Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Grade Four: 1943, Mrs. Lyman

Grade Four must have been serene and happy.  Age 9, in any case, is for many children the maturity of pure childhood.  Many of my classmates of this year continued to be classmates for the next two years.  If Charles Quesnoy is first in my thoughts just now, it is because he died last year; he and one of my best friends from high school met and were married in her post-graduate years from Stanford, a wonderful marriage.
I was not the only pupil who was 'skipped' at this time.  The occasion was taken to separate a pair of fraternal twins, one of whom was far ahead of the other, and the girl was placed in 4th grade just as I was.  I don't think that her brother was 'slow', but at that age girls' verbal skills may be more mature, and both twins may worry too much about it.  But we had two pairs of identical twins, too, girls in both cases, whom at first I couldn't tell apart.  I never later ran across the McC. twins, who had very blond braids, but when I did casually meet the R. twins, when one of them was in Library School at Berkeley and my own department's Seminar room was in the same part of the building, they were differentiated by the quieter one having become also smaller than her sister: just a little smaller.  This was my major experience of twins.  A few of the Lincoln School classmates were still together when, for a few weeks only, I as back in Alameda High School in Grade 9.  It was at Alameda HS that I was able to start taking Latin, but it was a long time indeed before I could take it again.  One of the most determinant events of my childhood occurred during, I think, this year.  During Physical Education, when we were doing drills rather than games and were trotting in line, the girl behind me pushed me, to go faster.  We did not dislike each other, and I don't think she meant anything by it.  Be that as it may, I lost my balance, because the shove was unanticipated, and fell forward on my face and broke in half my left front incisor.  Because the tooth was still growing, the orthodontist put a gold crown on the stump.  Ordinarily, this would have been replaced by a white cap in a couple or three years, but circumstances put off its replacement.  To begin with, I am sure that the orthodontist did not get paid.  Between then and age 18 I have only one photograph taken with my mouth open.  A gold tooth is not in our society an ornament to a growing girl, and it wasn't then, either.  Since I did not yet grasp its importance, my mother grieved and raged more than I did.  I had the sense not to tell her exactly how it had happened.
Mrs. Lyman ran an orderly and regular classroom.  One great event in Grade Four, though, was the introduction of pen and ink.  Each of us had to make a pen-wiper at home from scraps of yardage.  Each of us was issued a pen holder and steel nib.  All of us, unison, were taught how to hold the pen, how NOT to hold it, how to place the paper at the proper angle (the truly left handed having been identified in advance by observation of their writing and drawing with pencils), how to make a series of uniform down strokes, parallel, about 60° from horizontal, without splaying the nib, without snagging the paper (wartime foolscap, not the kind my grandfather had kept from his own school days), without spattering, using arm movement rather than cramping finger movement.  That was enough for the first session.  Thanks again (as so often) to my grandfather and in penmanship to my father, too, I loved it.  I did penmanship, one may say, religiously.  I looked forward eagerly to the difficult letters, but first we had pages of l's and m's & n's to produce.  With that semester's report card each of us that had mastered the elements of writing with a steel pen and real ink also took home a Certificate of Excellence in Penmanship.  Most of us, of course.  As for that ink: our little ink wells were topped up when necessary from a big bottle of ink.  It was purple rather than blue or black, and it had an iridescence on its surface.  You never could have used it in a rubber-sac fountain pen!  I daresay it would have worked with a quill, though.  It did not resemble what Schaefer or Parker sold at the stationer's or dime store.
I think that it is from Grade Four that I remember a lot of Human Geography; I think that, besides My Weekly Reader, we had a Geography textbook for the first time, the one with photos of tapping rubber trees and ginning cotton and so on.  The big dams, too, and the new telescopes.  In arithmetic we did long division and fractions / percents, mostly, and lots of word problems, the kind that begin, If John has...  After all, we were expected, I now realize, to pass the California State Achievement Tests.  These were never mentioned, but just happened one day unannounced.  Mrs. Lyman made sure that we could avail ourselves at least of all the resources of the Thorndyke Junior Dictionary; we did drills all together.  I could go on and on.  But as I do so, I see how important a bridge Grade Four was.  I think that we, almost all of us, routinely scored well above grade level on the State tests: yes, it was very much like "and all the children are above average."  In Alameda, San Francisco's bedroom, we were very lucky.  We didn't have double sessions, and the dust-bowl children that we got seemed to catch up perfectly easily.  Of course, most of them lived on the other end of the island.