by Monica Marier
There’s nothing quite so jarring to a child as being brutally torn from the warm comforting womb of kindergarten to be dumped in the grey antiseptic hell that is First Grade. I remember walking into the classroom and noting how grey everything was. Of course, things were always grey in 1987 Warsaw , the coal dust clouds in the air turned everything in the city into shades of mud and charcoal, but this room really was grey and I longed for my Kindergarten classroom. The cheerless walls full of rules for spelling and math replaced the happy pictures of teddies and children playing. The cold grey linoleum replaced the soft, if somewhat stained, red carpet. Instead of group tables that I shared with the classmates I loved, there were only grey metal desks of solitude.
I shivered in my Kangaroo high-tops as I entered. There was no love, no mercy, no escape. A thin brisk woman ushered us into the class. Her lips were pinched and pruney, and they did not smile at us. She patted her cropped wiry hair which stood up on her head like a sergeant’s beret.
“Welcome back to school, first graders. I am your teacher. My name is Mrs. Virginia Fünke.”
I’m not kidding. That was her name.
Even as a kid I knew this was an absurd name, and under other circumstances I would have laughed a good hour over it. But there was no titter of giggles, no one even cracked a smile. We were as sober and scared as if she had just said, “I am Satan, Prince of Darkness.”
“And this is our class aide, Mr. Lowe,” she continued gesturing to the back of the room.
The ground shook as suddenly from the dark recesses of the classroom came a cyclopean nightmare. A six foot seven giant of a man made of solid muscle. His beefy face was red, his lips screwed into a frown. He glared at us through tinted glasses in aviator frames as the fluorescent lights glinted on his sparsely-covered head.
“HULLO,” he barked in a deep Australian accent. “I'M MISTER LOWE.”
Those of us with dry pants gazed up in abject terror. He seemed to sense this for his frown deepened and he said no more. Mrs. Fünke called the role but most of us had forgotten our names by now and had to be asked twice.
“Now look at the worksheet on your desk,” Mrs. Fünke said in her clipped tones.
We looked down at a black and white Xerox. It was supposed to be a jolly picture of a circus train, each train containing happy animals or something. The joy was sucked out, however, by the dingy light filtering through the barred windows.
“Fill in the train cars with the alphabet,” said Mrs. Fünke, and we scrambled for our pencil boxes, frantic to obey her.
“… in pen,” she added.
The world stopped dead.
In pen? Was she serious? Pen was—well it was indelible! Pen was an accident waiting to happen. Most of us, at this point had never even been allowed to wield one let alone do school work with one.
With shaking fingers I pulled out my standard issue ballpoint pen and pulled the cap off. The unfamiliar smell of cheap ink turned my stomach as my chubby fingers gripped the implement. Slowly, with the care of a jeweler cutting a priceless diamond, I dug the pen into the paper. I could feel Mr. Lowe staring at me, and knew instinctively (quite accurately I might add) that he was waiting for an excuse to pounce. After I completed an uppercase and lowercase “Aa” I allowed myself to breathe.
The “Bb” and the “Cc” came easier and by the “Ff” I’d hit my stride. I was beginning to ignore the cold sweat on my neck and the piercing eyes of Mr. Lowe as they glinted behind his dark glasses, watching our every movement. I had just finished the “Zz” when I realized with a horrible shudder that something was wrong. There was an extra box at the end. Feeling feverish I searched the worksheet and discovered to my horror that I had completely skipped the letter “M.” How did I miss “M”? It was the first letter of my name, for God’s sake! But there it was,” Ll…Nn…Oo,” permanently scribed in noxious blue ink. I saw a shadow loom over my desk and I my insides froze. Fearing it was the titanic Mr. Lowe, I hunched up, trying to make myself small and unappetizing.
“How are we getting on?” came Mrs. Fünke’s low voice over my head. I felt only a little relieved. I looked up into her gimlet stare and knew I was dead woman.
“I umsle bumble num,” I stammered in a barely perceptible voice.
“What was that?” she asked coldly.
“I made a mistake, see?” I confessed, showing her the extra box and the missing “M”.
“I see,” said Mrs. Fünke eyeing my childish scrawls critically. “I guess you’ll just have to do it again.”
She then placed a new blank sheet on my desk and I felt her words burn me.
DO. IT. AGAIN.
I felt tears rising in my eyes and knew there was no holding them back. My lip trembled and my nose ran as my face prickled and stung. Then the damn broke. Wet hot tears rolled down my face, contorted with the effort of not making a sound, and splashed onto the virgin paper. Despite my efforts, little whimpers escaped my lips, alerting my classmates to my predicament. Most were probably sympathetic, but all I could hear was the whispers of my hated nickname that I earned last year.
Crybaby. Look crybaby is crying. Teacher made crybaby cry.
I went blind at that point, the tears blurring everything around me as I stared fixedly at my desk. The next thing I could hear was Mr. Lowe looming over me and roaring: “STOP CRYIN’! FOR GOD’S SAKE, GIRL! STOP CRYIN’!”
I remember very little of the rest of that day. I only remember that the rest of the year was just as awful and as was the longing I felt for Kind Miss Szewicki and her Kindergarten classroom.
This entire memory flashed into life again as I took my trembling son to meet his first grade teacher. Granted, it wasn’t so bleak as my old classroom; there were toys and paint pots and pictures of Winnie the Pooh. But there were also grey walls and grey floors and solitary grey desks.
My son whimpered next to me. “I don’t like it. It’s scary here.”
“It will be fine. There’s nothing awful about first grade,” I lied.