Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Bridge

The Bridge

I look back at my eleventh year with awe and wonder. It was 1968. The world around us was changing at an amazing pace. It was an election year and there was quite a ruckus at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago...remember the Chicago Seven? That was current events when I was eleven. The evening news was full of rioting in the streets and body counts from Viet Nam. A family down the street from us was keeping their Christmas lights up until their son came home from Viet Nam…and the lights were still up when we moved from the neighborhood. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated a month before my birthday and Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated two weeks after my birthday. The world was a dangerous place.

Nonetheless,in my town the kids who lived on Masters Drive (and there were about 50 of us) roamed the streets, rode our bikes, played ‘murder in the dark’, had dirt clod fights, and had wonderful times sledding. There was a park down the street from the school yard, Dennis Scivally Park, and a creek ran through it. I spent hours and hours playing on the bridge that crossed the creek. I spent hours and hours playing on the bank of the creek, and even though I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to, I’ll confess here and now that I spent hours and hours IN the creek. Unsupervised. Unattended. With a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in wax paper in my pocket and the awareness that I had better be home by supper time.

We built dams in the creek, we skipped rocks, we went ‘stomping’ up the creek. I made boats and sailed them. We caught frogs and turtles and watched as minnows followed our bare feet. Days were long and lazy, just as childhood days ought to be. It really was the last year of childhood in that sense for me.

Fast forward a bunch of years. One of my elementary school friends is now an artist of some acclaim. She works in watercolor and several years ago, my parents made contact with her again. Mother sent me a web address and told me to look her up. I was so excited as I typed in the web address and found her site of beautiful paintings. My Rocket Man came home from work and found me in front of the computer…weeping. Brenda had painted a picture of the bridge. We were, as fortune would have it, headed to see my parents in just a few weeks. Rocket Man said that we were going to find Brenda and he was going to purchase a print of that watercolor for me.

We went on our trip and drove to Hannibal to meet my brother and go see Brenda. We got to her gallery and I was so excited. I was not only going to reconnect with a friend after so many years, but I was also going to get a lovely print of one of the most treasured places of my childhood. Rocket Man didn’t beat around the bush. After introductions were made, he told Brenda that he needed to purchase a print of the bridge. She had to tell us that it was sold out. But, she said that she would be happy to do another.

Within a year, I had not a print, but an original watercolor of the bridge, painted by my childhood friend. It hangs in my bedroom and makes me smile every time I look at it. It takes me back to a time when children could play…just play… without a referee, trophies, supervision or uniforms. Every child was not a star, and a lot of things weren’t fair. We could, on occasion, be happy playing with just a stick and a string.

Lots of other things happened that year. Some of them were amazing. Some were sad. Some were life changing. But the thing that I love to remember about my eleventh year is the time I spent at Scivally Park playing on and around that bridge.

Here is a copy of the watercolor by Brenda Beck Fisher that hangs in my bedroom

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sometimes, everything works out better than you expect!

Miss Wilma Harris taught 5th grade at Alma Schrader Elementary School. I had heard all about her. She was the strictest teacher in the entire school. She was tall, she wore suits and very sensible shoes, her hair was worn in a severe style and she was quite stern in her demeanor and attitude. I prayed all summer long that I wouldn't really be in her class, although it said quite plainly on the back of my report card, "Promoted to Miss Harris' 5th grade class." That was a long time ago and they always told us who our next teacher was going to be the last day of school. Such information could either make or break your summer vacation! Just thinking about being in her class gave me nightmares.

The first day of 5th grade, I trudged up the hill toward school. That was also back before your parents accompanied you to the first day of school each year. We went on our own. And I really and truly walked uphill both ways. I'm sure I was dragging my feet. "Please, dear Lord. Let my name be on someone else's door...not Miss Harris' door!"

My prayers were in vain. I entered the building, walked to her door and saw my name, neatly written on the class list posted by the door. Was there a sign at the back of the class that said, "Abandon h0pe, all ye who enter"? Probably not, but it felt that way. I dug deep into my manners, smiled at her and said, "Good morning, Miss Harris," when she greeted me at the door. How did she already know who I was? I took my seat, which had a lovely nametag on it and began to prepare for a year of living hell.

