I remember: Elementary school edition

I remember the radiator clanking on a winter day as rain slid down the panes of our second-story classroom windows.

I remember the teacher who kept a monkey in a cage in his classroom. He was never my teacher. 

I remember Mrs. Anderson, who was old and had a crippled foot, playing hopscotch with us at recess, dragging her foot behind her as she hopped.

I remember sitting in a small circle at the front of the room, reading about Dick and Jane and Sally, the most boring children I’d ever met.

I remember Mike, the boy who only drew cars. No matter what we were supposed to be doing, Mike drew cars. 

I remember wondering about Mike, marveling at Mike, envying Mike. He disappeared early in the fall, to go to “a different school.” (No, he hadn’t moved.) I didn’t want to disappear, so I knew I could never be like Mike. 

I remember the lunch cart rumbling down the hallway’s wavy wooden floors. I remember waiting for it to stop outside our classroom door, lining up to push our plastic plates along the cart’s metal counter, and hearing food thunk onto plates. 

I remember salty gravy laced with stringy chicken over a snowball of mashed potatoes, watery green beans dull and flat from a can, wiggly red jello squares, tiny cartons of lukewarm milk. I remember loving the salty gravy.

I remember loving Mrs. Anderson, and knocking on the door of her house one time with my friend Sandy, who lived down the street from her, and how she gave us each a cookie but wouldn’t let us come inside. 

I remember being moved to Mrs. Smallwood’s class in October, and being scared, and meeting Kimberlee and Ellen, and how small the playground looked from the second-floor classroom, and how wonderfully amazing our mail cubbies were, and how glad I was that the grownups had moved me, even though I didn’t really know why.

I remember that happiness was a warm puppy.

I remember coloring a picture of Snoopy while listening to a scratchy record singing about a land where children were free. 

I remember my body tensing when I had to walk to the board to do a math problem, my silent panic every time we raced to do 100 math problems in one minute.

I remember not caring about when the train would arrive. 

I remember the reading corner, with carpet and low shelves and pillows, and reading and laughing and talking there with Kimberlee and Ellen when we finished our work early.

I remember Laura and Mary, Henry and Beezus and Ramona, Freddy the Pig, and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle.

I remember Mrs. Diefendorf telling Kimberlee and Ellen and I that we wouldn’t be friends when we were adults, and how we called her Mrs. Beefenbarf when she couldn’t hear us.

I remember using jump ropes as halters and being sometimes the horse, sometimes the rider, my hair flapping like a mane the recess I cantered through puddles again and again and again.

I remember sitting through the entire Christmas assembly with wet pants, soaked in Mrs. Smallwood’s disapproval. I remember getting very cold. 

I remember Miss G.’s eyes, narrow slits in a puffy face, and her mean mouth.

I remember Miss G. scolding me in front of the class for reading my own book on my lap under my desk during her read-aloud time.

I remember using stubby nubs of pencils because Miss G. hated them.

I remember sitting on the playground with friends and reading books during recess. I remember Margaret and Dinky Hocker and Alice and Harriet the Spy.

I remember racing the boys on field day, flat Keds slapping hard dirt. I remember winning.

I remember Mrs. Hoffman leaving the classroom and Butch and Mike standing on top of their desks and dancing and giving the finger to the ceiling. I remember laughing, and I remember the principal walking in. 

I remember hating the principal. 

I remember fearing what the principal would do to those boys as he pointed at them from the door and glared at all of us as though we were equally culpable. Maybe we were. Maybe he was, too. (He had a paddle and used it.)

I remember Mike saying he wanted a BJ and I didn’t know what that was and when my friend whispered “blow job” I still didn’t know what it was.

I remember my friend telling me what a blow job is.

I remember hating fifth grade. 

I remember my school closing, the one with two stories and tall windows and clanking radiators and the classroom with the monkey cage, and I remember walking two blocks further to what had been the junior high but was now our new elementary school. It had breezeways, not hallways with wood floors, and my 6th grade classroom was a long, chilly walk away from the library. It had new kids from another closed elementary school. We still ate lunch in our classrooms. Mine had cinderblock walls with only one window next to the door. (Maybe. Or maybe I just remember it that way.)

I remember new girls who wore lip gloss and kissed boys and said mean things about highwaters.

