Finding Comfort Amid the Confusion of First Grade
(Name withheld)

I was a shy and often bewildered child in elementary school.   Of course, I was also shy and bewildered in nursery school and kindergarten, but first grade brought with it higher expectations for order and productivity.   Perhaps suffering from some kind of attention disorder, I often missed out on teacher instructions and had to ask my classmates what we were supposed to be doing.  Or, I would just watch the kids next to me and try to imitate what they were doing.  If they were reading Dick and Jane, I would read Dick and Jane.  If they were copying numbers from the chalkboard, I would copy numbers from the chalkboard.
I often felt an overwhelming sense of drowning in a sea of noise.  In retrospect, it’s interesting that it was noise that made it impossible for me to think straight.  Because, ironically, throughout elementary school, I was often checked for hearing.  Teachers, noting my inability to absorb or follow directions, theorized that I had  hearing loss, so once or twice each year, I was pulled out of class to have my hearing checked.  My first grade teacher was especially exasperated with me.  She often exiled me to the hall for punishment.  There I wandered aimlessly, not certain what I had done wrong or when I was supposed to return to the class.   
Surrounded by a swarm of activity and sound, there was one very strong comfort:  My desk.  My desk was my haven, my port in the storm.  At our school, we had freestanding desks with lids that opened on hinges.  I think part of the appeal of my desk was that when I opened the lid, I could block out the confusion around me and hide behind the lid.  Not only that, I could order my little nest of supplies – my crayons, my pencils, my erasers, my pencil sharpener, my protractor, compass, and ruler.  And, all my little treasures … “cootie catchers” I had made out of folded paper, four leaf clovers I had found and pressed, pretty rocks, and even a few prizes from cracker jacks.  This little area was my domain and, unlike the rest of the world, I had control over it.  It was predictable and comfortable.  My desk was probably what I liked best about school.
And then there was the elegance and beauty of tools.  I remember a pencil given to me by a friend who had visited Japan.  It was swathed in patterned paper and had a little red tassel fastened right below the eraser.  What magic.  Retractable ballpoint pens were a marvel.  And erasers were a delight.  The act of erasing was so rewarding.  Now you see it, now you don’t.  And with a sweep of the hand, all the eraser debris could be swept away.   Art gum erasers were my favorite, but I also loved the functional orange erasers, and the malleable white artist erasers.  
Compasses enabled me to make perfect sweeping circles on my paper, overlapping them and coloring them with different colored crayons.  What a perfect tool!
When it came time to write, I would open the lid to my desk and take out my pencil.  Not a pencil, but my pencil.  I have heard writers say that the pen or pencil they use often feels like an extension of their own body.  I suppose I’ve always had a bit of that feeling when I hold a pen or pencil.  I’m not obsessive about my writing tools, but I definitely have my preferences, and they are like trusted friends.

Sharing a Desk in a Small Town School
By Rob Greeves

I started school in a very small town called Inkom, Idaho.  The classes from first grade through senior high were in one building.  My first grade class was in a small room where both first and second grades were held.  We sat on benches that seated two students, so we shared a desk that had a shelf under the table for our pencils and paper.  Books were handed out each day and collected at the end of class.  Two students per book! 

We had only one teacher and she taught both grades.  We first graders read whenever the teacher was working with the second graders.  Even in the third and fourth grade room the same situation existed for students.  All this sharing wasn't too bad if another boy was assigned to sit with you, but having to share your desk with a girl wasn't any fun at all!  That is just the way a guy felt when he was only six years old.

