got a letter from the government a while back. It wasn't from the IRS or the unemployment office, two branches I've tangled with before. This was from the Department of Education.
'It has come to our attention that you have not completed the first grade,' the opening sentence read. Technically, that was true. Halfway through my first year I'd been skipped ahead to second grade. It gave me the creeps that anyone would still know about this, more than thirty years later.
'As it is now mandatory for all citizens to finish each of the elementary grades, you have been enrolled...' The rest of the letter went into detail about when and where I was to wait for the school bus on the Tuesday after Labor Day. It concluded with instructions to bring milk money with me. Surely one of those computer snafus. It really was addressed to me though, without even a typo in my name or street number. I scrawled 'Your Tax Dollar in Action' across the letter and stuck it up on my refrigerator to amuse visitors. I forgot about it.
It came up again at my six-month interrogation down at the unemployment office. I'd brought in my job search records to show I deserved an extension on my claim. Somehow it was taking me an awfully long time to find another job. I suspected my ex-boss at the newspaper wasn't giving me a great reference. The discussion got around to my education and damned if they didn't have a copy of that idiotic letter in my file. The interviewer was sympathetic with my explanation that it was obviously a computer error, but they couldn't do anything with my claim until I cleared it up.
I went home in a huff and tore the letter off my refrigerator. There was no phone number on it so I spent a frustrating half hour, long distance at prime time rates, trying to track down the records review office that sent the thing. The first few people I spoke with had never heard of the Every Grade Counts program and seemed to think I was some kind of crackpot.
Finally I got hold of the bureaucrat who'd signed the letter. I explained that I was a thirty-nine year-old college graduate. This did not impress her. "I already proved I know the alphabet when the school decided to move me up to second grade," I pointed out.
"The Every Grade Counts program is not primarily about mastery of the course work itself," she responded. "There are certain social skills which are developed in each of the elementary grades. We now know the lack of even one can have far-reaching effects." I had a sinking feeling I was talking to the genius who'd dreamed up this brilliant program. "For instance," she continued, "your problems at your last job with the newspaper appear to have been mostly personality related."
I was floored until I realized she must have access to my unemployment file. I patiently explained that the problem personality at the newspaper had been my editor's.
"And how did your co-workers handle that?"
"My co-workers were a bunch of sheep."
"Ah." She sounded pleased, as if I'd proved her point about socialization. I tried to argue but she cut me off. "Thousands of citizens around the country have already benefited from EGC. Independent evaluation of our first year shows eighty-five percent of participants satisfied to highly satisfied with the results."
"That is the most asinine thing I ever heard," I finally yelled in the phone.
"Ah!" she chirped as I hung up.
The thing bothered me, more than it should. I remembered a remark I overheard from my older sister a few years ago when my smart little niece was doing so well in first grade. The school wanted to skip her ahead into second grade mid-year. "No way," my sister had said to her husband, not realizing I was listening from the other room. "That's just what happened to Chris and it totally screwed up her childhood." I hadn't realized that was the opinion in my family. And it bugged me that my sister took no blame for it. She'd started the whole thing by playing teacher with me so I already knew my ABC's and how to read a bit when I started school. First grade had been a boring let down.
It was true I'd been shy of the second graders. They'd all made their friends long before I moved into their classroom mid-year. I was a quiet kid anyway, already a bookworm. I took to going to the library during recess instead of out to the playground where I could never find much to do. In a way it set the tone for the rest of my school years. I was studious, an A student, which the boys seemed to dislike. Mom was proud of my good grades, didn't expect me to be popular too. I didn't date at all in high school. Not that I'd had any great success in that department since. This last year or so I'd quit trying, let myself go, gained ten pounds.
Near the end of summer I saw an article on the Every Grade Counts program in the newspaper, about how great it was that our city schools were participating. The article mentioned a local mechanic and "a long-term unemployed woman" would be joining the program this year. I recognized a jab from my former editor. I wouldn't call nine months exactly long-term.
I still thought the thing was asinine by the time September rolled around. But some of my friends and relations who saw the letter on my refrigerator had put two and two together about the news story and a certain momentum of expectations seemed to be building. I hadn't gotten an unemployment check for weeks and I didn't have much else to do. It occurred to me that the experience could be interesting. Maybe it would make a good story. Maybe I could sell it to the newspaper.
