Mrs. Baird has our desks pushed forward and the back tables pulled out so that she can display our progress. It’s the first parent’s night of my first grade year. My dad has decided not to join us. He says he’s too tired after a hard day getting multiple lines of jewelry inventoried for the holiday rush, still eight weeks away.
But Mom is here, ready to see my work, ready to shine with pride, for I am a very bright boy. Everyone says so. Our lunchroom is serving spaghetti tonight, fifty cents a plate. They bake their spaghetti with cheddar cheese on top and accompany it with toasted buttered hot dog buns, back in these days when neighborhood schools still take pride in preparing our meals from scratch.
After supper, I walk ahead of Mom to my class, to the back of the room where our work is. I haven’t seen the results of my latest tests, especially arithmetic. We’re beginning to work in double columns, but I’m sure I’ve done well. It’s strange to be here at night, seeing my classmates and their parents wandering the aisles in this classroom on the second floor of Arlington School, Bessemer, Alabama. Mrs. Baird is wearing pearls, and she’s wholly pleasant this evening. I see her adult face now, greeting parent after parent and then reminding us to be gracious hosts.
And I truly want to be, but now I’ve found my stack of work. My cardboard nameplate sits prominently behind my papers, and there, right on top of my stack rests my most recent bout with numbers. This page contains twelve picture problems—pictures of objects that I thought we were supposed to add together. Pictures that contain a sky with six moons and eight suns, for example. There beneath the picture lies my answer, my distinctive “14.” Under the other eleven pictures—pictures of dogs and cats, mice and men, green eggs and ham, are all my other sums, the ones I was so sure were correct.
Over every box is an equally distinctive red X. And over the entire page is an even more distinctive, cursive U.
U, for Unsatisfactory.
What had happened to me when Mrs. Baird explained to us that unlike objects can’t be added together? Maybe I missed those days with one of my recurring earaches. Or maybe I was too busy during those lessons drawing World War Two tanks and fighter planes like my friend Chip.
Whatever I had done or missed, right in this moment I plant myself in front of my shame. I do not turn the offending U over to hide it, because I know that would be a challenge to my teacher. But neither can I allow my mother to get close to what I’ve done, though certainly Mrs. Baird has prepared her for my worst. Normally, I’m an “E” student, “S+” at least. However, Mom doesn’t ask me to stand aside. She simply smiles, compliments the “lovely drawings” of ducks and turkeys we’ve made and hung on the walls, and eventually takes my hand to lead me home.
Over the next few afternoons, we work together on my problem.
“You know, right, that a moon and a sun aren’t the same thing? When you add, you can only add moons together, or suns. They have to be the same, see? So if you get a problem like this again, you just say the answer is ‘six moons and eight suns.’”
It’s a lesson I learn quickly enough so that my six weeks’ grade doesn’t suffer. Yet when I redo that particular test, getting all the answers correct this time, Mrs. Baird doesn’t change the U to an E. Instead, I get an enormous, page-side “S.” But I don’t feel satisfactory; I still feel ashamed. To be truthful, even at six years old, I don’t think my first set of answers is totally wrong. In fact, over the next few years, I’ll find that the world before me regularly contains objects that are thrown together for mysterious and unaccountable reasons. Objects that beg to be added up, or are forced to be, or are calculated somewhere behind the scenes, whether anyone deems their sums satisfactory or not.
For each grade in Arlington School there were two sections, two teachers. I never understood why, and neither did my mother who lamented this fact with me, but from first through fifth grade, I was placed in the “other” class. The less “established” class. The class with the new teacher like Mrs. Baird, or my third grade teacher, Miss Horton. Or the way-past-retirement teacher, like second grade’s Miss Mittis Pearson (whom my mother also had for second grade at Arlington), or my fourth grade’s Miss Navie Ball.
While I’m sure the curriculum was the same for both sections, the problem for me lay in that all of my closest neighborhood friends were together in the first section. I don’t think my overall education suffered—though there were those days when Miss Ball turned her hearing aid off, and Miss Pearson read “The Little Brown Bear” to us for the fifteenth time. I wouldn’t have known the term “stigma” back then, but that’s what I felt. For what we had at Arlington was a tiered or track system. No one would have used those terms in 1962, for they were trying to spare us from that secret world as they did in so many other instances.