Something of My Own
By Mieke Tazelaar

I loved my pencil box.  It wasn’t the classical shape, but square, not as long, but large enough to place my pencils  diagonally.  It also contained a green eraser that never got hard and dry.  I kept a couple of keys in my box.  They didn’t unlock anything – well, one was for the box, but I couldn’t lock it and keep the key inside now, could I?  I had several round pieces of bubble gum from the penny vending machine.  I saved those for a chance to do some long, serious chewing and bubble-blowing.  The box contained a miniature plastic camel from that same machine. I kept a Crayola box with eight crayons and a tiny spiral notebook.  Several items from Cracker Jack boxes found their way into my special box.  
My square treasure went back and forth to school with me.  It resided in my school desk and on the nightstand next to my bed.  
In junior high, we had no individual desks, since we migrated from room to room throughout the day, but getting a locker was magical, and frustrating.  I bought my own lock and practiced at home, but when I first fastened it to my locker, I panicked and couldn’t remember the combination or the process.  To the rescue came Basil Halkedes, who could open any lock, even if he did not know the combination.  He had at least six locks strung together and made a game out of unlatching each one before he opened his locker and getting to his next class on time.  This skill got him in trouble, because a half dozen students reported missing locks.  He was clever, but not clever enough to hide the evidence.   
I decorated the inside of my locker with pictures of friends and a rock star or two.  I didn’t particularly like rock music, but this was a peer thing – keeping up appearances.  Since I was not naturally tidy, I had to clean my locker from time to time when I couldn’t slam it closed anymore.  I tossed out papers, took home extra sweaters, books, and shoes, and wiped it down with damp paper towels.  Then, I would feel good about my locker again.  
At home I had my own room, since I did not have a sister.  My parents left it alone, until it became too bad.  Then, I would find the things I had left on the floor, in the alley, next to my open window.  I would go on a cleaning frenzy and put things back in place.  I realize now how fortunate I was to have had the luxury of my own space, and a mostly wise and patient mother. 
And no one at home ever opened my pencil box.  It was my sacred domain that my parents and brothers honored.  How lucky I was!   
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Note from Joan:  The piece below, by Debra, is a great example of how a piece can begin with a topic like “school supplies” and lead the writer into other areas of memory.  In this case, the writer began by talking about pencils and ended by talking about issues around self-concept and friendship.  Writing can do this, which is one reason I encourage everyone to write!  It is a voyage of reflection and discovery!
School Memories from l962 

By Debra S. Valpey  (September, 2013) 	

 Freshly sharpened yellow pencils with virginal erasers (years later I read  a romance novel in which pencil erasers reminded a "wounded wife" of her husband’s mistress’s “charm tips.” Maybe the author came up with that one in middle school. Hah!)  Sharp-cornered 3-ring binders that open and close just right. Two ball point pens, one blue and one black.  That year I secreted an extraordinary pen from my summer travels to the World’s Fair in Seattle. It was a space needle pen and I loved it. The “elevator” flowed up, then slid back down as I tilted the pen to and fro.
Packets of shrink wrapped wide-ruled notebook paper to be allocated, equitably of course, into five color codes dividers: pink for English because I like pink and I like English class,  blue for geography because earth is a blue planet, orange for history because orange is a dumb color and history is a dumb class (side note: I eventually became a history teacher...go figure), yellow for math because I am a (yellow) coward in math class, and purple for science because purple is a color that comes from magically combining two other colors and science was magic (another reason I never  understand science).  All set now!    
Unzip my pencil bag to reveal a fresh pink trapezoidal eraser with its name easily visible. I do not know why the eraser had a name. Then admire my protractor (even though it is for MATH class) and one of those nifty things that holds a pencil to make a perfect circle for (yucky) math class. At least I can use those for my elective art class, second semester, for making cool colored designs for when I become a famous fashion designer.  A wooden ruler with that foreign mysterious way of measuring along one side.  Metrix they call it, I think. It is very European. And a small packet of Elmer’s Glue which I had no practical use for, but glue sticks had not yet been invented. So....sigh....we use what we have. 
I wore tight undershirts to squash (and hopefully hide) my kiwi sized breasts that I perceived to be the size of cantaloupes. (Side note: they are still the size of kiwis...oh, well.)  Fresh, still pure white ankle socks and new shoes with cross straps and nice flat heels. I tended to wear out the outer edge first so, at least for awhile, my feet didn’t look funny from behind as I slunk down the halls. And a couple of new dresses that made me look like a 15 year old trying to pass for 12. I was so tall that my clothes needed to be purchased in the big girl department. (Side note: I am till the same height, even losing a bit each year. Sigh...)
I liked school enough. I had a couple of friends at a time. I was convinced that my acne (acquired years before my classmates due to my hormonal growth spurts) was the cause of my relative unpopularity. But I so wished to fast forward a few years in order to know for sure that I WOULD stop growing, and I WOULD start looking more like my classmates.  By eighth grade, it all began to turn around. My friends got pimples, my height leveled out, and I got another friend or two. I still didn’t like math, though. 

