girl she’s been on my mind a lot and I wasn't able to think of a happy ending. But I can’t end things on that note so I just wrote a little joke. You won’t believe it when you hear it but I literally just wrote this this minute. Ready? What did the cow wear when she had to get dressed? A mumu! I know! I can’t believe it either! I just came up with that! It just came to me! But then again, I went to Washington Elementary.

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