For reasons that are not entirely clear to me, my first grade teacher at Christ King School hated me. Seriously. Mrs. Wojciechowski despised me. I was a quiet, painfully shy five year old (I turned six in November of that year) who, more than anything, wanted to lie low and avoid trouble. Who knows what Mrs. Wojciechowski saw when she looked at me? Even though her surname was Polish, she had a truly lovely British accent and said things like “the loo” and “going on holiday,” so maybe I looked Irish and she responded to me in a historically consistent way.
No doubt a great deal of my trouble in first grade was the result of my tendency to drift off into my own thoughts at random times. Also, I had an uncanny ability to show up for life with all the wrong information, as if I had been supplied with the playbook for a different game than the one being played. I spent the summer before first grade learning how to read, because my sister Susan had convinced me that everyone in my class would be reading and I would be the only one who didn’t have a clue. My reading skills—or, more precisely, my lack of reading skills—became Susan’s Summer Project, and she did a fine job. I remember being deeply puzzled when, on Day One, Mrs. Wojciechowski started holding up basic words printed on cards and showing us all how to “sound them out.” Sound them out? The word is “ache,” I thought to myself. Why would I sound it out?
On that same first day of school, Mrs. Wojciechowski told the class that we would start each day by reciting the Hail Mary and end each day reciting the Our Father. Uh oh. Those two prayers were certainly prayers I had heard before, but I was not at all confident that I could recite them by heart. At Mrs. W’s command, the other students promptly stood up next to their desks and said the Hail Mary, with me mumbling along with the gist of it. She noticed, and told me to know my prayers by heart when I showed up to my second day of school. I had a solution to that problem; I decided to myself that I was done with first grade. I enjoyed wearing my new outfit and having my hair pin-curled, but the learning curve seemed pretty steep and I missed my house and my mother.
Since I wasn’t going to be back, I ignored Mrs. W’s order to get busy memorizing prayers. The next morning, when my mother woke me up “for school,” I informed her in Bartleby-esque fashion that I preferred not to. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that my preferences were not going to be consulted and this wasn’t a choice I was going to be allowed to make. I sat down on the kitchen floor and refused breakfast (which was just about the most radical tool in my toolbox, as my mother knew that I adored breakfast) to no avail. I showed up at Christ King School hungry and prayer-less.
Of course Mrs. Wojciechowski called on me to lead the class recitation of our morning Hail Mary. I am proud to say that I gamely stood up and gave it a shot. It didn’t end well, and Mrs. W was not happy. My innocence was gone; I understood now that this was my brutal New World, so when I went home on that second day, I told Susan that I needed to memorize some prayers, and fast. Susan jumped into the fray immediately, and by the end of the night I could reel off not only the Hail Mary and the Our Father, but the Glory Be for good measure. (Susan suggested that a backup prayer was probably a good idea, because who knew where Mrs. Wojciechowski would strike next?) I was Set.
The stakes in the game, however, had changed. While I was busy being proud of knowing the Hail Mary, the Our Father and the Glory Be, the class had moved on; we were now re-enacting Bible scenes. On my third day of the first grade, Mrs. Wojciechowski announced that we were going to act out the Story of the Good Samaritan, and asked for volunteers to play the roles of the Good Samaritan, the unfortunate fellow at the side of the road, and the Jewish passers-by.
Whoa. Susan Kwak already had her hand in the air for the part of Good Samaritan while I was still at my desk thinking, “What?” I went to mass with my family every Sunday and sometimes on weekday mornings in the summer with my mother. I had a vague idea who the Good Samaritan was, but certainly I didn’t know this story well enough to act it out in front of the class. Numb with anxiety, I watched Susan Kwak don the bedsheet and turban supplied by Mrs. W and rescue Benjamen Winkleman after Valerie Alt and Steven Cybell had walked right on by. I wasn’t sure that even Susan was going to be able to get me through this year. I thought about the sheer size of the Bible in our living room bookcase at home, and gave up. My only goal at that point was to endure whatever was to come as stoically as I could, and bring my own books to class to read under my desk while the rest of them conducted “First Grade.”
Thus began the pattern of my days at Christ King School. I had only the vaguest idea of what was going on in the front of the room, and when I could not easily read under my desk (other kids would tattle if they saw me), I would count slowly in my head to 300, knowing that when I got to 300 another five minutes would have passed; I poured Elmer’s Glue-All on my fingers and shaped little glue cups that I would then pop off and save for some later use (no such future uses every occurred to me); I would memorize the capital city of every state in the United States and every country in the world (I had a pencil box which sported a cool dial system where I could scroll to, say, “Venezuela,” and the other side would dial up “Caracas.”) And as for Mrs. W? She was Dragline to my Cool Hand Luke.
My sister Susan, a fourth grader, walked to and from school with me every day; Christ King School was five blocks from my house and I had a tendency to get lost easily. Mrs. Wojciechowski, for some reason, found this arrangement to be deeply problematic. She insisted that I leave my sister alone and let her walk to and from school without me. Even though Mrs. Wojciechowski had laid down the law, the very next day I walked home with Susan anyway; I wasn’t doing it to be rebellious; I was just afraid of getting lost. The next day when I arrived at school, Mrs. Wojciechowski told me that she had watched out the window the day before and saw me walk home with Susan and then she yelled at me quite a bit. I must have brought this problem home to my mother—or Susan did—and my mother had a conference with Mrs. Wojciechowski.
