Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Third grade - peace, love, commas

My elementary school, photo taken 1999.

Writer Natalie Goldberg has advice for writers and blogger Xtreme English posted a passage from it, which included some writing exercises.  And THANK YOU, XE, it's wonderful advice, plus it got me started on one of Goldberg's exercises; to write everything you remember about third grade.

Third grade for me was the 1962-3 school year, and my first thought about the Goldberg exercise was that third grade was a big nothing.  Any interesting events, any particularly good or bad teachers, came in other years, so Third was notable for not being notable.

About 18 years ago, when I was in a writers' group, I wrote a nostalgic essay about 1964. I posted it to this blog (wow. 4 years ago!).  It's here if you want to read it (or read it again) but I never felt happy with it, and later, realized it was not only kind of substandard, but actually inaccurate.

I certainly wrote it honestly --  i.e., that was how i remembered things -- but that memory of 1964 being the last serene summer before awful life events changed our world was false. In fact, Sally and Patsy's father died in the same fall of 1963 that Kennedy was shot, and that next summer was about trying to regain "back to normal" feelings like we'd had before, not a time of still having them for real.

The calm year, the real last-year-of-innocence, was third grade, fall 1962 through spring 63.

Nostalgic visit to the primary-grades building, 1999. The 3rd grade wing is behind me, up the hill.  That hill was much higher in 1962.

Third Grade was a big rite of passage at my elementary school, because we moved up the hill.  The school sat along a hilltop that looked enormous to me then. Grades 3-6 were all in one L-shaped building, with the primary grade building beneath and behind it, down a hillside flight of stairs.  Of course we hiked up and down the concrete steps to library and cafeteria sessions, but our home base as 1st and 2nd graders was the bright little-kid-oriented rooms.

When I walked into my assigned Third Grade room, I got a clear message that sunny Primary life was over and we were getting down to serious business. Intimidating maps and historic portraits on the wall portended demanding studies.  No more bright paint.  No long wall was devoted to a window looking out at the leafy world.  Upper class schoolroom windows started at the shoulder height of taller kids. Rows of worn readers that we were expected to use for self-improvement when we finished an assignment with time left, and sets of occasional-use books ("Now, would Ricky and Karen please pass out the music books?") filled shelves underneath it.  My class met in a blue-gray room that sun rarely touched.

And this year, we'd get grades.  Not just checkmarks in Fair, Good, Swell categories, accompanied by narrative about our effort and attitude, but A, B, C ... and other, unthinkable letters. The year started, as they all did to some degree, with stomach-knot anxiety about what would be demanded of me.

And, as they all did, it turned out to be just more school. We had a nice enough teacher and a year without drama.  I got good reports at the first two quarters.  I felt more relieved than proud, or even interested. An achievement ethic wasn't in me yet.

Which is why, at the third quarter report, I was stunned to see straight A's down the column.

I hadn't tried for those, or any, grades.  I worked because it was assigned, though I put more into it when the task interested me.  I thought of report cards much the way I thought of bubble gum fortunes.  You opened the paper, you saw what had been declared for you.

I wasn't much into thinking ahead. This was the year I put a leftover half of a peanut butter sandwich in the back of my desk and forgot about it until clean-out day before Christmas break.  It was barely recognizable, stuck to its wax paper with green mold.

But third grade was the year of punctuation.  I mean, serious punctuation; quotation marks, complex sentences with commas.

I hung onto every word.  This was something I wanted. These were the writer's tools for expression and clarity.  I might not have mastered clarity yet, but I got pretty good at commas.

In fourth grade, big things happened, in the neighborhood and in the world, but in third, September to June ambled through their mundane lessons and vacations and seasons.  It was the last year of my unshaken life.  After my friend's father committed suicide that fall, and the President was shot and killed, the world never again seemed trustworthy, but in Third I had the tranquility to let me take an interest in a subject for its own sake.  Which was pretty cool.

1 comment:

southernyankee said...

Two or three years ago a southern humorist wrote about the complaint that most southern drivers fail to use their turn signals.

"If you don't know where I'm going," she wrote, "why should I tell you? Honestly, it's none of your business anyway."

Well, that's how I feel about comma, kinda. Commas are for those who never read until they are confronted with an occasion when reading is mandatory.

Like the woman we met in a southern Salvation Army who said, "I never read a-thing exceptin' my Bible."

Then, she thumped her hand on the checkout countertop hard enough to make every one of us jump a foot in the air.

"Scared the bejeezus otta ya, dirin't I?" she chuckled and walked out with her pile of used tee-shirts and slack-topped socks.

We all know that Bible authors never saw a comma they liked. They used this chapter and verse thing to avoid proper English. That's right.

So, as far as I'm concerned, if you're an intelligent reader, you know where a comma is supposed to be. Why do you need someone to point it out to you?

I mean really, chapter and verse is the way to go. Kinda like then and than.