The upshot was that the morning after Labor Day I got up earlier than usual and went through my closet, wondering what to wear. I didn't want to look like I was trying to dress like a little kid. On the other hand I didn't want to scare anybody with a suit and heels. I picked out a pastel yellow sweater and soft corduroy jeans with my best sneakers. I wasn't planning to wear any makeup; at the last minute I changed my mind and decided on just some eyeliner. By this time I was in a hurry and I stuck the tip of the brush in my eye, leaving a small brown blot floating on my blue iris. Then it went on overly thick, turning up at the corners like Maria Callas on stage. I rubbed some off with a tissue while I ran down the block to the corner of 2nd and Century, as per the letter stuffed in my pocket. I didn't want to miss the bus.
There was already a knot of kids milling around the corner and one mother standing guard. I stopped on the outskirts of the crowd. We waited. The mother watched me. She was alarmingly well groomed for so early in the morning, turned out in perfectly pressed linen. A would-be Martha Stewart. I looked at my wrist watch. No bus in sight. It occurred to me that I'd be better off driving myself to school anyway. That way I could leave early if this didn't work out. The problem was, I didn't know how to find the school. The letter had gone into detail only about the bus stop. "Where do you go to school?" I asked an angelic redheaded kid near the edge of the group.
Before the child could answer the mother was alongside. "Remember, we do not speak to strangers," she hissed, laying a hand on the kid's shoulder. I backed away a few steps. Then I retreated down the block to where my car was parked in front of my apartment building. I got in and lit a cigarette. The bus arrived, the kids piled in and the sliding door slammed shut. I'd definitely made the right move by driving myself. It wasn't really a bus at all but a beat up old van, already overloaded. I started my car and followed as it pulled away from the curb. The mother made a note of my license plate.
The school van drove around the neighborhood making a few more stops, packing in more kids than you'd think possible. I trailed it at a discreet distance. After a bit it headed down the highway to an unfamiliar part of town. It stopped before a one-story building of grayish brick. The kids piled out and disappeared between the double doors. I sat in my car wondering if I was really going through with this. The grandmotherly van driver gave me an encouraging smile and wave as she drove away. "What the hell," I said as I got out of my car and walked toward the doors.
A hallway monitor looked at my letter and pointed me to the first grade room. I wavered in the open doorway. They'd already started roll call. I heard my name and answered "Here." The teacher looked up, startled by my voice. I took a few steps inside the room and handed her my letter.
"Take a seat in back, Chris," she said, very matter-of-fact. I saw there was one adult-sized folding chair behind the rows of knee-high desks. I sat. Roll call finished and Miss Brunell printed her name in block letters on the chalk board. I gazed at the alphabet border running above the board, a limp flag slouching in the corner, a shiny new world globe on a pedestal and dusty radiator under the windows. It hadn't changed much since the '60s, although a couple of computers, Macintoshes, were now prominently displayed. I only knew DOS.
Miss Brunell was easing into it with a music lesson. The song was "Getting to Know You." She sang it one line at a time, waiting for us to repeat each one after her. She had quite a pleasant voice. The rest of us sounded terrible. She spent a long time on the getting-to-know-you bit, going around the room, asking each child to tell their name, how many brothers and sisters they had and if they had any pets. I gazed out the window, not expecting to be called on, but she included me at the end. As I spoke my piece I wondered what the kids thought of me. I made up a pet iguana named Itchy.
After getting to know you, it was break time. Miss Brunell handed out paper cartons of milk that had been waiting on the radiator. They were slightly warm, just like in the old Bill Cosby routine about first grade. I was dying for a cup of tea. I passed on the milk and asked the teacher if there was a coffee machine anywhere. She shook her head but said I could bring a thermos tomorrow if it was plastic, not glass. Then she announced recess and herded the kids towards the door. "Hurry up, Chris," she called over her shoulder. I grabbed my purse and followed them out.
Dead leaves like crumpled lunch bags plastered the playground. I looked around for a quiet place I could maybe have a smoke. I felt more awkward than in the classroom. The day was already hot and I felt a trickle of sweat break through my deodorant. I must have been out of my mind to wear wool in this weather. That beautiful, red-haired child I'd noticed this morning was crouched on the ground, staring at something in the dirt. I wasn't sure if it was a boy or a girl; I hadn't paid attention during the name game. "Look!" the kid pointed at the ground. I saw there was one late dandelion growing in the gravel.