In later years, my mother admitted that her conference with Mrs. Wojciechowksi was, to say the least, enlightening. Her first words to my mother were “May God forgive you for raising that child.” After this conference, my mother told me that I would no longer be in Mrs. Wojciechowski ’s classroom; I would be in Sr. Rose’s class. Sr. Rose had the face and voice of an angel and indeed, I felt as if I had died and gone to heaven in her room. My reprieve from Mrs. Wojciechowski lasted exactly one day. I don’t know what happened, but my transfer to a classroom away from Mrs. Wojciechowski ended after twenty four hours. And when I landed back in Mrs. Wojciechowski classroom, she hated me even more.
The rest of first grade is a blur, but several incidents stand out; the first happened during Reading Time. Mrs. Wojciechowski held up a card with the word “Mrs.” printed on it and called on me, saying, “Anne, spell it.” I stood up and recited, “Mrs. Capital M, r, s, period. Mrs.”
“Wrong,” she said. “Spell it.”
Bewildered, I said again, “Mrs. Capital M, r, s, period. Mrs.”
“Wrong again,” Mrs. Wojciechowski said, her eyes twinkling. “Spell it.”
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, so I said again what I saw: “Mrs. Capital M, r, s, period. Mrs.”
At this point Mrs. Wojciechowski turned to the rest of the class and said, “Anne doesn’t know how to spell ‘it!’” In a mock-scolding tone, she turned back to me and said, “Anne, ‘It’ is spelled “I, t.” The class laughed. I didn’t tell my mother what happened that day, because I wasn’t sure myself what happened. Mrs. Wojciechowski had tricked me, and laughed at me, but at the age of five, I wasn’t sure that she had done anything wrong. I thought I may have brought this ridicule on myself.
Another memorable moment of my life with Mrs. Wojciechowski happened one day just before the last bell of the day rang. At Christ King School, students had the option of staying for lunch or going home for lunch. There was no hot lunch at the time, so students either ate bag lunches in their classrooms or went home and came back in time for recess. I was one of the students who went home for lunch, as was my sister Susan. The students who stayed for lunch paid for milk, and every day a large box containing individual cartons of milk was delivered to each classroom. Each student who stayed for lunch was responsible for getting her or his milk out of the box and drinking it.
One day, there was a carton of milk left in the box after lunch. Someone—I am not sure who—put the full carton on the windowsill of our classroom, where it sat all afternoon, in the sun. By three o’clock, when the bell was about to ring, the milk was not in drinkable condition. Just before that final bell, Mrs. Wojciechowski spotted the milk and said, “Who didn’t have milk with lunch today?” I had gone home for lunch, but I did not, in fact, have milk with my lunch that day. My first grade mind was a literal mind, and so when Mrs. Wojchichowski asked her question, I raised my hand in response. I had not had milk for lunch that day.
Of course, the carton of now-sour milk had been left by a stay-for-luncher, not me, and I suspect that Mrs. Wojciechowski knew it. Nonetheless, she brought me to the front of the room and taught everyone An Important Lesson by insisting that I drink the full carton of sour milk right then and there. Again, I didn’t tell my mother this happened, because I was pretty sure that what happened was my fault, somehow, and I didn’t want to get into any more trouble than I already was.
My final enduring memory of first grade is of the day I wet my pants. The rule at Christ King School was that, if you had to go to the bathroom during the day, you raised your hand. Only once the teacher called on you could you request permission to use the “lavatory.” We had two scheduled bathroom breaks each day, and so most of us had no need to ask for an extra trip to the “lav.” On this particular day, however, I did have to go to the bathroom. It was a Friday afternoon, at about 2:15, and I raised my hand. Mrs. Wojcieschowski did not call on me. I kept my hand raised for a very long time, and even waved my hand a bit; Still, Mrs. Wojciechowski did not call on me. I was growing increasingly desperate as my bladder bulged, and I started to squirm in my chair. I didn’t know what to do. At some point, I realized that Mrs. Wojciechowski had no intention of calling on me, so my task was to get to the end of the day at 3:00 and race to the Girls’ Room on my own. I remember watching the minutes tick by so slowly, as my agony steadily increased.
I didn’t make it. At about ten minutes before 3:00, I felt my bladder surrender and, to my horror, watched as a stream of pale yellow urine started snaking away from underneath my chair and across the aisle. I am grateful to this day that not one other student said a word. No one even acted as if they noticed. I can only surmise that they knew I had had my hand raised for forty-five minutes to no avail, and they pitied me. I sat in my wet underpants for the few minutes left before the bell, and the moment the bell rang, I raced out of the classroom and home. Once again: I didn’t tell my mother what had happened. I was too ashamed to report that I had wet my pants at the age of six. Surely another part of my hesitation to report these acts of hatred was the knowledge that when I had complained before and my mother had tried to help, I ended up spending one day in a different classroom only to be sent back to Mrs. Wojciechowski, where everything was only worse.
I am happy to report that my second grade teacher, Sr. Shawn Marie, was a lovely lady and very kind. In conversations today, if I ever mention having a bit of a “rough go” of it in first grade, others will nod knowingly and say, “The nuns, right?” “Wrong,” I always reply. The nuns were nothing but good to me at Christ King School. I cannot say the same for Mrs. Wojciechowski. I made it through first grade somehow; as Friedrich Nietzsche once pointed out, whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. Mrs. Wojciechowski: you made me an Existentialist, and a stronger person. But you were not a nice lady.