Musings of a Bad First Grader
I attended a Catholic school in first and second grade, a perfectly fine school. However, in Jonesboro, Arkansas at that time it was the only private school, and 99 percent of all of the children went to the public schools in town. They were creatively named North, South, East, and West, and I desperately wished I could attend one of them. I hated being different.
Our Lady of Jonesboro Catholic School* was small, with only one class in each grade, taught by nuns from the adjacent convent. I can only describe myself as possibly the worst Catholic school student in history.
Each morning we went to chapel. Girls were required to wear a veil on their heads, and I was fascinated with the many different designs and colors available. My parents probably spent a fortune on them, because no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t keep up with a chapel veil to save my poor scatterbrained soul. Thankfully, our teacher, Sister Ann*, kept a supply of extras for girls who had no veils, but I’m pretty sure I depleted her stock a couple of times that year, which did nothing to endear me to Sister Ann.
Sister Ann just didn’t like me, no matter what I did — I’m pretty sure I knew that, even at six. She didn’t like that I couldn’t keep up with my chapel veil, and she didn’t like that I didn’t like milk.
After my first day of school at Our Lady of Jonesboro, I knew I was in trouble and that first grade was going to be a long year. Apparently Sister Ann thought it was very important for little first graders to drink their milk. All of it. And lunch came with one of those small milk cartons that sat squarely in the very special milk-carton-shaped space in the lunch tray. I still hate those things.
Sister Ann would stand at the cafeteria’s exit, next to the trash can where all of the good children threw their empty milk cartons. The good children would crumple the top of their milk cartons into the bottom, signifying to Sister Ann that it was empty. She would look at them and smile and nod as they threw away their empty cartons and ran out to play. Good, nice, milk-drinking children.
I knew I’d be in trouble if she caught me with a full milk carton, so I would wait and watch for her to become distracted, then bolt to the door, pitch the milk and leave. But more often than not I was stuck at the door with Sister Ann. She would pick up my milk carton, shake it, and send me back to my seat to drink my milk. No smile. No nod. I tried to bash in the top to make it look empty, but they don’t bash all that well when they are mostly full. Once I tried just telling Sister Ann that I didn’t like milk. I was sent back to my seat to drink it anyway.
I began to develop strategies for disposing of the milk. By the second week of school, it dominated my entire lunch, as I searched out other kids who might drink my extra milk. As my welcome wore out with one group, they would finally tell me they were sick of drinking my milk, so I would move on in search of true milk lovers. No time for socializing, I had work to do. I had to get rid of that milk.
Soon I got the idea to mix the milk in with uneaten food. This meant I had to leave food uneaten, so there were a lot of hungry afternoons in school. Spaghetti was especially good for soaking up extra milk, and the rolls looked good, but I only used them for milk sponges.
I realize how obsessive this sounds; but the fact that I remember these thought processes means I had far too much anxiety as a six-year-old. I spent my entire first grade year in dread of lunchtime. All morning I’d be sick with worry over how I would deal with the milk and avoid Sister Ann’s reprisal. Then after lunch I could relax, only to do it again the next day.
I’m not sure why I never told my parents about the milk anxiety; I’m sure they would have done something to help. They weren’t milk drinkers either, and my dad really didn’t think it was that good for you. But I didn’t tell, and I spent my first year of school unnecessarily miserable about lunch. I made few friends because I spent lunchtime table hopping to find takers for my milk. I probably didn’t learn a thing in the classes before lunch, preoccupied as I was by lunch anxiety.
I also remember feeling that I didn’t fit in; everyone else liked milk, why didn’t I? What was wrong with me? Sister Ann sure thought something was wrong. I remember wishing I could just like milk and be like everyone else. And I wished I could go to public school like everyone else, where I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be a Sister Ann.
I was thankful when the year ended, and even more thankful when my second grade teacher turned out not to be a nun, but a lovely woman named Mrs. Garfunkel* whom I admired greatly. And Mrs. Garfunkel didn’t care about milk.
This dumb little story tells me a lot about myself; it at least partially explains why I still feel like I never fit in anywhere. We never know the full extent of the demands we make on children, and the impact it can have. I’m not blaming Sister Ann for all of my issues, but in her stubborn insistence on my drinking milk, she planted a seed in me: that I was a screwup who couldn’t remember her chapel veil, and a bad girl because I didn’t like milk.
We never know what the children in our lives are miserable about and don’t tell us. But I think the lesson is that we need to be very careful that the hills we choose to die on are worth it. Sister Ann chose milk and chapel veils. And, partly because of her choice, there’s a 56-year-old woman who still doesn’t fit in. I wonder if she would think it was worth it.
*All names have been changed. This is not a smear piece, just some thoughts and insights I wish I’d had when my girls were six. Also, I have nothing against nuns, but Sister Ann was really just not a very nice woman.
Epilogue: I got smarter in the ensuing years. I didn’t like tomatoes either, and remember telling one of the counselors at church camp I was allergic to them. Much to my relief, they kept me far away from tomatoes the entire week. If I’d only known the word allergic in the first grade, my entire life might have been different.