My older niece is in fifth grade, and every time we talk about school, I feel the need to bite my tongue a bit, because fifth grade was such a rough year for me. My teacher, Mr. P., was horrendous, and mean, which I suppose is common enough, but that was also the year in which my parents got a divorce, and we were dealing with all that crap at the same time. School work, naturally, got pushed to the back burner occasionally, as we were shuttled back and forth between Mom’s house and Dad’s new apartment. My teacher sent many an angry report card home with me for my mom to acknowledge and sign, but I don’t think she ever saw any of them, because I would forge her signature and dutifully bring the cards right back to school with me the next day. While I was in Yakima a few months ago for Stepdad’s funeral, Mom gave Brother and me each a box of our childhood stuff. My box, which I now have here in my basement, was and is crammed full of school papers, drawings, my license plate collection, and even the slightly tattered blue blanket I used to carry around when I was really young. Sure enough, mixed in with the forgettable mountain of school papers, I found one of those forged report cards. I find it a bit depressing that with of all the important things I wish I still had (like my cassette tapes, and my toy cars!), that piece of hilarious minutiae somehow managed to survive the intervening decades.
But Niece doesn’t have to know about any of that for quite a while, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to burden her with that knowledge, or to use the influence I have over her (as the ‘cool’ uncle) to sway her in that negative direction. I want her to have the best school experiences she can, for as long as she can. School’s hard enough without your uncle telling you how crappy it is. But I do think about it from time to time, and I feel like fifth grade was the first real low point in my life, and that’s when something changed in me forever.
In sixth grade, I had a teacher with the very unfortunate surname of Growcock. On the first day of school, he would quickly tell the students, “Call me ‘Mister G’.” Thankfully, he was one of the best, nicest and most memorable teachers I had during elementary school, which helped bring me back from the shell shock of the year before. He was always quick with a joke, but we knew to take him seriously also. Each year, he would take the entire sixth-grade class to see a Harlem Globetrotters game in the nearby college town of Ellensburg, which was a tradition that all the younger kids looked forward to.
On Valentines’ Day that year, all of us kids made cards for each other, boys and girls alike. That was the last year we did that before we all hit puberty the following year, which meant that valentines were out of the question. One of those valentine folders survived in my childhood box, too, but I’m not sure if it’s the one from fifth or sixth grade. What I do remember about that day was the folders we all made. We cut out construction paper and drew a bunch of designs all over it – usually hearts or poems or whatever – and then we taped them to the side of our desks so that people could come around and place cards into them. One kid, M. Reynolds, wrote a poem on his folder that quoted a popular commercial of the day: “Reynolds Wrap: the best wrap around.” M.’s writing skills were a bit lacking, however, so he misspelled the word ‘wrap’, which meant that his Valentines’ poem was proudly displayed on the side of his desk, in huge bold letters, for all to see.
“REYNOLDS RAPE, THE BEST RAPE AROUND.”
My desk was right next to M.’s, which meant that I got to see that gem in progress before anyone else did, and I knew that it might get him in trouble if anybody else saw it. I wasn’t necessarily a friend of M.’s, but I felt that I should mention it to Mr. G., and somehow stick up for M. at the same time. When the bell rang and everyone else, including M., ran outside for recess, I walked up to Mr. G.’s desk and told him I had something to show him. “I’m sure this is a total accident, since M. isn’t very good at spelling, but I thought you should see this, cause it’s funny. I don’t want him to get in trouble or anything, though.” We had a good laugh, and he told me he’d take care of it. When the class came back inside from recess, M. had crossed out every instance of ‘rape’ and replaced it with the correct word.
Incidentally, I’m sure Mr. G. knew how lucky he was that he taught younger kids, because with the last name Growcock, teaching any older age group would provide decades of ridicule for the poor guy. Maybe he consciously chose to teach lower grade levels for that very reason. One of my current friends, who was in Mr. G.’s class at the same time I was, recently joked, “Man, I’d be changing that shit to Smith.” I couldn’t agree more. I did a quick search for Mr. G. online, and it seems that he’s still alive and living in central Washington state, although he’s almost eighty years old now. I hope he continued to enjoy teaching, and I hope he’s had a good life. I probably owe my sanity that year to him, although I promptly lost it again the next year, as soon as I entered junior high.