It was weird and uncomfortable and admittedly shaming to see the kids I regularly played with after school, the ones I had gone to kindergarten with or Sunday school with and whose families my family often gathered with, all sitting together at our overlapping lunch or recess periods. They’d call out or wave to me. They were never rude, and while I don’t think I always looked down on myself, I did wonder at it all, as did my poor, worried mother who kept encouraging me to make new friends.
Added together, what did these two sections amount to or proclaim about our school? Our education? Us? In each section there were kids from mixed economic and social backgrounds, but the first section had kids whose parents were more likely prominent Bessemer civic leaders or PTA beacons. My father worked in Birmingham, and my mother, though a PTA member, spent more time in her bridge and garden clubs. Were these the reasons I was placed in that other section? Or was it something in my record or makeup? Them or me?
To the objective eye, the most glaring distinction between our two sections was the over-representation in ours of kids who had failed first grade the year before. And by the second day of that first grade year, all of us knew these kids. They had had Miss Shine for first grade, and after trying to teach them, she had decided to retire.
I remember these kids so well. Alan Crawford was a quiet boy who stuttered, but only when he was called on to read aloud. At recess, however, he was the fastest boy in class, and I’m sure his time in the shuttle run would still be a record at the school had everything remained the same. Alan was a Broadmoor kid, meaning that he and many others from that distant community got to ride the bus and hold their precious bus tickets all day. For some reason, I always wanted one of those tickets, the privilege to ride on the yellowing school bus. Though Alan didn’t do very well in his repeat year academically, he was passed upward anyway. To my knowledge he never overcame his stutter.
Harold Ware was half-Hawaiian on his mother’s side. Deep, almost dark orange-colored skin with black oily hair, Harold was always laughing and clowning and never finishing his work. Of all the kids in class, Mrs. Baird paddled Harold the most with her 12-inch ruler, and every time she did so, I swear the ruler would turn the same deep shade of orange as Harold as he bawled his eyes out.
I often wondered how it felt to be Harold, especially given this fact: in the other class, Mrs. Armbrester’s class, with all my friends was Harold’s younger brother Sam. Do you ever get over your younger brother being smarter than you? Of his passing the first grade with ease after you failed the same with equal ease? Looking at the two of them, anyone could tell they were brothers. Personality-wise, though, they were complete opposites. Sam was quiet and introverted and, as I said, did his work completely and well. So other than skin and hair, they were as unlike as they could be, yet, there they were, the two Ware brothers.
And the Sellers twins, Marilyn and Carolyn. Marilyn was in my class, and Carolyn in Mrs. Armbrester’s class. Both failed first grade, though I discovered a few years later that Carolyn was held back because Marilyn had to be. The school didn’t want to single out one of the twins for the stigma of failure, so they kept the two together, though of course in separate rooms.
Also in Mrs. Armbrester’s class was their younger sister Joanne, who was blonde, quite short, and basically looked nothing like her older sisters. Three sisters, two alike, one not, and you could manage them in a variety of multiples or associated groupings or even properties, as happened over the next few years when the three were always grouped differently in the two sections.
Joanne seemed age appropriate, both physically and socially. But Marilyn and Carolyn seemed so much older. Had they failed first grade only once? They were a head taller than the rest of us. Carolyn was a bit stooped, too, as if she were already in her 60’s or 70’s. And she seemed tired, pale and disheveled, particularly her hair. She wore shifts a lot and dragged about as if she were attempting to pick up in a house that had been overwhelmed with pots and pans and the debris of leftover lives. Given her home life, maybe she had.
Marilyn’s reality, though, appeared even worse. Patches of ingrown dirt scaled her heavy arms. Even in winter she wore sleeveless dresses with a cheap kid’s purse always strapped and slung across her body. Her stringy brown hair was parted in the middle and tucked behind both ears, and in her dark brown eyes, something kept appearing but I never wanted to stare too long to discover what. It was also clear that Marilyn and Carolyn weren’t identical twins. I didn’t know so much about genes then and all that they show or say. I wonder what I know about them now.
As opposed to stuttering Alan, Marilyn couldn’t read at all. Not a word. Even in her second attempt at first grade, she stumbled over the most basic sounds in our “Dick and Jane” reader. Sounds like “The” or “An,” or even the essential “A.” There are such people like Marilyn, I know now, who are simply incapable of reading, of processing that information. She was sweet and friendly and stumbled even when she tried talking to you, almost as if she were deaf or speaking English as a second language. The system passed Marilyn along that year and all the rest of her years, finally placing her in Special Ed when she reached high school. The one thing I remember her ever saying to me occurred when we were in fifth grade. She told me that she liked a sixth grade boy, that he was her boyfriend. His name was Leonard, and he was a foot taller than Marilyn. I didn’t know him, nor do I know if he liked her back. Or if he even noticed her.
