I skipped into Fife Elementary halfway through the kindergarten year with new boots – loggers – squeaking on the waxed linoleum. Mom was horrified: on my first day there, the principal, Mr. Norby, yanked me and Jody Satiacum into his office for throwing blocks out the window. Mom met dad at the same school, and my grandparents met there, too, so I had a reputation to keep. I remember nothing of kindergarten except that I loved my teacher, Mrs. Scoggins. The next year, first grade, was more memorable: I met Rocky, to be one of my best friends, and met my second girlfriend, with whom I enjoyed my first kiss. Well, my first kiss not planted by a relative. I had my first school paddling, too. Kisses at school, I learned, are rare. Paddlings were more common.
What can I say? Patti was a wisp of a thing with a purple aura glowing around her ebony hair. Her legs blurred when she ran, like a cartoon. She was street smart, too, with sisters in third and fourth grades who showed her the ropes of school life. Mrs. Grove was our teacher: Patti sat in the first seat of the row, and I sat behind her. Rocky, always laughing, took up the caboose.
Love has given me many woes, and today might be the first. Recess was finished, and we funneled into our classroom like cattle through a chute. Settling into our seats, we watched art or science or who-knows-what on TV and did our best to stay awake. When the show was over, Mrs. Grove, always in a pink sweater, turned the TV off and pulled the plug.
She looked at us over the top of her glasses. “Kids,” she said, giving us that I-mean-business-this-time look, “I’m pushing the TV back to the media room. I’ll just be a minute. Stay in your seats and draw or color. “
She gave the TV stand a shove, and by the time one foot was halfway out the door, Patti, all three feet of her, jumped out of her seat like a cheerleader. “Okay!” she said, clapping. “Let’s go!”
I didn’t know who ‘let’s’ was, but in an instant, and without effort, she jumped onto my desk like a deer and ran down the tops of the other desks in the row. At Rocky’s desk, she jumped off like a ballerina, turning to the class to graciously accept her rightful accolade. Kids clapped and shouted. A few sunk further into their seats, sure they had seen something they shouldn’t have. I sat confused.
Amid the clapping, Patti ran up to my desk. Doesn’t she know we don’t run in class? Recess is for running. Well, Patti ran up to me and started slapping my desk like a war drum. “C’mon. Your turn!” she said.
I looked around, wondering who she was talking to.
“C’mon. Go before Mrs. Grove gets back.”
This was serious.
“Get on the desk. C’mon! It’s your turn,” she said,telling everyone else what a chicken I was.
Kids started chanting. “Come on, Dennis. It’s your turn. DO IT!”
Patti got away with it, right? How long can it take? I looked at Rocky, who waved me on, laughing. Resolved and glowing with courage, I looked at Patti and stood, expecting angels to sing. But unlike Patti, who jumped onto my desk like a mountain goat, I took a more careful approach, scanning every surface and hand-hold before making any move, like an ice climber on Mt. Everest. I climbed onto my chair first and then onto my desk. Flush with the pride of accomplishment, I turned to look at the class, to bathe in clapping and shouts. I saw Rocky, proud of me for taking my turn, and I swiveled to look at Patti again before making a mad sprint over the desktops to Rocky and back.
I stopped, though, instantly, when Mrs. Grove walked into the room. Her eyes met mine with me still standing on my desk. Patti jumped into her chair in time, sitting with her hands clasped, quiet, as if pondering her catechism. If I thought Patti was fast, Mrs. Grove appeared at my desk without moving. The class faded from view, and all I could see was Mrs. Grove.
“Is this what you call sitting quietly at your desk?” she said?
Her cat-eye glasses belied her true nature, and she was ready to pounce. “Look at Patti!” she said, pointing at her cherubic face. “She’s sitting at her desk with her arms folded and quiet. And what in the Sam Hill are you doing standing on your desk?” I knew from home the Sam Hill lived next door to You little bastard, and I had visions of our principal and his nail-studded spanking machine. Mrs. Grove wrapped her arm around my waist just like she would when she hugged me and set me on the floor. Steady now, on my feet, she grabbed me by the ear and hauled me out of the room in one motion. No one clapped. She didn’t say a thing to the other kids, sure my impending doom would keep their rear ends attached firmly to their chairs.
We hardly made it out of the room before she started looking for another teacher. Across the hall, the door to the other first-grade class cracked. “Mrs. Grove? Everything okay? Do you need help?” Miss Mullen. Hm.
“Can you watch him for a second?” She turned to me and said with an ominous tone. “I need to get my paddle.” Even at this age I sensed a heavy emphasis on paddle.
“Let me talk to my class,” Miss Mullen said and went back behind her door. “She popped out again, waving a paddle. “Look what I found. I keep it handy right by the door.”
“Perfect,” Mrs. Grove said, more to me than to the other teacher. “Can you watch?”
“Sure thing,” she said, liking this way too much.
Mrs. Grove stared at me again, drilling into my eyes with hers. “So,” she said, “can you explain to us why we are in the hall?”
“Because I stood on the desk,” I said, fessing up and realizing for the first time that no one had specifically told me not to stand on a desk. It was a fine point I didn’t dare broach.
“Right. You stood on the desk. Are you going to do that again?”
“No.” Not unless my girlfriend taunts me, I thought.
She took up position on my left side. “Okay, you know what to do. Bend over.”
I really didn’t know what to do. This was so…clinical. At home, infractions were dealt with by yelling, swearing, and lots of arms and hands waving. It was an emergency. Here, in the first grade, it was an annoyance. I bent over, showcasing my rear like a prize to be painted.
She whacked me, and it was like water from a tepid faucet.
“What do you think? Will that teach you to follow the rules?”
I was stunned. That? That was a paddling? I lied. “Yes, ma’am,” I said, trying to pout and look sad.
“Do you need another?” She stared at me again, hard, driving home her point.
“No ma’am,” I said, not sure if it was over.
“Good. Let’s go back into the room now.” She handed the paddle back, and both teachers looked like they had done their duty, saving another child from prison and poverty. Making the world safer from bad boys who stood on desks.
Back in the room, tugged by my ear, I was a hero now, having survived a thrashing by my teacher with no evidence of tears. I walked back to my desk and fell in love, Patti throwing me a quiet smile, waving to me with the rise of a finger. Several weeks later, we kissed outside of Mrs. Grove’s class under the windows and behind the scrubby bushes.
It was to be my only elementary school kiss. Alas, this was not true for my paddling.