The Living Spaces #2 – Chicago Girl – School Days

When we moved to Chicago from Sioux City, Iowa, I had already completed first grade. Evidently the Chicago School System wasn’t sure that the education I’d received to date was adequate. So, I started school in first grade again at Horace Mann School on the south side. I didn’t think much about it. I was meeting new kids and enjoying myself. After about two weeks, though, my teacher had figured out that I was ahead of my classmates and one day, I was told to gather my things as I was moving to a new room. Instead of being with Miss Becker, I would be with Miss Krutza. I was basically terrified but my older sister was brought down to explain that this action wasn’t punitive but rather a good thing. So off I went to second grade. Back in those days there was a popular trend of having bright kids do three semesters in two. After one term in second grade, I was moved to a class where the second part of second grade was combined with two semesters of third grade. I discovered this was an honor and I was very glad to be part of this elite group of students. We were accelerated. I had no idea that meant losing valuable childhood time. Nor did I understand for awhile that designations like that were so hurtful to excluded kids. I was proud of being pulled out of regular class activities to sit in the special reading group. We had books called readers which were accompanied by workbooks whose colors matched. That year the set was a deep lavender with a yellow stripe. My teacher’s name was Miss O’Brien. She said funny things like “Cripes all Friday,” and “By Cracky.” One time while she was stapling construction paper to our bulletin board, partially turned to us students and partially to the board, she accidentally stapled her hand. All part of elementary school excitement.

The best part about floating between grades was being able to meet kids both older and younger than me. I liked school. I had big crushes on two blonde boys, Scott McKenzie and Blair Alden. I was bigger than they were so I’d chase them down on the playground and wrap my arms around them so they couldn’t move. I guess that was the beginning of my aggressive style. Probably the most significant event of that part of my life was when I was eight and I broke my nose in P.E. class. I was afraid of tumbling. I didn’t like the sensation of being upside down.

The gym teacher had a long row of mats lined up on the floor. I stood in line, waiting my turn, growing more terrified by the second. Thinking fast, I told him that I couldn’t put my head on the mats because I was wearing bobby pins which would hurt me. I still remember his disdainful look. He told me to take the pins out of my hair, run to the desk in the corner of the gym, lay them down and run back to the mats as fast as I could so I could start tumbling. So of course, I did, my heart hammering as I tried to figure out what was worse, tumbling or being in trouble. The floor was waxed and shiny.

I ran as fast as I could, slipped, fell and slid face first into the corner of the desk. I can still feel the astonishing pain. I stood slowly, trying to gather myself, mostly embarrassed by the whole situation and trying desperately to not cry. Our gym outfits were navy blue shorts and white blouses. I was dizzy and confused, wondering why I felt wet when I wasn’t crying. Looking down, I saw my white shirt soaked in blood which was pouring out of my nose. The teacher got me and took me to a side room off the gym and began mopping me dry. I had to take off my shirt which was mortifying. Even worse, someone went to my locker to get me something else to wear. All that I had was a pink sweater which was missing buttons – he safety pinned those open places and sent me back to class. That day I was having lunch at my aunt and uncle’s house. There was no cafeteria in our school and my parents couldn’t get me and my sister for lunch, which they usually did. We were settling down to tuna sandwiches with lettuce and tomato on pumpernickel bread, exotically cut in triangles instead of the usual mundane halves. And there were pickles and chips. I was about to sink my teeth into the sandwich when my uncle walked into the kitchen and said, “now that’s a broken nose if I ever saw one.” My heart sank. Broken meant fixing and if I hated anything more than somersaults it was doctors. Late that afternoon my mom took me to a heinous individual named Dr. Weiss. He pushed and poked my face as hard as he could, asking if it hurt me. I lied through my teeth but to no avail. He scheduled surgery for me the following morning, promising me that no needles would be involved. Right. I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted for dinner and chose a bag of Tootsie Rolls. The next morning I was trundled off to the hospital where I was immediately stabbed with a “hypo.” That’s when I learned that grownups couldn’t be trusted. After the operation I got my little self together and bartered my way home instead of staying in the children’s ward that night. I slept on the couch at home which to me was a big treat. My nose had a cast on it, held in place by two bands of elastic which wrapped around my head. When I went back to school, the kids called me “horse face.” For the rest of my young life, I was embarrassed by my nose and certain that anyone seeing my profile would never be able to love me. The growing pains of childhood.