I think Marilyn “graduated” high school the year I did, whatever that means, or if it means anything at all. And I know two other things about her. In our class, she and Harold and Alan and another failed girl I knew less about—Yvonne White—were placed quite quickly into “Group C,” the far below average group, the group that contented Mrs. Baird if they could make it through “See Dick hit the ball.” I could hear their efforts as they always pronounced “the” as “thee,” “see” as “so.” All except Marilyn, of course, who just stared silently at the page. I was in Group A, the group that got taught to read phonetically as fast as we could and with “expression.” We were taught the parts of speech, too, and how to use them to help us explain the meaning of those stories. I learned these lessons very well.
The other thing I know about Marilyn and her sisters—the thing that gives them even more meaning–is that their mother’s photo appeared in our weekly newspaper that winter of first grade. She had been apprehended for abandoning her children, for being drunk in public. The article said she was thrown in jail, but then was transferred to Tuscaloosa, home of the state mental asylum. In her photo, she looked just like Marilyn, even more weathered and even more lost.
I remember the next day watching Marilyn and wondering about her in a very different way: who she was, how she lived, and why she was so different and unlike anything I knew. A problem with no answer.
So in my first grade class, there were twenty-five or six students. The first thing every morning Mrs. Baird called roll, and when she finished, she had one of us run her daily attendance report down to the main office. In her report, she added us all together and came up with 23 or 24 or 26 present students and the remaining number of absences, depending on who was home, sick with the flu or strep throat.
In her report, of course, it all added up.
I never thought about these reports then. It wasn’t my place to measure or interpret what they added up to. But I always wondered about the section I had been placed in. Was I like any of my classmates? And if so, how? And if not?
During my first two years at Arlington I learned another odd thing: my father who chose to stay at home instead of coming to parents’ night with us, also stayed at home every Sunday when my mother, brother, and I went to Sunday school. I thought it was because he worked so hard during the week, including a half-day on Saturday, and that he wanted and deserved the time on Sunday to himself. But on the way home from school one September day when I was in second grade, my friend Stevie’s Mom asked if I knew that my Daddy was at home.
“No ma’am,” I responded.
“Well, he is. It’s a Jewish holiday today.”
I didn’t know Christians could marry Jews. I barely knew what a Jew was, though apparently I was living with one and went to visit some others every Sunday evening. But I didn’t dwell then on the implications of this revelation. And despite what I had heard, I knew my daddy would have never participated in killing anyone, much less “our Lord.”
Probably I didn’t worry so much about this because I had another reality facing me: the one where the second grade class I wasn’t in had been split into a section with a group of third graders. What did the teacher, Mrs. Carr, write in her daily attendance report: twenty-eight students? Or fifteen second graders and thirteen third graders? Who made such a decision, and how? Was I just not bright enough to be given this opportunity? Was something wrong with me even though I made good grades? I’m guessing that the administrators who experimented with this arrangement didn’t consider that anyone in the “other” second grade class would notice or care or contemplate what this meant about “them” and “us.”
I know it bugged me, but mainly I wondered what a day with older kids would be like—older kids who weren’t failures. So I asked my friends—Laurie and Randy and Mary Jane and Ted—what they thought about it. Laurie said: “I sit next to Tierce Greene. He’s so cute!” Third grader Tierce Greene wore little boy cardigans, penny loafers, and parted his light brown hair evenly to the left.
I bet we’re all wondering where Tierce Greene is today.
My friends would also complain about all the multiplication tables they had to learn, and worse, their forays into long division. If you multiply five second graders by six third graders, do you get thirty students? Or some unnamable product?
I think this experiment ended after that year. But clearly, its by-product was a lasting memory. An impression of not being good enough or smart enough. Of not being desired. Of not being so cute.
“If they speak to you, you just politely speak back,” said my parents.
As if I would have done anything else. After all, they’re people, just like me, right? Or at least that’s what an older man, certainly a “person,” once said when our car stalled in front of his house after my mother tried to drive us through a deceptively deep pool of water. I walked up to his house to ask if I could use the phone to call my dad.
“Come on in,” the man said. “Of course you may use our phone.”