I remember missing the days we played horses at recess. 

I remember asking Allison what highwaters were, and her pointing to the hem of my corduroy pants. I remember wondering how she knew that and why I didn’t.

I remember the boys snapping our bra straps, and no one saying anything about it. I remember craving their attention and hating it. 

I remember asking my mother for a bra, not to support the buds emerging from my chest, but to flatten them.

I remember my mother re-making new pants because any that fit my torso were too short, but my hips weren’t wide enough to support any that were long enough to cover my ankles.

I remember the principal I hated calling me to his office to accuse me of things I didn’t do, to tell me I was nobody, to shame me. I remember feeling shame even though I was innocent.

I remember being guilty. I remember leading a pack of girls in making Donita cry in the bathroom. I remember hating Donita and not knowing why, and hating myself for making her cry, and hating the other girls for following me, and hating Donita even more for crying behind the locked door of a bathroom stall while we taunted her from the sinks.

I remember going to the library every Saturday and consuming books like they were candies. I remembering reading all weekend long to go numb, to pass time, to dream, to escape.

I remember my friend Toni developing full breasts when the rest of us wore training bras, and I remember the day Mr. Buer had us vote on whether or not he should throw Toni’s beautiful map in the garbage because she’d turned it in without her name on it, and my despair at things I couldn’t name as I watched it slide into the wastebasket while tears rolled down her cheeks.

I remember my dad, years later, telling me that it was so hard to watch me lose my confidence as I became a teen-ager and what happened, anyway? 

I subscribe to a weekly email from Creative Nonfiction, which means that I start my Sunday mornings with a usually fantastic read of a short literary essay. If I were going to commit myself to writing in any genre, it would likely be creative nonfiction, as it combines prose with elements of poetry. That’s always been my sweet spot as both a reader and writer.

Creative Nonfiction offers classes, and I recently saw one on writing the braided essay, a subgenre of creative non-fiction that is probably the closest to poetry. It was self-paced, online, and inexpensive. Interaction with others is completely voluntary and can be as little or as much as I’d like. Sold. (They aren’t paying me to promote this. Just sharing something I like.)

The class began this last week, and our first exercise was to do some “I remember” writing. This is something I used to have students do a lot in the early stages of writing because “I remember” freewriting is an easy way to generate material to work with. It’s a way of getting things out without thinking too much, making it more likely that happy accidents and surprises can happen. We had a mentor text (an excerpt from Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a “book length memoir in prose poem form” and now on my TBR list), and the writing above is what came of my exercise.

Although I tend to dance around the question of what I’m going to do if I’m not working as a full-time educator (I don’t want to feel tied down and I truly don’t know yet), I know I want to write more. I don’t have anything I’m burning to write, but I’m pretty sure that if I dedicate some regular time to it, things will start to happen. I suppose I don’t want to publicly declare writing as a Thing I Will Do because that can quickly feel fraught with expectations (from myself and others) and I don’t want them. At any rate, I knew this class would be just the right thing to kick-start me; I do better with a little structure and something to respond to. I think it will prove to be a good use of $30.00. (Enrollment is still open.)

13 thoughts on “I remember: Elementary school edition

  1. TD says:

    I still keep a couple of my elementary classroom photos too, Rita. Mine are so similar to yours. The “I remember stories… are oddly simIlar, yet not identical.

    I remember my very first read of your blog that posted a photo of you and your date dressed for a prom type event. The dress that you were wearing was also so identical to one of mine. I still keep those prom photos too documenting the linear time of my physical aging, yet could never capture the thoughts or feelings of that particular age.

    I was fascinated by the similarities of our photos as well as the words that were incorporated that I continued to read your blog. I didn’t have the courage to write a comment then. I’m not a writer or a blogger, nor do I have any intent to become one.

    I look forward to connecting with you whichever direction or activities that you choose to engage in as you become more of who you are!

    I don’t know if you will receive this comment as I no longer have access to email to click on the second phase to process my comment by clicking “subscribe”. Either way I plan to continue to read your blog accessing via your website. There’s so much loss in my aging process and being able to have the financial means of e-mail access is just one more of my letting go acceptance of my own journey.