"Pretty," I said.
"It's bugged," the kid stage-whispered to me. I stooped down and saw ants climbing the yellow spikes. The child pulled the head off the stalk and threw it at me. Must be a boy, I decided. "Eat it," he yelled and ran off, laughing like a maniac.
A bell rang and we filed back into the classroom. The teacher passed around a stack of alphabet worksheets. I raised my hand, holding up one finger. "You may be excused, Chris," said Miss Brunell. It was funny I remembered so well how all this worked. I walked down the hall to the lavatory and crouched to look at myself in the mirror above the wash basin. The smeary eyeliner and my bloodshot left eye where I'd poked the make-up brush made me look like I'd been on a binge. Which was not fair, as I'd had exactly one beer last night. I looked a lot older under the fluorescent lights. I found my way to the nurse's office and told her I had to go home now because I felt sick to my stomach. It was absolutely true.
There was a message on my answering machine when I got home. It was a woman from the regional Every Grade Counts program office, asking how my first day had gone. She said she'd check back tomorrow.
Being out of work was one thing but not being able to make it through a day of first grade was really hitting bottom. I finished the six pack of beer in the refrigerator and it was still too early to go to bed. Although I knew I'd be sorry in the morning, I decided to call up Steve, the last guy I dated. We hadn't seen each other for more than a year but at one point we'd been pretty serious, even talked vaguely about marriage.
He was nice on the phone and I got kind of maudlin, asked him why things hadn't worked out between us. "I think I'm just more family-oriented than you are, Chris," he told me. "I want to have kids someday when the time is right. That didn't seem to be true for you. You really don't seem like the mother type."
I didn't admit it to Steve but I could see his point. Having kids never felt like a real option to me. I'd gotten pregnant once, almost twenty years ago. But I hadn't gone through with it. Even now I felt too childish myself for that kind of responsibility. After hanging up I realized what Steve probably meant was that I was just too old to start thinking about kids. And that was the truth too. I hadn't had a real period for over three months. There was no possibility I could be pregnant. So I was probably heading into menopause. I'd heard it starts earlier if you've never had a baby.
I had an actual hangover the next morning but I made myself get up and go back to school. I wanted to see that red-haired kid again. Kelly was his name. It cheered me up, just the spastic kind of way his hands hung off his wrists whenever he wasn't doing anything in particular. That day went better. We had art instead of singing. The teacher handed around colored construction paper and round-tipped scissors and the kind of water and flour paste that smelled as good as I remembered. I made a fortieth birthday card for myself. Kelly made a boogeyman mask with real boogers. I stuck it out the whole day and reported as much to the EGC program woman when she called back. After that I was into the routine. I started leaving my car at home and taking the school bus every morning.
It wasn't so bad when you got used to it. Better than moping around the apartment doing nothing or going to a dead-end job writing birth, marriage and death announcements for the society page - talk about life passing you by and rubbing your face in it to boot. My unemployment checks started up again. My period did not.
Kelly and I hung out on the playground and drank tea together from my thermos. He really was a great guy. Better company than most men I'd dated and lots cuter. With his russet ringlets and fey blue eyes he looked a little like my sister and me when we were young. If I had kept that baby I'd conceived so long ago, he just might have turned out like Kelly. And I might have ended up like his mother: chipper, well-dressed, sure of myself.
I found out the Martha Stewart woman I'd seen the first morning at the bus stop was Kelly's actual mother, which was a shame. At first I'd daydreamed about getting to know his family, about being allowed to take him to the beach to build sand castles, to the science museum to visit the mummies, to DisneyWorld. All my favorite places. But I didn't have a chance with that woman.
The harder I tried to ingratiate myself with her at the bus stop, the more she gave me the evil eye. I retaliated by fantasizing about running away with Kelly. That felt creepy to even think about. All I wanted was to have him to myself once in awhile. But she was waiting on the corner every afternoon when the school van pulled up. So Kelly and I had the ride back and forth and recess on the playground. About an hour a day together, all told.