I spend a lot of time with my family during my elementary school years. We are together every weekend, my parents and my siblings, my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, plus cousins. We go to Rainbow Beach for picnics. No one goes down to Lake Michigan except for my younger sister and me. I teach myself how to swim in that cold water and dodge dead alewives in the sand. I become aware of problems in my family starting when I was about age ten. Friction between my older siblings and my parents becomes obvious as the teenagers butted heads with the authority figures. I am eight years younger than my brother and a little over five years younger than my older sister. They are unhappy and my mother in particular is very stressed and often sick. My brother eventually leaves home and college because of a young love gone sour and winds up enlisting in the Air Force for 4 years. My older sister, who keeps a lot to herself, eventually graduates from high school and goes away to college. I am observing all these dynamics and I decide to be as little trouble as possible to my mom and dad and to protect my younger sister. Maybe I was born with an old soul, a moniker I’ve heard from the grownups. All I know for certain is that I want to develop good coping skills. It appeared they’re required for a happy life. I am always looking ahead.

I really like school. I work hard at perfecting my penmanship by writing my letters in Miss Kittle’s little notebooks which show the proper forms for printing and cursive. I read all the time. I like to go through sections of the library, reading all the books in biographies, all the books that are part of a series.

I like historical biographies and sports biographies the best. I read mysteries and books about animals and nature. Eventually I am put in a special program which meets in the library and is focused on reading for speed. We get a machine that fits over our books and slowly drops a black screen over the text. The goal is to keep ahead of the screen. There’s a control which speeds up the pace of that slowly falling screen. Eventually, there is no speed on that machine which can keep up with my reading. We are tested for comprehension. I do well and am not conscious of the fact that this exercise will be a gift for the rest of my life.

For the most part, I like my teachers. Mrs Masterton and Miss Brennan are my favorites. Both are English teachers. They are strict and demanding which works for me. I can place myself in their classrooms in my memory more than half a century later. Mrs. Masterton had a bad temper and sometimes humiliated kids. Once she made Milton Berns sit in a corner with a dunce cap. I felt terrible for him. But I still was glad to learn from her and glad she wasn’t mad at me. Miss Brennan smelled wonderful and had a gentler nature.

Generally I get along well with my classmates. I am keenly aware that many of them have economic advantages that I don’t. I realize that I’ll have to use other tools to get along in the world. Some friends and I start a club called “The DOLL’s club.” That stood for Delta Omega Legga Lambda. We were droll. The truth is that I wasn’t a very clubby person. Excluding people from private societies felt wrong to me. One day, two members, Barbara and Betty, were supposed to play with me after school. Instead they trapped me in the hallway of my apartment building and beat me until they got tired of it and left. I didn’t defend myself, but I learned a lot about people from that experience.

I grew quickly. I was truly embarrassed by it. I started my period in 5th grade and felt ashamed. I wore an undershirt over my bra but the boys took their rulers and pushed it under my backstrap and laughed at me. By the time I am twelve I am my adult height. There isn’t much to do about it except move forward. Frequently, I like trying on the grownup style. On weekends, I put curlers in my hair, wrap an apricot-colored chiffon scarf over them and walk around the block. I parade past the older guys who are polishing their cars. I pretend I have somewhere exciting to go later and that they’re admiring me. How embarrassing. Sometimes depending on the family financial situation, I go to the beauty parlor to get my hair done. I read movie magazines with all the gossip about people like Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher. When I come out of the shop, I look like I’m forty years old.