Note from Joan:  The piece below, by Dennis, is a good example of applying the wisdom of age to the experiences of childhood.  Dennis is able to view long-ago events with the perspective of a lifetime of experience, including conversations and insights of others.  This is another benefit of writing, both for the writer and the reader.  Pieces like this have many layers and can be both healing and thought-provoking.
My Early School Years
By Dennis  09/08/2013

I had undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome when I was a child.  When there was first talk of going to school, my parents could not explain it to me well.  However, I have powers of introspection because I have a photographic memory.
It was a late summer day in 1948, when my parents took me to an aged two-story building in Renton, Washington.  It was on 3rd street, when it was still a two-way street.  Upstairs, two elderly ladies wanted to talk to me, but I did not want to talk to them.  I cried, and I didn’t understand what they wanted.  It was an interview that I failed.  There was a discussion with my parents, but I did not comprehend any of it.  Though I was already six years old, I wasn’t going to the first grade; I was to be set back one year and go to junior primary instead.  The building was located across the campus from the Renton Highlands Elementary School.
World War II had ended, so civilians were moving into a Renton Highlands housing project built for soldiers and their families.  The influx of new people was swamping all services.  Most school grades operated in two shifts, but not junior primary.  I had a full school day.
There seemed to be an equal number of boys and girls in our large wooden structure that must have been built for some other purpose.  I remember staring at the girls, wondering how dresses and skirts made them different from me.  It was a real puzzle.
We young students were the first to occupy the building.  I knew this, since restrooms and other parts of the facility were being setup for the first time.  The teacher was quite crabby.  I did not realize it at the time, but changes brought about during the war now allowed married women to teach elementary school.  This teacher did not like me, and had apparently assigned me the status of least interesting student.  I found this out when we had an exciting class project, where we made paper clowns with accordion-like legs.  I thought mine was a masterpiece, much better than yucky decorated clay dishes.  I never got to take my clown home.  Earlier, a younger boy had wandered by the school.  The teacher took pity on him, so she gave him a clown.  As a result, when the clowns were passed out to the class, we were one short. I was the one with no clown.  This was the first of many times I would get shafted, merely for being different.  
I may be the only person who remembers all this.  Later, when I got married, my wife’s father happened to be a retired teacher from the Renton School District.  He said that Junior primary had been a failed experiment.  In those days, teachers could openly wear all their prejudices in public, and they did not hesitate to do so.  My father-in-law shared many stories about how so many childhood egos could get crushed, and how many of the teachers that I disliked, were also hated by most of the staff.
I can look back to those early days with enhanced knowledge.  Why were so many of the students in junior primary girls?  It seems unlikely that so many could be behind in their ability to start school.  What biases were in place?  I think we were actually being screened as to who were most likely to become social misfits, or not have the skills to adapt to the prevailing culture. I wonder if the girls assigned to that school were those who were considered too ambitious, and not the docile creatures society preferred.  Clearly, in junior primary, I remember that all the boys and girls seemed to be on equal footing.  Oh, the girls learned things faster, and they could even run faster, but that was normal.  We boys eventually caught up.
As I pondered this question, I recently remembered an incident that might explain what happened to the girls.  Nancy S. had been one of my classmates during the primary years.  She seemed like a brilliant, gifted girl who was quite intelligent.  One day, in the fifth grade, she came to class crying.  Apparently, she had ambitions in life that were not appropriate for a young girl at that time.  I guess she had been lectured to conform, or else. We did not defy school authorities in those days.
I wonder if the girls sent to junior primary had professed lofty dreams, different from just settling down to become wives and mothers.  Maybe their mothers told them they were going to live in a world that would be more equal for women.  Maybe the male establishment thought they had tempted women too much by allowing them to do men’s jobs during the war, so it was time to throttle that down.
Is it possible that a whole generation of women had been discriminated against over fears of a ‘hostile’ take-over?