“I hate to come in,” I said. “My feet are soaked, and I don’t want to ruin your carpet.”
“Never mind about that. We’re just people too, like you.”
I was seventeen then. The year was 1974, and though times had definitely changed, I wondered how things really stood in Bessemer, our town. Bessemer had been a mining town for much of its life, dating back to the late 1880’s. Ever since its inception, it’s had a significant population of Italians, Greeks, Jews, and Lebanese. And of course traditional whites and Blacks. But on this rainy night, standing in a stranger’s house, a Black person’s house, I wondered about who counted and for what, because I remembered all too well those earlier years, my sixth grade year to be exact, when the way we added things together changed. When we realized that two separate worlds would actually have to count, and live, as one.
Their names were Cynthia Williams and Zepora Delk, and during that sixth grade year, they didn’t speak first to anyone. They walked into Miss Horton’s class a few days after school started that fall and stood right up front next to our teacher. Right up front before me and all my neighborhood friends—Randy and Laurie and Mary Jane–for we had finally been united in the same section. They stood there clutching their notebook-binders close to their chests for protection. They were well-dressed with hair bands holding back their curly locks, just like all the other girls. Miss Horton introduced them, but not us. I wonder if she gave them a list of our names, if that night at home they practiced saying them, attempting to distinguish us, one from another.
Attempting to learn who counted and who didn’t.
Miss Horton sat them together, of course, and together they remained all year: in class, at recess, as partners for the Virginia Reel. And in the lunchroom at square tables meant for four, always with two empty seats next to them.
My only interaction with them came when Zepora caught me staring at her binder as I passed her seat on my way to the pencil sharpener. On that binder was a raised Black Power fist.
“My cousin drew that,” she said.
“Oh. OK,” I said.
And that was it. Speak only when spoken to. My two words in response to her four. Added together, what did we have? What did we ever have?
Everyone knew, of course, that we had to remain separated within our seeming togetherness. Our seeming equality. But I still wonder whether Miss Horton, when she turned in her daily attendance report, counted us as thirty, or twenty-eight plus two.
The year was 1966, and so you do the arithmetic. 1966 -1954 = 12. Years, eleven of which had been very alike in our town. And while I count them all together, for many families, maybe most families, particularly the ones who moved their children out of the public school system, those years were never equal entities.
Maybe the most telling metaphor for the costs of my education in those strange and unaccountable times was found in music class. From first grade on, I and most other students were relegated to playing the sticks during our “orchestra” rehearsals, while the few, the favored, and the famous got to play tambourines, cowbells, drums, and triangles. And then we’d hear recordings of the classics: the 1812 Overture, the Surprise Symphony, and our teacher, Miss Porch, would explain to us the various instruments in the orchestra: how many parts there were, how many members.
I was too jealous of my tambourine-wielding friends to worry about what this meant, but I see it now: when we say a 102-piece orchestra, we’re adding the individual members, all the sections and pieces, together. They are one. To make the symphony, they have to be one. It’s so clear, right? Just like one sky, one universe, made up of all the moons and suns, satellites and stars.
Or like a school system. Ours had six elementary schools, two junior highs, two senior highs. For decades these were separated along racial lines, and subdivided unofficially within each school along class and economic lines. But as distinct as these schools were from each other, as unalike as they were made, they nevertheless numbered eight in the whole system. Over the later decades, some of those high schools transformed into elementaries, others into middle schools. My school, Arlington Elementary, the former Bessemer High at its founding back in the early 1900’s, became a four-grade primary in the 1970’s, and then a Head Start center in the 80’s as students moved out of the district and so were dispersed in some non-racial sum.
Of course, I’m jettisoning history here, reducing numbered years and various equations into compressed prose—translating, if you will, numbers into the lowest common denominator of words about a time when everything added up to nothing but the chaos of an unsatisfactory system of privilege or failure. Of a system where children (who, by the way, are people) were passed upward and beyond without any real worry about what they were learning, or if they were learning anything at all other than what it felt like to be counted as different. To be considered unsatisfactory, an unliked object.
They’re tearing down Arlington School now. A month ago when I drove by it, it was halfway demolished. My sixth grade classroom and the lunchroom were already gone, but my first grade classroom was still standing. It still existed in a place that hardly counts as anything now—half what was, and perhaps half what never was. And maybe yet another half of what the void will be, though I know it’s impossible to add together three halves of the same object. Still, it’s a lesson worth remembering, a homework assignment that it seems no one can pass.