Hands up all of those who remember their earliest years at school? Recollections filled less with the facts learned, than with feelings. Sometimes it felt good. Sometimes, alas, not. Below are two recollections. One of each type. The first, from a colleague of mine, over fifty years after the event. The other, my own recollection, over forty years down the road. Some of you may remember it from a much earlier blog entry but it’s equally fitting here. You may also remember from the last blogpost that French and German preschool have different notions of the competence required for children to enter Year One. French children should be able to write legibly and joined up, using a fountain pen. German children ought to be able to write the letters individually, using a pencil. My colleague, from the States, has to acquire a particular skill before she may ‘graduate’ from Kindergarten. Read on to find out which.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
Between the Pointed and the Soft, by Lesa Lockford
I want to write this story but I don’t know how to write. I’m not sure it can be written, because I do not know the end and because I do not know how to erase what’s come before.
“I can’t explain it,” she said, sighing with evident exasperation. “Your daughter doesn’t know how to write.” You see, Mrs. Esselinger, my kindergarten teacher, had called my mother in for a parent/teacher conference. Nothing she tried to do, she said, was able to reach me. My mother, who sat opposite my teacher with numerous scribbled pages between them, listened for the words that would rewrite my future.
It was unexplainable. After all, I had come to Mrs. Esselinger a happy, rambunctious child. I had up until then always been, well, best described as “rambunctious.” Not a beautiful child. A child with perpetually scabby knees. A child with tousled hair that was so frequently matted I routinely tested my mother’s patience with a hair brush. So rambunctious that even when I was in the womb the doctor was moved to declare with simple efficiency, “it’s a boy.” Being born before the advent of ultra-sound and amniocentesis the doctor’s simple sentence made sense to my mother, for you see, her pregnancy with me had been nothing like her first. A name was even chosen. I was to be Steven. Her first child, my sister Susanne, who writes her name with two Ss and no Zs, who arrived five years before me, had come into the world easily and beautiful. She’d always been the angel child. By the time I came into the world, my sister, the blond-haired child with eyes so blue and wide you could see the face of god in them, had a line of straight A report cards, a line that continued unbroken right through high school without a B or a C or a D or an F.
So as my mother sat across the table with Mrs. Esselinger, pondering the inexplicability of my inability to write, she had no words ready to hand.
“I can’t explain it,” my teacher said. “Your daughter doesn’t know how to write.”
You see, to “graduate” from kindergarten we had to know how to write our names. I loved Mrs. Esselinger. I loved her as she marched down the schoolroom aisle dispensing onto our desks those pulpy pages for writing. Those pages with the wide lines on them, a line on the top row that guided the size of our capitals and the height of our verticals, and a dashed line below marking the destination of the curves of our As, Os, and Rs and so on. I loved her as she told us to grip our pencils in our hands, the soft end of the eraser up and the pointed end down and to hold them just so. If we made a mistake the eraser was our friend. I loved my pencil. I loved my eraser. I loved Mrs. Esselinger as she gave me the letters of my names, the first name and the last. I took possession of my letters. They were mine. I loved them like I loved Mrs. Esselinger. Except I learned to hate the letter S. My S snaked its way between me and Mrs. Esselinger and hissed its way into her heart. “But that’s a Z,” she said. “That’s not an S. That’s not one of your letters.”
“I can’t explain it. Your daughter doesn’t know how to write.”
“But of course she knows how to write,” said my mother at last.
“No, no she doesn’t. She won’t write. She sits there, pencil in hand, and will not write. I’ve tried and tried with her. She will not.”
“But,” my mother said, “how is it, if she doesn’t know how to write, that she’s written her name all over our furniture and our walls? She’s always writing.”
Caught between the voiced Z and the unvoiced S, I had curled up into that unvoiced phoneme and stopped my hand.
I don’t know this for sure, but they say the person who invented the eraser had “human beings pretty well sized up.” They also say that “the person who invented the pencil also invented the eraser.” This isn’t true, of course. But like so many sayings, their truth lies not in the literal. Soft or pointed? Pointed or soft? Poised between the pointed and the soft I am tense. Tense between humility and hubris. Poised between what can be explained and what cannot. Between contrition and control. Between the hope of redemption written in an apology and the sting of omission in the thank you note that never arrives. The past is making the present tense. The future perfect is conditional on the declarative.
I want to write this story but I don’t know how to write.
I do not know the sentences, the paragraphs, even the text.
I know the punctuation.
In the stop of my hand I know the halting momentum of the curling pauses, the pointed stops, the vertical of the exclamatory, the curve of the interrogatory. I stop my hand lest the controlling indicative and the pride of the imperative refuse redemption in the subjunctive.
I do not know how to write. I do not know how to write this story. The protagonist won’t come.
Lollipop, lollipop, by Joan Barbara Simon
Five years old and picked out by the Headmistress, Mrs Hill, from the mass of children sitting cross-legged on the floor during a typical Monday morning assembly at an East London infant school. Asian, African, British, European, Caribbean, Other (please specify). No uniforms, just specks of coloured cloth and peeps of skin flanked by teachers comfortable on their chairs. We must look like hundreds n fousands, I thought.
All these colourful children. If you look at em from way up, like a bird, we must look like hundreds n fousands, like when they’re stuck on a marshmallow or somefing. Or on these chocolate buttons from the sweetie shop round the corner, you know, in those little white paper bags with a pleat on the side, and you’d always have at least two of these buttons that´d stick together back-to-back. As I scrambled to my feet, flushed by pride, my eyes on that soft, smiling woman who had just called my name, whose pale, perfumed skin always made me think of candy floss, and whose fingers now dipped into a small pouch (lovely, lovely fingers you got, Missis ‘ill…) to produce a lollipop, a hard, round one that you could suck for ages, the magnitude of the moment did not escape me. Mrs Hill, full of praise as she pinned a gold star to my chest. See, I’d been getting nothing but gold stars all last week in my exercise book.
‘For wonderful, clear, joined-up writing like the big children. Well done!’
For the rest of assembly I was allowed to sit at the front, facing the congregated school, all those eyes of all a those hundreds n fousands fixed on my gold star. And on ma lollipop.
When I grow up, I’m gonna be a writer n a teacher. I love words, writing … n I love teachers.
For the rest of that morning, I would forget my secret envy of Babita and Rajinder, my best friends who could speak other languages (though they hated speaking them in front of us), and whose shop-fronts were jewelled with a curly writing that looked to me like some kind of music. Why couldn’t I be two people instead of one, too? At home I would play at being one of them, invent a language to imitate them. Put my poncho on my head to emulate Babita’s wondrous black mane tamed into a thick rope of a plait that dangled in a surly fashion beyond the seat of her chair (whereas Rajinder wore his hair in a bun under a hankie with an elastic around it and when I asked him once to take it off so I could have a look he said: ‘snot allowed). Right now, I didn’t mind my picky-picky hair or the fact that I could only speak English. For the rest of that morning, it was I who would be the source of envy.
I’ll let you ave a lick a my lolly at play time cos we’re friends, innit? I smiled over to them. And they smiled back.
I’m gonna be a writer. And a teacher. One day. I just know I am.
As far as I remember, we used pencils throughout primary school in the UK. Big blank when it comes to secondary school… Pens seem more probable. If you have similar stories you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you and present a few in this blog. A sentence or two will do, too. What’s more, it would be lovely to know what has become of you!