Claire Needs Improvement
Mrs. Cooper was my 2nd grade teacher. She may have been a delightful woman, but in my memory she is brillo-headed and mean. And while I recognize that most adults don’t look back at their 2nd grade year as a pivotal one, for me the entire year was a lesson in how to handle the awkward situations I was just beginning to create for myself. 2nd grade was when I figured out that I was going to have to think faster than everyone else if I did not want to keep getting caught in the aftermath of my screw ups.
The subject was syllables, and since I considered myself something of a language prodigy, the class exercise was a no-brainer. “We’re going to go around the room and each of you will say your first name and clap out the syllables.” Fantastic! “Steph-a-nie” 3 claps. “Bar-bie” 2 claps. Jim, Mike, Scott all one clap. Suz-anne, Jean-nie both 2 claps, a few more names, on down the row, and at the end, me.
“Clay-er!” I shouted. 2 claps! Mrs. Cooper stopped me – I had interrupted the perfect flow of syllable clapping – “No. You’re name is Claire. One syllable, one clap. Claire.”
Uh, no? I don’t think I had ever heard my name said that way. This was Tucker, Georgia and in Tucker, Georgia, I was most definitely Clay-er. And thus began my introduction to the classroom stares of open-mouthed kids, who either pity you or want to eat you, depending on your popularity. Never again, I vowed.
Same class, different day, and I had a belly ache. The kind of belly ache that a child learns early on cannot be relieved undetected while sitting on a hard wooden seat. I needed a restroom, only Mrs. Cooper would not give me a hall pass. I tried to distract myself with Dick and Jane but having eaten my sister’s favorite bean soup for dinner the night before, I could not ignore the pressure. It was time. I grabbed my chubby pencil and made a bee-line for the wall-mounted pencil sharpener. This small mechanical device held the promise of a loud grinding noise which I knew would be a perfect cover for the loud noises I was desperate to make. Only my timing was way off, and I made my half-class journey to the pencil sharpener farting loudly, continuously, and uncontrollably.
By the time I made it there it was all over, only there they were – my classmates and their open-mouthed stares. Not again! I chose the the chubby kid with the big glasses and pointed to her with a wrinkled nose and said loudly “THAT WAS HER!” Mrs. Cooper quietly walked up to me with the hall pass — which I no longer needed — and I left the room, free to roam and confident in my ability to both plan ahead AND recover if my plans were foiled.
Oversharing – I did that, too. Mrs. Cooper sat me down in the middle of my show-and-tell turn when I held up the Tinkerbelle Deoderant my mother had bought for me because “she says I stink.” I made up a family that I did not have, with 6 older brothers (one of whom my Dad accidentally shot), and shared their antics in subsequent show-and-tells. I sat on the bench outside the principal’s office a few times that year for various infractions ranging from talking in line to throwing my milk carton at the trash can and missing. Each time someone looked at me while I sat on the principal’s bench, I would shout “my dad’s an astronaut!” because that seemed a good way to deflect from the fact that I was sitting on that yellow cushion and eating lunch alone.
2nd grade was the year I received my first “needs improvement” conduct grades, specifically in “self-control.” This made my mother hysterical and my father disgustedly perplexed. I didn’t even know what “self-control” WAS, much less how to improve it. Had it only been 2010, Mrs. Cooper would have called in my parents and demanded that I be medicated. But this was the early 70s; no medicine, no extended time, no participation trophy. 2nd grade was the dawn of my learning how to get away with stuff, the birth of my troublemaking side, the year I started making a mess of things and figuring out how to cover up those messes. Indeed, Clay-er had no self-control and needed improvement.