What do I remember about kindergarten? Instantly, I feel a knot in my stomach that accompanied me to school each day when I was five.
I remember the rectangle tables and the short chairs, different colors for each table. Orange stands out in my mind. I remember the ‘housekeeping area’, complete with a wooden kitchen and sink and cupboards.
I remember the smell of the bathroom. The brown smear above the handle inside the second stall. I always wondered if the rumors were true, that it was actually poop.
I remember learning the difference between ‘to, too, and two.’ Which is a very complex concept to teach to kindergarteners, in retrospect.
I remember the day I walked in between two men who were talking near the drinking fountain in the hallway, and when my teacher saw me, she sent me to say excuse me to these men, which felt so strange because they thought I was asking to walk between them again. It was awkward.
I remember tallies: little slips of paper shaped like a thumb. There was a little face on the end, showing the severity of the broken rule. They varied in colors and facial expressions, and I was ever aware of the spectrum. On the occasion when I got one, it was always for talking when I shouldn’t be. (If a tally system were in place, I’d likely still get one for this infraction.) At the end of the day, anyone who had a tally needed to line up in front of the teacher, and proceed through the walk of shame, and tell why we had gotten the tally.
One time I got one, and she forgot, and I didn’t tell her. I breezed through like a criminal on the lam.
I remember lunchboxes and fruit breaks.
My lunch box was Strawberry shortcake, a metal box with those metal clasps and a Thermos that fit nicely inside. I liked Jessica’s better, though. It was My Little Pony and made of pink plastic. And I remember Annie’s lunchbox, decorated with little orphan Annie. Only now do I see the irony.
Right now, I feel the familiar knot of anxiety that I felt every single day of kindergarten. I was such a nervous child. I ordered the same thing for lunch every single day, and even though my choices never varied, like not at all, I still asked my mom to write it down for me on a little slip of paper. I remember it: Pizza. Chocolate Milk. I was terrified I would forget.
Everyone else had a pencil box, the general variety. Mine was a Tupperware sandwich keeper, since my mom sold Tupperware and a weird but true fact is that Wonder Bread is roughly the same length as crayola crayons.
We kept our pencil boxes in a tub at the end of the table. I was forever aware of where mine was, keeping an eye on it like it was hungry and breathing and my responsibility. Somebody’s wayward brown crayon left a broad stroke across the top of the white lid. I was mortified. I’m sure I cried.
I got a Cabbage Patch for Christmas. I took her to school – every single day. One day, the seam of her armpit tore when I zipped up my backpack. I was horrified. I cried. My grandma performed surgery, sliding my doll’s arm through her sewing machine with flesh colored thread. I remember feeling like this was a scar that only my doll and I would ever need to know about.
I got a tally for humming. I didn’t know I was humming. But I was. I was humming during quiet work time, and it was a distraction in the otherwise silent classroom. Coloring and humming. I got a tally. Punitive response to childhood daydreaming. As a mom and a teacher, this makes me angry. What a propostorous response to a child, and how absolutely horrible to punish her for something she did while she was creating.
But then again, we also got spanked if we brought the wrong snack for fruit break. If you brought a bag of Doritos, a bag of cookies – even a Fruit Roll-Up was borderline – you got spanked. As a mother and a teacher, I feel enraged again. If anyone, anywhere, ever, punishes my child for what I bought at the grocery store and mistakenly put in his backpack, if anyone punishes my son for what was my fault, my mistake, let’s just say I will not respond well.
Somehow I managed to avoid any public spankings throughout that first year in school, but I lived on the edge of an emotional cliff, always sure I was one step away from the worst punishment in the history of school. But even as a five-year-old I lived in angst for my younger brother, whom I knew could never survive this regime when his time came. (Thankfully, a new teacher started when he began kindergarten. And this is a gift from heaven, I am sure, as I had prayed for four years that God would somehow change the rigid path that my creative brother was destined for.
My teacher taught us all how to systematically eat lunch. There was an order to it: sandwich, fruit, chips, cookie. Years later, I was in 7th grade with Annie who had been in my kindergarten class, all those years ago, in a private school. Now, in 7th grade, eating lunch in the middle school cafeteria of our public school, we discovered that we held the same ingrained pattern for eating lunch: sandwich, fruit, chips, cookie. I’d be willing to be that every child who learned under that regime learned to eat lunch with order and propriety, a system not to be disordered.
I think I was in high school before it occurred to me to alternate bites, to think on my own, to realize such choices were mine to make. To rebel by eating my chips and fruit at the same time. Or – wait for it – the cookie first.
Somehow, I survived. A free thinking citizen of my community, eating and drinking as I choose throughout the day, and with excellent handwriting to boot, if I may say so.
(I’m still pretty sure my brother wouldn’t have survived.)
Nobody should ever – never, ever, and also never – be allowed to teach kindergarten with such scrutiny. I think I entered the teaching field to change the world for kindergarteners. And maybe, for about 59 of them, I did.