In the fall of my first grade career, I was subjected to the cruel and unusual form of punishment commonly known as private school. I excelled in reading and writing, and my parents were advised to put me in first grade early. At 5 years old, I found myself strapped into the plushy seat of our brown van on the ride to school. Even the homey cinnamon smell of the van and my new Beauty and the Beast lunchbox and thermos were no comfort. My ugly red and blue plaid uniform itched. This was definitely the worst day of my life.
Despite my silent prayer, “Please, God! Make another flood like Noah’s to wash away the school!” the building was still there when we arrived. Although we had been going to church there for most of my life, I stared up at the familiar structure as though I’d never seen it before. It now appeared foreboding and disapproving. My sister yanked the sliding door open, yelled, “Bye, Mom!” and took off at a run. I understood. No self-respecting fifth grader would be caught dead dragging along a lowly first grader. I slid my clammy hand into my Mom’s hand and continued at a much slower pace.
It was mid-September; the day was gray and cloudy, and a chilly breeze sent dying leaves skittering across the sidewalk like skeletons. I pushed open the heavy metal doors as if they guarded the entrance to a dungeon. The hallway bustled and hummed with students. Shoes squeaked on the floor, giving me goosebumps. The fluorescent lights bounced off the gray floor and colorless walls, making the hallway seem endless. This is the end, I thought, clomping down the hallway in my ugly dress shoes, part of the offending uniform. I’m a terrible person for asking God to flood the school, and my punishment is that I have to walk this hall for the rest of my life in these disgusting shoes. By the time we reached my new classroom, I believe I would have preferred that fate. Everywhere was chaos. Kids were piling things into their lockers, chattering to their friends, and not a single other child had their mom with them. I was mortified. My previous lifeline now caused me to be labeled with the worst insult to a 1st grader: Kindergarten baby.
“I’m fine,” I tried to say, wishing my lips would stop quivering. I was, after all, 5-years-old, and way too grown up to cry. Mom blew me a kiss, temporarily lifting my spirits, but as soon as I turned away, my soul sank back into my heavy shoes.
My backpack would not fit into the locker with my prized coat. Red and puffy, the cuffs and hood were trimmed with silky black fur. I had always pretended to be Anastasia when I wore it, and had felt bad for girls who didn’t have Russian princess coats. Now it betrayed me. No matter how hard I pushed, I could not close the door. The kid next to me gave me a look of pure disgust before shutting his locker effortlessly and walking away, laughing. I made a face at his back and probably would have called him a weenie (almost as insulting as “kindergarten baby”) but then the bell rang, stopping my heart. I gave the locker a last hard kick before leaving it hanging half open and dashing into class.
Not even the smell of erasers and pencil shavings soothed me. I looked for an empty seat, and two friends from church waved me over. The kid who had mocked my predicament at the lockers slid into the last chair at our cube-like table, but I ignored him and surveyed the teacher. She had brown hair piled on her head in a way that reminded me of my aunt’s shih Tzu, and her face was white and fleshy—like a pierogi, I decided as she slid a piece of paper in front of each of us.
“Complete the assignment,” she sang out, “and then we’ll go to the library.”
I looked down, thrilled to be going to my favorite place. On the worksheet, there was a hippo whose massive midsection held long lines of letters, the first of which read XKQARLCATPOF. I had never seen a word search before. I blinked.
“Just circle all the words. Isn’t this fun? A game for homework!” she trilled. I quirked an eyebrow at that description. I liked games, and I liked reading, as long as they were real words and not nonsense. I shrugged and circled the entire first line, but she said briskly, “That’s not right,” before moving on.
I looked at my paper in surprise, contemplating what I’d done wrong. Maybe the words went up and down, not sideways. Anything was possible in this ridiculous game. I started to circle them vertically when a tap on the shoulder from Locker Boy interrupted me.
“You circled them wrong!” he hissed.
I frowned, hurt. My circles were even and flawless. What was the problem?
“How do you do it, then?” I whispered back, only to receive a curled up lip and a disbelieving, “You’ve never seen a word search before?”
I glared back at him and tossed my curls over my shoulder. Boys were a waste of time. In my desperation to understand the assignment, I’d forgotten that.
My haughtiness vanished as everyone began packing their papers into their backpack and I was left behind with a substitute while they traipsed to the library. I was astounded. I was denied library for not correctly circling these non-words. What next? I’d probably get fired from first grade. Tears stung my eyes, blurring the hippo, which now had the beginnings of a hole in his stomach from the erasing he’d had to endure. A light perfume scent wafted towards me, and I blinked to clear my vision. The substitute teacher was crouched next to my desk.
I sighed loudly before she could say anything. “You’re just gonna tell me to circle the words,” I said as a lone tear slipped down my cheek. “And I’ll tell you, I know how to read and this—” I jabbed a finger at the first line, not even attempting to sound out XKQARLCATPOF, “is not a real word.”
She bit back a smile. “There’s a little word hidden inside that mess,” she said. “It’s like a treasure hunt. Can you find it?”
I studied the paper and felt the answer dawn in my mind. Cat was in the middle of that line! All the other little words jumped out at me, and I zipped through the assignment in time to get to lunch. I found my friends and sat down, but suddenly, Locker Boy came over and tugged on my friend’s braid, singing her name. He has a crush on her, I realized, torn between disappointment over her low standards and disgust at the thought of how many cooties were probably crawling all over him.
She surprised me by immediately slapping his hand away and scowling, “Stop it! I told you, I don’t want to sit with you. Go away.”
I watched him slink away and turned back to my friend, pleased.
She rolled her eyes. “Ignore him,” she said firmly. “He thinks he’s so cool, but he’s nothing but a weenie. Christine says he’s cute but I think that’s gross.”
We shared a smile and I pulled out my Belle thermos, clinking it against hers. First grade might be terrible, but at least I wasn’t alone in my suffering.