My mother handpicked my third-grade teacher, and I was terrified by the prospect. After all, Mrs. Phillips had a reputation. A scary one. An old-fashioned, by-the-book sort of woman, she towered at the front of our very un-old-fashioned seventies-style open concept classroom on that first day, all steel gray hair and sensible shoes, perusing the new students who sat quaking at tables spread around the room.
But my mother, who’d worked as a speech pathologist at the school prior to her stint as a stay-at-home mom, knew a little more than we did about what made Mrs. Phillips tick. Tough? Yes. Scary? Still yes. Fabulous teacher? Absolutely.
The key moments of third grade come to me in waves of memories, some crystal clear, some blurry. I can still recall the trick for multiplying by nines that our principal taught me while visiting our classroom one day. I remember working in one of the areas partitioned off from the rest of the “classrooms” in our building with a small group researching the implications of President Carter’s decision to return control of the Panama Canal to Panama. We marveled about what life would be like in that far-off year, 1999, when we’d be old, like our parents. And speaking of the future, Mrs. Phillips taught us all about the metric system, which she informed us would be the measurement system we’d all be using soon. We dutifully recited poems on the topic, one of which went something like this
Soon we’ll measure length in meters,
Buy our milk and juice in litres,
Weigh ourselves and beef and ham
On scales that use the kilogram!
There was more, but the depths of time have taken the middle part, leaving me with only the memory of the last line
The metric system is the best!
Mrs. Phillips read aloud to the class regularly, sweeping us into new worlds, painting pictures with her voice. She just as regularly enforced our singing of patriotic songs, including the state song, Texas Our Texas, complete with the old phrasing “largest and grandest” instead of “boldest and grandest” as it had been amended following that pesky addition of Alaska to the United States.
I learned a lot from Mrs. Phillips, and I think she may have learned a little from me in turn. For instance, when a student asks to go to the nurse because she feels sick at her stomach, it’s generally a good idea to let her go, even if she’s a bit of a frequent flier in that department. Otherwise, she might just throw up all over your modern, open-concept classroom and remain horrified at the memory thirty-three years later.
But my clearest memory demonstrates not only a bit about my general disposition but also the fact that key personality traits form early–yes, it’s the saga of Mrs. Phillips vs. LSM in the great pencil war.
Instead of holding my pencil in the correct pincer grip, I entered third grade holding my pencil with my thumb in between my pointer finger and my middle finger. Early on, maybe in the first week, Mrs. Phillips informed me that I would not be leaving her classroom holding my pencil incorrectly. She demonstrated the correct pencil-holding technique. I watched dutifully and thought to myself, “She may think I’m going to change the way I hold my pencil, but I. Will. Not.”
Next, Mrs. Phillips acquired special pencil grip correctors to slide over my pencils and encourage proper technique. It’s a little-known fact that one can still hold the pencil incorrectly while using such a grip. Mrs. Phillips learned this after watching me work.
She tried appealing to the teacher-pleasing side of me as technique number three. As strong as my desire to please was, it didn’t come close to matching my stubborn streak. She should have thought of encouraging the behavior by asking me to do it as a favor to her long before she tossed out the ultimatum. But there was no going back now. Threats, bribes, the callouses building up on my fingers–nothing could deter me from my intention to prove Mrs. Phillips wrong. I would leave her class holding my pencil incorrectly.
And I did–achieving a triumph of spirit over pencil-holding conformity. I’m not sure Mrs. Phillips knew what to think of me.
She’d probably have been much more disturbed if she’d visited my classroom the next year where she would have found me holding my pencil in textbook style. Calloused fingers hurt, you know, so I promptly switched my grip upon entering fourth grade.
Nine is a pivotal year. Nine encourages you to spread your wings, think about other places, explore your own world, and sometimes even pick and fight your own battles. Harriet over at Spynotes asked us to recall our nine-year-old selves in honor of her son, A.J.’s birthday today. Happy birthday, A.J. May your ninth year be as memorable as mine was.