Guess what? Miss Harris was stern. Miss Harris was strict. Miss Harris was no-nonsense. Miss Harris had a sign on the wall that said "A winner never quits and a quitter never wins." Miss Harris walked around the classroom in her sensible shoes with a yardstick in her hand, tapping the floor, your desk and occasionally whacking your knuckles with it if you were out of line. Or if you didn't know your times tables (which I still have to think about). Everything I had heard about her was the absolute truth!!

Guess what else? I came to love and admire her. She taught things that were not in the cirruculum. She encouraged my love of reading and allowed me to write book reports for extra credit. She had a time set aside every week for anyone who was willing to learn a poem to recite it for the class...and we got extra credit for it. I memorized many poems of Eugene Fields and Emily Dickinson. l loved reciting to the class. I loved getting extra credit. She rewarded excellent work and encouraged each of us to better if we did less than our best.

She emphasized penmanship as an important communication tool. She bought, with her own funds, special pens and ink and we painstakingly copied text on special paper. We learned to make those letter correctly. If our assignments were not written well, they were given back to us to do again, and do better.

She challenged me to think beyond my small world and dream big. She was the first teacher I recall who didn't just want me to give her the answer, but to be able to give a reason for my answer. In short, she was teaching us to think. Imagine such a thing! No cookie-cutter answers for Miss Harris. No teaching to the test. She cemented a foundation that had been laid by my parents and previous teachers for the love of learning that I have carried my whole life.

I wept when 5th grade was complete and I walked out of her classroom for the last time as her student. I trudged home, certain that I had just completed the best year of my life. 1967-68 were turbulent years in our society. Miss Harris was a rock in an era of change and upheaval. She was constant.

Almost every day during the 6th grade, I made sure I walked by her classroom, hoping to see her and say hello. She was always gracious, asking about my studies and we shared pleasant conversations. Sometimes, I spent my entire recess period in her classroom, just visiting.

When I was in the 12th grade, I had occasion to be back in that town on a school day and I went back to her classroom. She told me that she had often thought of me and she remembered the poems I memorized to recite in her classroom. She introduced me to her current class and asked me if I cared to amuse them with a poem. "Little Boy Blue" rolled off my lips, much to her delight.

When my son entered the 5th grade, I called Alma Schrader Elementary School to see if perchance they had an address for her. I wasn't sure she was still living. She seemed to be quite old in 1967. She had recently retired and the school secretary just laughed when I asked if they could put me in touch with her. Apparantly, that was a regular request and they kept her address handy so her former students could keep in touch. We shared several letters.

When I graduated from college...many years later (I was 46 when I finished my B.A.) I was anxious to make sure that Miss Harris knew. I was so proud to tell her that even though it took me 28 years to complete that degree, I had graduated with honors. I wanted to thank her for the important lessons I learned in her class. She sent me a card and a graduation gift, along with kind words of encouragement. The most amazing thing she wrote in her beautiful handwriting was this: Mollianne, I am so proud of you. I always knew you were special and it was my joy to be your teacher in the 5th grade.

The last time we corresponded was last year. Miss Harris still lived on her family's farm in Missouri, with her younger sister. Neither of them ever married and both devoted their lives to the education of elementary school children. I realized that she wasn't nearly as old when I was in the 5th grade as I perceived her to be. Probably not nearly as old as I am now.

God bless Miss Wilma Harris and all those like her who followed the calling to teach children not only reading, writing and arithmetic (and penmanship) but also taught us what it meant to be persons of character and integrity through their example. The type of teachers who made us desirous of their pride and approval.

Oh, and one more thing about the 5th grade! The only time in my public education that I receieved a certificate for Perfect and Punctual Attendance. It says...'having been neither absent from School nor tardy during the year ending June 4, 1968.' For me (a somewhat sickly child) that was a big enough deal that my Mother kept the certificate and I have it to this day. Check it out! And be sure to notice the beautiful penmanship of Miss Harris.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Molli Mouse

4th grade found me in Mrs. Miller’s classroom at Alma Schrader Elementary School in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. As Christmas approached, there was much preparation for the big PTA Christmas Program. Each year, the 2nd, 4th and 6th grade classes put on the Christmas Program. Our music teacher, Mrs. Buchanan, worked so hard to present something memorable. The 4th graders were singing, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Christmas in Killarney”. complete with costumes for the select few who were chosen to do an Irish dance. Oh, how I wanted to be chosen to be a dancer! I was not. I was very disappointed.