It wasn't enough, but it didn't take us long to become best friends. I loved his ladylike white skin and weird sense of humor and the way he didn't see that I was overweight and unemployed and a general mess. All that just didn't exist in first grade. He liked how good I was at pick-up sticks and the way I drew my eyeliner up at the corners and my stories about Itchy and the Duchess of Clouds. He said my real name was Christal Ball because I knew everything. He laughed his head off when I told him about hot flashes.
We both loved spelling and thought all the other subjects boring. During arithmetic Kelly slipped me a note that read ‘F2.’ He said it meant Friends Forever.
Things went pretty well until the Halloween party. I hadn't gotten a costume together so Kelly gave me his booger mask to wear. He had designed a whole creation for himself around a new term he'd just learned: Party-pooper. It really cracked me up. But just my luck, Kelly's mother was one of the parents who brought in treats for the party. She baked individual pumpkin tarts with each child's name in frosting. Just showing off. I heard her giving Miss Brunell the third degree about what I was doing there and suddenly I was too self-conscious to go on with the wild game of charades Kelly was leading. I slid my mask up on top of my head and smoothed down my bangs and walked over to make grown-up conversation.
"Kelly is so creative," I gushed, trying to warm her up. She was bent out of shape because he'd refused to wear the Barney outfit she'd bought for him.
"His name is Kellogg," is all she said. My god, the poor kid; imagine being named after corn flakes. He'd never told me. I was furious with the woman. I picked up a pumpkin tart in each hand. Neither had my name on it. I ate both.
"You fat pig," she snapped at me. So I kicked her on the shin. It couldn't have hurt that much with my sneakers on but she squealed like a wimp. I was sent home in disgrace. It was the only time that happened all year. I stayed out sick on Valentine's Day; I didn't trust myself.
When spring came Kelly's mom sometimes let him walk to the bus stop by himself in the morning. I started going earlier so I was sure to be there when he showed up. One day he got there early too. We decided to walk to school.
What I didn't consider until we were well on the way was that last part along the highway. The shoulder was narrow, not meant for pedestrians, and the rush hour traffic was too loud for us to talk. I tried to hurry us along but Kelly seemed to hang back. I kept getting ahead of him. Near the end I looked back and saw him so far behind he couldn't hear my shouts to catch up. I beckoned for him to hurry. He ran towards me pumping his arms but didn't seem to move any closer. I stood frozen like in a dream. He was tiny in the distance and the cars and trucks were too close to him, going too fast. We didn't try that again.
I still felt bad about that walk when I ran into Kelly's mom a few weeks later in the Pick 'N Save. She was in front of me at the checkout counter with a box of corn flakes and a jug of non-fat milk. She turned and smiled like she was willing to let bygones go. I wondered if she'd heard about Kelly and me walking to school; I wanted to tell her I was sorry, that it wouldn't happen again. But then she spotted the six pack of Coors I was holding. She dropped the smile and turned her back again. I understood how she felt. She always seemed to catch me at my worst. Just yesterday I'd been in here buying non-fat milk myself and hadn't seen a soul I knew.
The school year ended too fast. The last day of class we had Oreos with our milk and sang that same Getting to Know You song we'd learned the first day. Miss Brunell handed out rolled up First Grade diplomas. Only mine was an official Certificate of Completion from the Every Grade Counts program. We autographed each other's scrolls. 'F2,' Kelly signed mine.
Afterwards on the playground Kelly twined his arms around my legs and butted his forehead into my thigh. "I'm gonna marry you when I grow up, Christal Ball," he said. The first thing that came into my head was the arithmetic. I'd be fifty-one when he turned eighteen and at that point he'd still need his mother's permission.
I slid to the ground and squeezed him hard, pressing my forehead into his, tracing the sweet curve of his ear with my finger, breathing him in. Then he was off and running down the sidewalk with the guys.
I hadn’t told him I wasn’t going on to second grade. I thought about next September, when the door slides closed and the bus pulls away with Kelly and I am not there. Already I could barely make him out in the distance, far off as my own childhood. "I'll wait for you, sweetheart," I answered at last, to no one in particular.
Copyright © Sue Dormanen 1998. This story appeared in slightly different form in the Summer 1998 issue of Lynx Eye. Title graphic: "Table Legs" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.