First Grade: From Superstar to the Slow Line

I wrote last week about the autumn of 1961, when I spent three weeks in kindergarten before being promoted into the first grade. I loved my first grade experience in Corvallis, Oregon, where I was the superstar of readers in the class and had a teacher I adored.

Then we moved to Richland, Washington. In late October or November sometime, I started in a first grade class at Jefferson Elementary School in Richland. I remember that teacher’s name, but I won’t write it here, because she was dreadful. She was old and crabby and a really bad teacher.

Even at age five-and-a-half, I knew she was a bad teacher. I’d had a good teacher, and this lady was terrible.

Her method of teaching reading was to give the kids basic Dick and Jane books and have them sound their own way through the books. We spent about a half an hour most school days in this silent reading. If kids came to a word they didn’t know, they stood in line on one side of her desk. When it was their turn, they pointed at the word and asked the teacher to tell them what it was.

Once a child made it through the book, he or she stood in line on the other side of her desk. Every book had a vocabulary list in the back. When the kid got to the front of the line, he or she read through the vocabulary list. If they missed a word, they went back to their desk, read the book again, then brought it forward again to read through the vocabulary list.

Even though I could read well, this teacher made me start at the beginning of the Dick and Jane series. I had to read through each book and bring it to her desk to read the vocabulary list. I could read two or three books during one silent reading period. Some days I could get signed off on three books, other days I was slowed down because I had to wait in line at her desk for my turn to read through the vocabulary list.

List of the first grade books I read

List of the first grade books I read

When I went through my father’s files earlier this year, I found the list of books I read. The list is in my first grade teacher’s handwriting, showing the dates that she signed me off on each of these easy readers. The list proved that there were time when I did get signed off on three books in one day, just as I remembered.

I never missed a word on the vocabulary lists, but she made me go through the same rigmarole as everyone else.

I thought this was stupid.

Yet it continued all year long, and there was nothing I could do about it.

From starting two or three months behind everyone else in the class, I raced ahead and was in third grade books by the end of the year. I could have read much harder books, but I was still plodding along reader after reader, without any variation in the pattern. (These easy readers are really boring, if you remember them at all.)

But the monotony was not the worst. The worst was the day when this teacher said to me as I stood in line to read her a vocabulary list, “Oh, Theresa, I know you know the words. Come over on my other side and wait for me to get through the other children.”

She moved me to the line for the kids who needed help. BUT I DIDN’T NEED HELP.

The rest of the class teased me all day long about needing help with a word. BUT I DIDN’T NEED HELP.

The injustice hurt worse than the boredom.

And that’s why she was a bad teacher. It wasn’t the only reason, but it’s the one I remember the best.

Did you have any teachers who treated you unfairly?

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  1. I love this post. As an administrator in arguably one of the most progressive public school districts in Colorado, I still find it fascinating how schools are ultimately designed to socialize rather than allow kids to really excel.

  2. Two examples: a kindergarten teacher who made me redo my picture when I used a purple crayon for the sky instead of blue and made fun of my hand – knitted mittens (among other things); and a 6th grade teacher who accused me of plagiarism because she though my paper was way too well – written for my age. Which caused me to purposely dumb – down book report and themes for years to come.

    Fortunately I also had stellar teachers as well. Including several who realized my writing was indeed mine, nurtured and helped me refine it, and steered me to a career that would serve me and my family well.

  3. Yes, I had a mean Kindergarden teacher. I was left handed and she made me write with my right hand. She even made me make the traditional clay handprint gift for my parents with my right hand. I threw a fit to no avail. My second grade teacher was getting a divorce and made me teach the class because I was the best student while she cried in the bathroom…for months. You can imagine what that did to my peer relationships. So I bent over backwards to try and treat everyone fairly. The class thrived. The teacher’s much older son-a true bully-came into class on hall passes to make sure I was keeping the class in order so no one would find out. My mother was the PTA treasurer and finally got someone to check on the class.
    I was skipped from second to fourth grade mid year and loved my teacher. My mother had moved up to PTA president.

    I loved getting to middle school!

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