From 5th grade on, I develop a crush on a boy which lasts all the way through high school. I still lead a normal life with interest in others but it’s pretty clear to me that my nature is set on being a “one person” person. I’m modeling on my mom and dad who despite bumpy times, always seem really in love with each other. I decide I want that too.

In seventh grade, my class is participating in the science fair. I am very serious about my project which is a study of the circulatory system. I shape a heart out of the clay you can fire in a kiln and paint the chambers, valves, veins and arteries in the appropriate red and blue colors. Then I fashion a standing three poster folding display which has drawings and explanations of how things work. My piece de resistance is supplied by my dad who pays a visit to the Chicago Stockyards and brings me a cow’s heart floating in formaldehyde. I won first place amongst seventh-graders and am automatically entered into the city fair where my project takes second. I felt pretty good about myself that year.

When eighth grade arrives, I am twelve years old. I will turn thirteen just before I graduate and go to high school. This year is filled with transitions for me. I’ve caught up with the kids who are chronologically a year older than me. I’m angling for a social position, trying to be a cool kid without losing my friends I’ve made along the way through the previous years. I vow to never be what my friend Fern and I call “fair weather friends.” I met Fern in second grade and she and I will be friends for life. I am doing well in school until I bump into the wall of what’s called the “new math.” It’s weirdly theoretical and I can’t follow the concepts but somehow I can intuit answers. Miss Young, soon to be Mrs. Colegrove, accuses me of cheating as I work a problem at the blackboard and find the right answer with the wrong method. I am utterly humiliated and am put off math for a very long time. All my other classes are fine, though, so I have plenty of time to focus on social issues. My friends and I spend time bent over a Ouija board searching for answers to our questions from the beyond. I go bowling at the Pla-Mor bowling alley on 71st Street and have an average of about 100. I am a good athlete and can smack a softball and send it a mile in addition to being able to really toss a football. Back in those days, girls’ sports were pretty much non-existent. The boys teased me mercilessly and called me “moose” after a ball player on the Chicago White Sox. I am mortified and angry. But I still play.

I want to be adorable and attractive but I also want to be myself, smart and strong. This dilemma causes problems. I worry about my weight all the time. I get invited to a swimming party and have never shaved my legs. My mom is in the hospital and I’m too shy to ask my dad for help. I take a razor and pull it across my legs, dry, and cut myself so badly that I don’t swim in the heavily chlorinated water. I hate my glasses and try going without them whenever possible by pulling on my eyelid for visual clarity. I go to fortnightlies which are dances attended by everyone in our 8th grade classes. I am always relieved when I’m asked to dance. We even have dance cards which feel like an archaic relic of the past. I can do a mean cha-cha-cha. The year seems to fly by. I am treasurer of my class and I collect the money for our year-end autograph books. I put the money in a mint-green wallet and somehow lose it. Fourteen dollars gone. I’m so scared to tell my parents because I know money is tight. Another unforgettable moment.

As the year wraps up, I have good and bad experiences. I win two prizes in the President’s Fitness Program which is mandatory in our school. I am on the honor roll and am a play leader for the younger kids at school. When I graduate, I’ll wear blue and white school ribbons with my blue and gold honor roll pin in the middle of them. We do a stupid vote for the best feature of every kid in our class. I want to be known for my beautiful blue-green eyes. Instead my best feature is my teeth. I don’t have braces so I guess that makes them special. I try not to be disappointed but I am. I try to take all the “good luck in football and baseball” notes from the boys in my autograph book in stride. I even try not to mind the fact that my graduation dress will be one that my older sister wore to a prom. Graduation finally arrives and I’m excited. But as mother announced to me early that morning, my graduation had been marred. My baby cousin Iris died that morning of a childhood infection that would never have killed her in modern times. My parents can’t come to my special day because they need to be with my aunt and uncle. I think I aged that day. Elementary school has ended along with some of my innocence. High school awaits me.

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