Elizabeth Willis Barrett
August 8, 2011
I have two grandchildren that will be starting kindergarten this year--Barrett and Claire. I pray that they will each be blessed with a teacher who loves them and wants them to become the best they can be. After all, kindergarten is the gateway to years of education and Barrett’s and Claire’s experiences in this school year could possibly color the rest of their lives. I hope these experiences will be the color of roses and not of fog.
I especially wish for these children a more positive experience with kindergarten than I had, because kindergarten at Emerson Elementary in the school year of 1954-55 left a little to be desired. In fact, I am surprised that after my year of kindergarten I didn’t cower behind my Mom’s skirts and refuse to ever set foot in another educational facility.
In case you didn’t know, according to Webster’s 17th edition of the dictionary, the word kindergarten comes from the German language. The word kinder means children and garten means garden. In English, this translates into a garden of children. So wouldn’t you think kindergarten would be a very loving, nurturing place? It conjures up thoughts of watering and cultivating and carefully assisting lovely young plants to grow and progress.
Well, my kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hill, was not cut from the cloth of a gardener and she was definitely not cut from the cloth of a kindergarten teacher. Her Maker must have grabbed the wrong fabric when she came down the assembly line. I think He got mixed up with a Nazi general when He reached for the material for Mrs. Hill. She was not made from a soft, supple, warm fabric but from a scratchy, unrelenting, cold one.
Mrs. Hill’s birthday was on February 29th which, obviously, only comes every four years. “I am only twelve years old,” she’d tell us. I think to a kindergartener, anybody older than five, even an aging adult, could easily have been twelve. What did we know?
Maybe being a leap year baby was at the root of her problem. Maybe she felt a need to inflict her frustration of only having a birthday every four years on very unsuspecting first year students. None of us had gone to preschool. I don’t know when preschool became a necessary prerequisite to kindergarten. So this was our very first experience with education.
We each had brought a little rug from home to take naps on. Naps! We were only in kindergarten for half a day. Claire and Barrett will be in school all day but I don’t think they’ll be napping on home-brought rugs. But in my half-day kindergarten, we would each take out our little rugs and lie down on them halfway through our daily time there. Without pillows! Who could lie down on a hard floor and have a restful rest without a pillow? And we were to be quiet while lying on those rugs. We wouldn’t even think of making a peep and being brought to Mrs. Hill’s attention. Not because she would gently reprimand us or send a note home to our parents. No. Remember, she was cut from the rough scratchy cloth of a Nazi. If you crossed her discipline radar, you could very well end up in the closet with a gag over your mouth. That’s what happened to Danny on more than one occasion. I know that sounds like a lie but it isn’t. You can ask anybody in the black and white picture enshrining my fellow classmates of the Emerson Kindergarten Class of 1955 if I’m telling you the truth. Any one of them will tell you that Mrs. Hill had no business masquerading as a kindergarten teacher. She belonged to a different age and time, and should have been marshaling a ragtag bunch of unruly soldiers and not attempting to teach a budding group of tender and tiny five year olds. (Actually, I was never tiny, but that is fodder for another story.)
On one occasion Mrs. Hill took a student and bound his hands before she put him in the closet. That atrocity happened to a boy named Jack who would often come to school without shoes. We didn’t live in the rural olden days when going to school without shoes was more common than going to school with shoes. I’m sure Jack didn’t need to be humiliated any further than he already was, but Mrs. Hill didn’t seem to know that. I don’t remember Jack at all in later years. He might have been a kindergarten drop-out. I’m surprised more of us didn’t fall into that category.
Once Mom was giving a Relief Society lesson in the good old days when our Church Relief Society was held every Wednesday morning. All the women in the Mesa 8th Ward attended without fail just to have that wonderful association with great women. Mom wanted me to add to her lesson by reciting the poem, The Owl and the Pussycat. I was very willing, especially when I knew that I would miss kindergarten that day. Even when I was told on my return to the trenches that I had missed a class party, I still didn’t mind. Any day away from kindergarten was a day to be treasured.
There might have been one or two favorable highlights that year. Once Mrs. Hill wrote “bananas are good” on the blackboard (no white boards then!). She pointed to the words and said, “bananas, blank, blank” and I was the one who could fill in the blanks correctly with the words “are good.” I was actually quite smart if I do say so myself. But that good memory is offset with the bad memory of having to spend time in the corner because I was talking to Jeanine.
Mrs. Hill made a statement one day that was very disturbing to my young mind. We were all being overly noisy and she said that if we didn’t behave, the principle would fire her. “Fire?” I only had one interpretation for that word: the principle would light a match and burn her up. I became very quiet. We all did. Maybe the others had constructed the same horrible mental picture.
It really is too bad that she hadn’t been fired--in the real meaning of the word, I mean. She should never have been a kindergarten teacher. Her antics would certainly get her fired today. Fired and sued and perhaps arrested. Surprisingly, in spite of Mrs. Hill, I went on to love school and thrive in its environment.
My prayer for Claire and Barrett and my other fourteen grandchildren is that they too will thrive. I hope they will always receive excellent gardeners in their “garden of children.” But even if, along the way, they have to suffer through a teacher who should never have become a teacher, I pray that they will prosper anyway, knowing who they are and Whose they are. May they be great learners in this wonderful world and love the learning.