When I took my walk yesterday, I passed a set of twins who live up the block from me. They're girls, and I think they're in first or second grade. They're painfully adorable little kids who call me "Mr. Wheaton" and always smile and wave when they drive by with their parents. Their names aren't important, but H loves Ferris and Riley, and A always wants to know where "the grills" are when Anne and I walk without the dogs.
They were sitting on their driveway, drawing with sidewalk chalk and talking.
"Hi girls," I said, as I passed.
"Hi Mister Wheaton!" They said in adorable unison.
"How are you today?" I said.
"Good," A said.
H wiped chalk off her fingers and said, "Guess what, Mr. Wheaton! Today? In school? Melissa C. got her name on the board!"
"It's not good to get your name on the board," I said.
"I never get my name on the board!" H said.
"I don't ever get my name on the board either!" A said.
"That's awesome," I said. "Bye girls."
"Bye Mr. Wheaton!"
I took a few steps away, and a long-forgotten first grade memory of my own rose up and crashed over me in a powerful wave, washing the smile from my face and joy from my heart. The memory was and is so clear, I can close my eyes and see everything in detail that's astonishing to me. It's almost like I cracked open a time capsule in my mind that was sealed in 1978.
I lived in a rural area of Los Angeles called Sunland. I can only see it through the eyes of a 6 year-old, so the whole place is forever the late 70s, and bathed in the golden red sunset of a summer afternoon: tract houses, wide sidewalks, and lots of trees. It was a great place to grow up, but apparently the schools were really terrible, so my parents put me into a private Christian school that was a few miles from our house.
I really liked school. Learning was fun, and my parents always seemed interested in what new thing I'd picked up each day. I liked going to the chapel to sing songs with everyone, and the playground had swings that went so high, you could jump out of them and fly through the air for a whole minute . . . or five seconds; my memory on that is a little hazy and distorted by time. We didn't have uniforms, but we had to wear corduroy pants and collared polo shirts. I didn't mind, because it was fun to get dressed up for school, and I really liked flipping the collar up and down on the drive there every morning.
I also loved my teacher, Mrs. Gleason. She was about the same age as my parents, had really long blond hair, always smiled, and wore blue dresses. She was a lot nicer than Mrs. Krocka, a severe woman who was much older, wore her black hair pulled back in to a tight bun, and always wore pantsuits. Mrs. Krocka was from Czechoslovakia, and spoke with a thick and intimidating accent. As an adult, I wonder now if she was a Soviet Union ex-patriot, or maybe if her parents fled Europe during or after World War II, but at the time, she was just a mean old lady to me.
I only had to see Mrs. Krocka once a day at recess, because she taught the second graders, and once a month when she taught our music class (which actually wasn't that bad, because we learned how to sing the songs from chapel in Slovak. I didn't understand what I was saying, but it sounded cool . . . sort of like when they had us do the flag pledges.)
I left that school after a year, and forgot them both until yesterday, when I heard about Melissa C. You see, I was a really good kid in first grade. I only got the equivalent of my name on the board once. Unfortunately, it was in front of my entire family. Oh, and everyone else's family, too. It happened during back to school night, when Mrs. Kocka took over for Mrs. Gleason, who was called away at the last minute for some sort of family emergency.
Back to school night was different then than it was for my kids: back then, parents brought their kids to school and sat at the back of the class while the teacher took the kids through a truncated version of an average school day for a half an hour or so. When the whole thing was over, the kids got to go play on the playground while the parents talked with the teachers, signed up for PTA, and other school things.
I was really excited for back to school night. I put on my green corduroy pants, and wore my favorite blue polo with the skinny orange and brown stripes across the top. I let my mom comb my hair and use Suave hairspray to hold it in place.
I am the oldest of three children. My brother was almost three in 1978, and my sister was about five months old. For whatever reason, my parents couldn't or didn't or wouldn't get a sitter for them, so they brought them along to back to school night. I thought it would be cool for them to see me in my class. I was the big brother and everything, after all.