To my surprise, however, I was called out of class and told to report to the Music Room one late November morning. I hurried down the hall, wondering what in the world I had done? I was almost always sure I was on the verge of being in big trouble for something, and never quite sure what it was going to be.

Imagine how I felt when Mrs. Buchanan asked me if I could keep a secret? Keep a secret? Me? Yikes! That was a hard one. I’m not sure if I’d ever kept a secret in my life. Still isn’t easy for me, but I can if I have to. Guess what the secret was?

I was to sing a solo for the Christmas Program. A solo!! It was a cute little song about Four Christmas Mice, and I was to wear a grey corduroy costume that was being made just for me. Did I think I could do that and not tell a soul? Did I??!! You bet!! Mrs. Miller and my mother had already been consulted and given permission. Throughout the next few weeks, I continued to be called out of class for rehearsals. My classmates were so curious as to my whereabouts. They would gather round at recess or lunch and quiz me. I just said it was a secret and I wasn’t telling. I promise you, I was about to bust a seam. I wanted to tell. I am here to tell you that I did not tell! But I surely wanted to!!!

Closer to the event, another classmate, Joanne Harris, was also called down to the Music Room. She was a tall girl and she had been chosen to be Santa to my Mouse. Her part was to sit on a chair and after I sang, I sat on her lap and kissed her cheek. We rehearsed and rehearsed. I learned my song and was ready for the big day!

The night of the performance drew closer and closer. It was so exciting to know that I was going to be the big surprise for everyone. It was delicious to have a secret. To sing along with the class during our rehearsal time, knowing full well that I wasn’t going to be singing those numbers. To exchange a wink and a smile with Mrs. Buchanan. I was all a-twitter over the whole thing.

We ran our dress rehearsal at a school assembly. The gym was full of the Alma Schrader student body, all sitting cross-legged on the floor. Joanne and I were hidden away in the P.E. coach’s office, dressed in our costumes and so excited about the big surprise.

We listened as the 2nd graders filed past the office and lined up onstage. They sang their songs and recited their parts. Off they went, stage left as the 4th graders-minus Mollianne and Joanne-filed onstage and sang. We were next!

The curtain closed on the stage and one of the parent helpers placed a chair and a small table in front of the curtain at center stage. A glass of milk and a plate of cookies were carefully placed on the table. They brought us through the darkened stage area and someone parted the curtain. Joanne walked onstage with her sack of toys, waving to the applause of the audience. She put down her sack and sat down. She took a drink of the milk and a bite of the cookie and yawned before she feigned sleep in the chair.

It was time. The curtain parted for me and I was on. Mrs. Buchanan played the introduction and I sauntered out on stage to the surprise of everyone. In my grey corduroy costume, I belted out the song and won the applause and approval of the audience. What a glorious performance! What a victorious surprise! I sang to the back of the room, as instructed, and could be heard by all. This little girl (remember…I was too little for the 3rd grade) had quite a set of pipes and used them that day.

Joanne and I took our bows. I picked up the sack of Christmas toys and carried if offstage for her, turning to wave and blow a kiss at the audience as the curtain parted for us. That was not scripted or rehearsed, but it seemed the right thing to do…and it was! Never in my short life had I felt so triumphant. Seldom in my entire life have I felt such power. I had entertained an audience of my peers and they approved.

I raced home from school and hurried through my homework, because emerging star or not…homework had to be done. We went back that evening and did it all again for the PTA and it was the most magnificent of evenings. I earned the nickname of Molli Mouse that day and I reveled in it. I felt special in a way that I had never felt before.

I don’t know what happened to Mrs. Buchanan. I wish I could tell her what it means to me now to look back at that and smile. I wish I could tell her that singing has been a lifelong love and that I have been in some wonderful choirs and choruses. I’ve even sung chorus in Grand Opera. I never step onto a stage without thinking of her and that first parting of the curtain!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Coming Up Short

I’m short. I’m a fully grown adult woman, but I’m not quite 5 feet tall. When I was 8, I was really, really short. And small. Much shorter and smaller than my peers. All my life, people have found it amusing as well as necessary to inform me that I’m short, as if I had managed to miss that fact. {I have perfected a smile for those people.}

I was pretty used to being teased about being short. I don’t think it ever really bothered me until the first day of 3rd grade. We had moved across town and I was going to a new school. We went and got registered at the new school the day before school started. I knew which room to go to and when we got to school that day in early September of 1965, I climbed up the stairs to the second floor and headed for my room, ready to meet my new teacher.

