The year I begin first grade at Central School, the cutoff date for students to turn 6 is January 31. My birthday falls on the 24th, so I start school at 5 and a half, which eventually leads to my being the fifth-youngest student in my graduating class. Nowadays, educators recognize that most 5-year-olds are too young to start school. I think, even given the choice, my mother would've still enrolled me to have some respite for a few hours each day. I was a handful, sometimes.
Conversely, Miss Etris, my first-grade teacher, probably wished that my mother had waited. Short and bespectacled, she is a gray-haired spinster who is unremarkable in both appearance and personality from my viewpoint, until she turns mean.
The beginning of the school year is not particularly exciting as we learn our numbers and read the "Dick and Jane" readers with Spot and Sally. However, about a month into the school year, our school lives change significantly. One day, we gather everything from our desks and walk several long blocks to Harvey C. Sabold Elementary School, a brand new school for first to sixth grade.
In our new classroom, everything is shiny and spacious. We have a sink in the back of the room, our own bathroom and one whole wall has windows through which I can daydream.
Miss Etris does not like me, and truthfully I do not like her. I do well with my schoolwork, but the behavior side of my first two report cards displays many minus signs while the goal is to have plus signs. At home, I am the queen of my domain with only one brother who is four years younger. I mother him without interference from other kids. Sharing and following someone else's rules does not suit me at the time.
As the Christmas holidays approach, I race around the classroom bossing students around one day. Miss Etris becomes livid. In her fury and failure to quiet me, she takes me into the hall and tells me that I need to settle down. Most importantly, she also tells me that Santa does not exist. I believe she is lying to me because she hates me and wants to hurt me.
Instead of letting her know how crushed I feel that she would lie to me, I become totally incorrigible. She sends me to see Miss Devon, our principal. I am mortified to be punished like a baby. After Miss Devon gives me a verbal dressing-down, I have to sit with Mrs. Murphy in the outer office until someone decides when I "will be able to practice some 'self-control' and return to the classroom."
Even though my mother exerts a Herculean effort to override the "news" about Santa to convince me that he really exists and that my teacher is mistaken, the damage is done. I become intimidated by authority figures for the rest of my life.
As the months pass and I become more accustomed to following school rules, Miss Etris and I eventually learn to tolerate each other. The behavior side of my report card actually improves which surprises the witch and me.
I take a long time to warm up to and trust my next three teachers, but by fifth grade I am a teacher's pet. During those years, I never forgive Miss Etris for the day she sent me to the office and for trying to ruin Christmas for me. I do, however, exact some poetic justice from her one day.
Toward the end of sixth grade, the school decides to celebrate the first graduating class from Sabold Elementary with a ceremony to be held in the gym. Our parents and relatives are invited.
My sixth grade teacher really admires me and chooses me to give one of six speeches to describe each school year. I am thrilled to have been chosen until I discover that I have been assigned to give a speech about first grade. My nemesis and I have to collaborate on the speech.
When I nervously enter her classroom to meet with her, Miss Etris acts as though nothing ever happened between us and that our relationship is a fond one, with me having loved first grade. We don't discuss her cruelty to an almost-6-year-old.
On the night of the ceremony, I am distracted by my embarrassment over having to wear a winter dress because my mother refuses to buy me a new one and how tall I look sitting next to teeny Steve Fisher.
However, once I rise to present the speech which I have worked diligently to both write and memorize, only two things matter: I make my sixth-grade teacher proud and show Miss Etris how powerful a good teacher—who would never tell a child Santa is not real—is.