First grade taught me all sorts of lessons. Mrs. Butterball taught us sounds with pictures and sayings. She was older but thinner than Mrs. Rogers, the way first grade teachers should be.
On the first day of class, she told us that we were going to learn reading by phonics. She had a whole stack of cards and would pick one at random. We would see a picture of a broken baseball bat and we’d say, “Broken bat, broken bat, awww.” I’m still not sure if that was to teach us the ‘b’ sound or the ‘aw’ sound. There were cards with each letter on it and special cards for ch, ph, sh, th, oo, and aw. We started every morning practicing our sounds. After a couple of months, we had them all memorized. Mrs. Butterball hung the cards on the wall around the room and I was able to read Where the Wild Things Are to Jean. Every night.
She also gave us our first health lessons. We learned about the food pyramid and not to eat dirt. One Friday, we had two full hours about the dangers of smoking, about how only big people smoked and about how they only hurt themselves by smoking.
The night of the smoking lesson, at bath time, I asked mom, “Are you one of those big dummies who smokes?”
She smirked, “Of course not.” I climbed in the bath first, then, when it was a little cooler, Jean climbed in. Jake got in after Jean. Mom held up three washcloths and moved to the bathroom door. “Who’s ready for their washcloth?”
We all said, “I am!”
“You first, Jimmy.” I was the furthest away from her, closest to the faucet. She threw it across the bathroom and I caught it without it hitting the water at all.
“Yes!” I said, “when you guys have been playing baseball as long as me, you’ll be able to keep your washcloths dry.”
She threw one to Jean, who also caught it without it going in the water.
She threw one to Jake. He flailed his arms, but it landed right in the water. Jean set her washcloth on the side of the tub and helped Jake get his washcloth out of the water. I pulled her washcloth into the water. She cried, but I smiled because I had won the keep your washcloth dry game.
Mom walked over and yanked my dry washcloth and handed it to Jean. “I think you’re getting a little old for this, Jim.”
“But Mom!, “I whined, “Washcloth has both a ‘sh’ sound and a ‘th’ sound!” It was the best argument I could think of.
We played in the backyard all weekend. Jamie and I hung out in the treehouse and picked plums with the orange picker and played cops and robbers . Plums were good for bullets during cops and robbers because they were a little soft and left stains that looked a little like blood when you were hit by them, so you couldn’t lie about not being shot.
Dad planted a garden and we were all allowed to help. Jean planted some seeds and Jamie and I fed dirt to Jake when dad wasn’t looking.
By Sunday night we were sticky and dirty and smelled like a busy weekend. We took a bath again and again I tricked Jean and got her washcloth all wet. Mom yelled at me again and told me, “This is the last time, Jim!” She dunked my washcloth in the water and cleaned Jean and Jake with it. She then handed it to me and walked down the hall. I washed. Mom came back in with two dry washcloths and gave one to Jake and one to Jean. I offered Jake a plum if he would trade washcloths, but Jean yelled for mom who just shook her head and told us bath time was over.
I was in school for half an hour the next morning before I realized we had a substitute teacher. She was big and black and didn’t go over our sounds with us. “Mrs. Tait” was written on the board. We did math and history and reading while I thought about recess and kickball and cops and robbers.
I went back to school the next day and looked right away. Mrs. Tait was there again. She forgot to go over the sounds again. I day dreamed most of the day, kicked a double at kickball, and got Rupee to trade me his Twinkie for a pencil.
It was a pretty good school day and had given me confidence to raise my hand toward the end. “Yes, Jimmy.”
“When’s Mrs. Butterball coming back?”
“Jimmy, I told the class yesterday. Mrs. Butterball isn’t coming back. I’m your new teacher, Mrs. Tait.”
My eyes widened. “You forgot our sounds,” I said. She looked at me. “Yesterday, too.”
“What do you mean ‘your sounds’?”
What kind of teacher was this. I pointed to the wall where the cards were. I pointed to the broken bat. “Our sounds. Broken bat, broken bat, aawwww.”
“We’re going to start using those sounds while reading books,” she said.
“But you forgot to go over the sounds,” I said slower.
The bell rang. “Just a minute, Jimmy,” she said. She went over the homework assignment and dismissed the class. She walked over to me.
“Jimmy, we’re not going over the sounds anymore. We’re going to start using them in reading.”
I nodded like I understood. I went to get my lunchbox. All the other kids had gone. Just before I left the room, I looked back. Mrs. Tait was up on a chair. She was taking our sounds down. I started to cry.
That night, I told my mom all about the sounds and Mrs. Tait and how she was too big to teach the first grade. Mom distracted me by asking me to name the sounds in hard words: “bookcase, freeway, apricot, and radishes.” I got them all right and after each one she said, “very good.”
She looked at the clock, “washcloth.” I smiled and told her the sounds. She patted me on the knee and yelled out, “bathtime!”
“Jimmy, I think it’s time you took a shower.”
I smiled again. Like an adult. Mom, dad, and Jeff took showers. I had to go back to mom and dad’s bathroom. Mom showed me which was the hot water and which was the cold. she let me turn it on and showed me how to just stick my hand in the shower to feel the temperature but not get the floor all wet.
I went in the shower and I didn’t care about getting my washcloth wet. I washed myself, turned off the shower, and dried off. I looked at myself in the mirror. Pretty adult. Ready for Mrs. Tait. I looked around the counter and my heart stopped. I dropped the towel and ran down the hall, screaming, “We’ve been robbed, we’ve been robbed.” Mom caught me.
“Jimmy calm down, what do you mean.”
“Mom, check to see if the tv is still here, check to see if my baseball cards are here!”
“Jimmy, calm down, you saw the tv right before you showered, of course it’s still here.”
I ran back and checked my baseball cards. They were all there. My mind raced. I told mom, “Maybe the robbers were here and were going to steal our stuff but they were interrupted and left.”
“Jimmy, why do you think we were robbed?”
“Come here,” I said.
Still naked, I led her back down the hall into her bathroom. I pointed on the counter. “Mom, look! There’s an ashtray there full of cigarettes. It must have been robbers that came here and smoked all those cigarettes and didn’t have time to take our stuff.”
Mom sighed and kind of laughed and kind of cried.
“Jimmy,” she said quietly, “I’m one of those big dummies who smokes.”
I looked up and started to cry all over again.