We arrived a few minutes early (a rarity with my parents, who would show up an hour late for the end of the world) and I was one of the first kids to sit into my desk, right next to my friend Matthew, who I thought was cool because he had a bible name.
The rest of the parents and students filled the room, and Mrs. Krocka explained that Mrs. Gleason wouldn't be there, but she'd show the parents what their children did on a usual day.
We started with our pledges to the American and Christian flags, did our daily prayer, and opened our math books. I thought it was really weird that we were doing this stuff at night, and wondered if the double prayers were such a good idea, but I kept those thoughts to myself. My parents and my little brother were watching, and I wanted to make them all proud of me.
Before we finished the shortened version of the math lesson, I heard my little brother's voice from the back of the room.
"Mommy! I can't see Willow!"
All the parents laughed. Mrs. Krocka spun around from the chalkboard, and shot a whithering look toward the back of the room.
I concentrated on my math ditto. It was two columns of four problems, printed in purple ink on that paper that dissolved if you erased it too much. I held my oversized pencil tightly in my now-sweating hand and held my breath.
I heard my mom say, softly, "He's right there, Jer Bear."
"Hi Willow!" He called out, louder. "I see you in school!"
The parents all giggled again. To my horror, a giggle escaped from me, too.
Mrs. Krocka looked directly at me, and through colorless, tightly drawn lips said, "I do not tolerate outbursts like this in my classroom."
In the front of the class, next to the chalkboard, there was a cork board. On the cork board, next to the classroom rules, was a laminated picture of a tree. Attached to that tree were laminated butterflies, each with a student's name on it. If a student got into any sort of trouble during the day, Mrs. Gleason would take that student's butterfly off the tree, and pin it to a different area of the board.
Mrs. Krocka walked to the front of the classroom and was at the tree, taking my butterfly off before I even realized what was happening. As hard as it had been not to giggle, it now became even more difficult not to cry.
It was so unfair! It wasn't my fault that my stupid parents brought my stupid brother with them! All the adults were laughing, too! Why weren't they in trouble?
Mrs. Krocka returned to Mrs. Gleason's desk and moved on to the next lesson. The remainder of the time in the classroom is lost to my memory, obscured by an overwhelming sense of humiliation and sadness.
When we were done, I met my parents in the hallway outside the class.
"Why did you bring him?!" I said through tears.
I don't remember what they said, but my baby sister started to cry with me. For some reason, this embarrassed me even more than my own crying, and I started to cry harder.
I can only imagine the scene we were making, the next thing I knew, we were walking to my dad's green Volkswagen bus.
I tried to speak through halting sobs on the way. "It . . . wah-huh-huh . . . wasn't my fa-fuh-fuh-fault! Jeremy muh-mu-hade me l-l-laugh!"
"I know, Willow," my dad said.
"Wuh-wuh-will you go t-tell her that it wasn't muh-my fault?" I said. "And to puh-put my bu-bu-bu-butter --" I couldn't even get the word out of my mouth. All I could see was my butterfly, with the happy yellow face and pink wings and "Wil" written on it in black marker, sitting all by itself, alone, off the tree.
My parents looked at each other. "We have to get home and get Amy into bed," my mom said.
"WHAT?!" I hollered. "That's so un-fuh-fuh-fair!"
I don't remember what they said. I don't remember the drive home. I don't remember what Mrs. Gleason said when she put my butterfly back on the tree the following morning. All I remember is how hurt and angry I was that my parents didn't stand up for me to Mrs. Krocka, who humiliated and embarrassed me in front of my entire class and all their parents. In fact, while I walked through my neighborhood yesterday and relived this memory, I felt like I was going to cry all over again.
My parents did the best they could with all of us, and I don't know why they didn't stand up for me. Maybe there's more to the story than I remember, or maybe they were just as intimidated by that hideous bitch as I was. But it hurt me that they didn't. A lot.
It's always been important to me to stand up for people who can't stand up for themselves. Honor, integrity, fairness, and justice are the most important principles in the entire world to me, and I never knew exactly why I felt so passionately about that . . . until now.
I think it may have started in a butterfly tree, in 1978.