Dick and Jane

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Dick and Jane • 1955, San Jose, California ~

Jefferson Elementary was like all grammar schools: the classrooms arranged with five rows of seven metal wood-topped desks; the playground as barren and flat as a prison yard; the morning and midday recesses echoing the cacophony of unruly children.

37. Jefferson Elementary School, 1955 2nd grade, San Jose

I remember a lot about second grade: the finger-paints, watercolors, and pull-down maps, the damp winter cloakroom piled with dripping raincoats and soggy boots, the screech of chalk, ticking clock, and the whirl of the sharpener spewing pencil dust on the wall by Miss Harrison’s desk. I can still smell the white paste and buff paper with wood chinks and blue lines. I even recall the taste: the flaky crumbs and gummy texture of graham crackers washed down with a half pint container of milk, and the taste of chewed Ticonderoga pencils.

I remember Dick and Jane.

“See Jane run. Run Jane, run.”

I knew exactly how Jane felt. I wanted to run too.

We had monthly fire drills, holding hands two-by-two, boys in one line, girls in the other, marching away from the low, one-story building built like a bunker. During air-raid practices we crouched like rolled up pill-bugs under our desks, our arms protecting our heads. But there was never a nuclear attack, and even if there was, it was unlikely that an inch-thick desktop was going to protect me. Oh please… I had enough real dangers in my life to fret about.

Cathy Clemens 2nd gradeThere were things I liked about second grade, and things I didn’t. I didn’t like sitting smack dab in the center of the middle row of desks. Praying no one would notice me, I kept my eyes lowered, fingering the skate key I wore around my neck like a rosary, aching to suck my fingers. Terrified of being caught and called a baby, I chewed my nails or orange pencils instead.

I didn’t like the playground. The swings and merry-go-round made me queasy and the jungle gym and high bar scared me to death. The teeter-totter was dangerous, especially when the fat, redheaded kid with glasses thought it a riot to roll off sideways when he was at the bottom and I was at the top.

I liked reading stories and practicing letters, and staying inside when it rained. I liked drawing and the feel of smooth paper and the smell of waxy crayons. I always drew the same house: it had a peaked roof, a green door, one window, a big tree to the left, a lemon yellow sun shining in the upper right, and a row of red tulips in front.

What I liked the most was lunch. Eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, my three Oreo cookies, and a small red box of Sunmaid raisins, I balanced myself on the cement curb at the far corner of the playground. Hunching my shoulders and raking my heels back and forth, making small hollows in the bald hardpack, I sat by myself and watched the other girls play four-square and hopscotch. Some days, Kendra, whose parents were deaf mutes, sat with me. I fed my crusts to the blackbirds and gave Kendra my raisins; they made my cavities hurt.

Kendra taught me to sign. One day, from her blouse pocket, she presented me with a small folded card that showed me how to hold my hands for each letter so I could practice on my own. I thought maybe I could teach Mom, maybe break the silence another way. But my mother wasn’t interested; the only voices heard in our house were the ones in her head.

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  1. Tugs at my heart.

  2. You’re not the only bozo-haired girl, if it makes you feel any better. I was impressed by the relative diversity of your class compared to my own. The biggest diversity we had was that there were both girls and….boys! I also remember the smells and sounds you recalled. Strong memories. Thanks for directing me down that lane.

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