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What I remember of first grade


Ask some grown-ups what they remember from their first grade and chances are most of them will look puzzled, shake their heads and say “nothing.” Or if they do remember, it’s usually an incident, like the time Jimmie got away with everybody’s marbles or Meredith Ann wet her pants standing in line for the swing.

At Lincoln School, the wide and polished wooden floors squeaked as we filed down the hall; the wooden banisters gleamed as we climbed stairs smelling of wax and bowed in the center. In the classroom, we sat on wooden seats that were nailed to the floor. Huge globes hung from the ceilings and brightened up winter days; the alphabet (smaller case, big letters) was a banner that ran around walls covered with the ever-present blackboards.

At the same time each day, we all filed downstairs to the basement where we were given a little bottle of rich milk to drink. There were no straws; we drank straight from the bottle. No milk at home ever tasted that sweet and delicious.

My seat in Miss Beaman’s room was in the middle row, middle seat.

Since this was a grade school attached to Minot State Teachers College, Miss Beaman was rarely with us. Instead, there were “practice teachers” who wound their silent way through our classrooms but seldom left much of an impression. They were with us all too briefly, some of them just long enough to tout their digested wares in whatever manner was accepted in that day.

One of them, a tall and raw-boned young woman strangely incongruent among the small desks, supervised our rest-time one early afternoon. It was late fall, and while the sun shone brightly outside, we first-graders saw only pulled shades if we longed for an outside view. Steam heat hissed, warming the room. We all had our obedient heads on our desks. Although that meant we were supposed to be sleeping, or at least quiet, I, for some reason, started humming. I remember feeling the vibrations of the sound on my forehead as it lay cradled on my arm, and liking that. Caught up in my own symphony, I paid no attention to the others or to the teacher. And I was oblivious to her tiptoeing out of the room to report the activity of a child humming to Miss Beaman. I became aware of the outside world only when I heard the click of the light switch and Miss Beaman’s strident voice. “Who’s doing that singing?”

Suddenly alert, I lifted my head to find 14 other first-graders looking around at each other. Across the aisle from me was David Seed. His earnest face contorted, he pointed a finger at me and squeaked, “It’s Mary Myrna.”

I snapped out of my reverie and leapt to my own defense.

“It’s David Seed!” I said in what I hoped was just as convincing a tone.

While the lanky practice teacher stood by in her helplessness, Miss Beaman took charge of the situation. She pulled both of us from our seats and off we were steered into her office. She was nothing if not determined, I recall, a very short woman and nearly as wide as she was high. She had marcelled red hair around a round dour face. Her rotund body created small avalanches when she walked down the aisles. Papers fell from desks to the floor; first-graders leaned away when it became apparent she was coming through.

My memory of the event stops there. But I’ve been left with unanswered questions about the event.

Miss Beaman is, for the most part, a benign memory. I can recall nothing about what she taught, how she related to us, or even what she talked about. Gone, all of it. In its place, her fierce voice asking, “Who is doing that singing?” She was just a teacher imposing her personal values on her charges as though she were the parent. Not too different from what most teachers did that long ago.

I’ve been left with unanswered questions about the event, of course, but as I think about it, my curiosity seeks answers to some of them.

Which one of us did Miss Beaman believe? Who got punished, and what was the sentence? If it was David Seed, was I ever able to be his friend again?

And what can keep me from wondering why there was a need to single out a first-grader for creating music?

Instead, as I look at that dramatic moment from a personal perspective, I ask myself what lesson I learned from that experience. I was shamed for singing so I learned it was not safe to sing when I lacked permission from an authority. Am I still sensitive to making some wrong move, for fear of reprisal? Perhaps at age 6 I decided to walk away from that singing part of myself, to keep my inner little girl safe?

Finally, to David Seed, I’m sorry.

Mary Lansing is a member of the Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.