The teacher was standing at the door. I have long since forgotten her name…probably blocked it out. As I approached the door intent upon entering the room, she put her arm down and stopped me. We had the following conversation:

Teacher: Kindergarten is downstairs.

Me: (proudly) I’m not in kindergarten. I’m in the third grade!

Teacher: You are not big enough to be in the third grade. Let’s go downstairs and find your room.

Me: (frustrated) I AM in the third grade. I passed second grade last year and I’m in the third grade. My mother showed me this room yesterday and I’m in the third grade. (possibly stomped my foot at this point)

Teacher: (taking me by the arm and practically dragging me down the stairs) We’ll just see about that! {I’m quite sure that she looked like Miss Gulch and may have even called me ‘my pretty’}

If she had asked my name, she would have found out that I was on the list to be in her classroom. I wasn’t on the list to be in Kindergarten, so we went to the office. The principal told her that I was, indeed, in the third grade. I imagine I got sassy and said, “I TOLD you I was in the third grade!”

We went back upstairs and she showed me to my desk.

I did NOT like her. Imagine! She thought I was in Kindergarten!! I doubt that she liked me, either. {I think she might have looked like Hitler, now that I think about it. I'm sure she had a little black moustache and wore jack-boots.}

We moved out of state 6 weeks later and I think I shook the dust off of my feet when I walked out of that classroom the last time. That was in the Bible, you know.

My new teacher, Mrs. Wells (see…I liked her well enough to remember her name), did not think I was too short. She did, however, think that my name was too short. We were doing an art project that involved using your initials. For it to work right, you had to have 3 initials. My name was Mollianne Buster and I never had a middle name (much to my chagrin). My parents felt that Mollianne Buster was plenty of name for such a little girl as me.

Mrs. Wells didn’t think so. In fact, she told me that EVERYONE has a middle name. I was so ashamed. It must have been un-American and maybe un-Christian as well as being un-couth to be without a middle name. Why…maybe my parents didn’t think well enough of me to bother to give me one. I had always wanted one. In fact, I remember telling people that my middle name was Irene, because that was my Grandmother’s name and I wanted to be named after her, too. Mother would always make me go back and tell the truth. My name was NOT Mollianne Irene Buster. But oh! How I wanted it to be.

Mrs. Wells solved our dilemma regarding the art project. She told me to write my name like this: Molli Anne Buster. That made my art project work. It made Mrs. Wells happy. I went home and asked my precious Mother why she had told me my name was Mollianne-all-one-word? Mrs. Wells said it was two words. And, everyone knows that your third grade teacher is the seat of all authority about e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g!

My precious little Mother popped her top! She marched me back up to the school. She took me in to the teacher and informed her that my name was Mollianne-all-one-word and that I didn’t require a middle name. Mollianne Buster was plenty of name for such a little girl. My mother is a force of nature when everything is hunky-dory, but you don’t mess with her baby girl. You just don’t do it. Not if you are smart. She turns into a raging force of nature and its not usually good for the person who has called out that sleeping dragon. Mother doesn’t take prisoners.

Mrs. Wells came to understand immediately that my name really was Mollianne-all-one-word and that we’d just have to work around the three initial thing-y. We got along swimmingly after that.

The rest of the story is that I got pretty sassy about being called Mollianne after that. After all, it was my name, and it was all-one-word. So, I quit answering if anyone called me Molli (or Molly or Mollie). Or, I would spout that my name is MolliANNE. My dear Grandmother, Neenie, heard me say that quite rudely once and she called me on it. She explained to me that I had a very beautiful name, but that it was unusual. She said that it was not nice for me to make others feel uncomfortable because they didn’t understand my name. It was my job to make other people feel okay about it. She said that is what we call being ‘gracious’ and that I should learn to be gracious about my name. It was the right thing to do. I believed that she was right, and have happily answered to a variety of names since then; Maryann, Holly, Polly, Molene, Mollianna, Mollie. Because, Neenie was right. People are often embarrassed when they realize they have called me by the wrong name, and that certainly isn’t good.

Eight was the year I came up short…both in stature and in name. But it was one of those ‘that which doesn’t kill us makes us strong’ sort of things. I learned two valuable lessons. I learned that it is okay to be underestimated and considered too short. I also learned that being gracious is always a good thing.