    • Rita says:

      Hi TD,
      Your comments are coming through, and I appreciate them. I’m glad you can see them through the blog. I’m not sure I understand your email situation, but you can have a free email account through Google or Yahoo. (I have accounts with both of them.)

      I remember those prom dresses–Gunne Sax. I think “Little House on the Prairie” had a big influence on fashion in the late 70s!

      • TD says:

        Thanks for the recommendations for “free” e-mail accounts. As I mentioned on Kate’s blog,, I’m engaged in “Designing a new system for my financial affairs. At the beginning of the month I met with a professional for advice as I have been feeling overwhelmed with my complex situation.” This will be about a 3 month process. Perhaps after that I will feel relief. And maybe I will focus my energy on other endeavors.

        It certainly is interesting that the commenters here relate to similar class photos and happenings of the time. I’m so glad to know that you will be able to receive my comments and I will be able to read your blog!!

  2. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    I love this kind of writing. Your top photo reminds me of my kindergarten and first-grade class pictures. I’m thinking about asking my parents to look through their old pictures and do this exercise as well. I’m curious to see what old memories come out; both good and bad.

    I admire your honesty in recalling your past. Being vulnerable in your writing takes a lot of courage and it’s not talked about enough. It was a difficult time to grow up in, no matter how many people would like to romanticize it. Many of today’s youth romanticize the 70s and 80s, but they were raised and educated mostly by our generation, not the generation before us.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…Screw It, I’m Eating Tater Tots- Episode 28My Profile

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for seeing me, Kari. I felt some hesitation before sharing the link to this post on FB, which is where I keep in touch with so many people I went to school with. I did feel vulnerable. There was much about my early years I treasure and remember fondly. There’s much I feel grateful for and lucky to have had. I can be guilty of romanticizing the 70s, or at least some aspects of it. But there was a great deal that was terrible for us growing up in that time. I can look back at my parents’ generation and have understanding, compassion, and empathy (they were raised by parents who’d lived through the Depression and WWII in their youth, and both of my parents had parents who were first-generation immigrants), but, damn. There are a lot of things we know now that we didn’t now then. But, damn. I know there are benefits and drawbacks to any time in which a person lives. I envy the greater acceptance for diversity that my kids have grown up with, and that we, in many ways, now treat children as the fully human beings they are. I’m glad that we’re, in general, more emotionally intelligent than we were when you and I were growing up. I do not envy the environmental, political, and economic challenges creating a kind of instability for them I never had to grapple with. I’m having a hard enough time grappling with it now, and I’m not in my early 20s.

  3. Ally Bean says:

    I love your class photos. I posted one of mine years ago when I was feeling nostalgic and wanted to remind myself of who I/we were back then.

    You said, I remember hating fifth grade. I did, too. As adults it’s easy to dismiss our feelings from our youth as unimportant, but this post, this format, brings to light all that we went through. Seems important to acknowledge that now, even if no one at the time paid heed to our feelings .

    • Rita says:

      Well, it would have been hard for adults to pay heed to my feelings because I kept them pretty deeply buried. I do get frustrated when I hear adults dismissing kids’ feelings. I remember my children being toddlers and having some big feelings over what were, to me, trifles–and then realizing that to them, they were not trifles. They were often one of the few things they could exert some kind of control over. I understood that the weight I carried (physical survival for all of us) seemed like it should feel heavier than having to wear a coat when one didn’t want to, but that maybe it didn’t. I started thinking about what I want in moments when I have to do something I don’t want to do or when I feel controlled by those who are arbitrary, capricious, or mean. I don’t want someone telling me my feelings are silly or demanding that I be quiet and comply. I want my objections to be listened to, and I want to be given good reasons for doing things. Why wouldn’t kids want the same things? I tried to parent the way I want to be treated. Didn’t always succeed, for sure. But I tried.

    • Rita says:

      I think that’s the highest praise a writer can get–that our work makes another person want to write something. (That’s how the mentor texts in this online class affected me. I think that’s one of the main reasons I like to take classes.) Thank you back.

  4. Kristin says:

    I love your memories…the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being there myself, you put me right back at Lake Burien Elementary School. Sandy, Allison, and Ellen all came back into view too. Thanks for the memories.

    • Rita says:

      I hope you find it valuable! I’m completely behind now. Have done none of the lessons this week. I like that I will get all the materials at the end.

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