When school started every year, we went fortified with new pencils and crayons, stiff notebooks and an outfit chosen to make us look wonderful. What awaited us each year, just across the street from my house, was the same building with its tall windows and black-speckled, waxed linoleum hallways, the same kids with the exception of a few new faces, the same playground and the same steam-filled lunchroom.
But the beginning of each new school year never felt routine because we switched classrooms and teachers. Our fates were determined over the summer by some unknown hand. We could get the teacher we had wished for or we could get a complete surprise, as I did in second grade, the year I decided even-numbered years were cursed.
Miss Campbell was new to our town, to our school and to teaching. With her severe, blond, upswept hairdo and erect posture she stood at about 6 feet, towering over our miniature desks. When we did desk work, she paced slowly up and down the aisles, yardstick in hand, poking at the center vertebrae of all hunched spines.
At the end of the school day, we stood at attention next to our desks when the scratchy recording of the "Star-Spangled Banner" blared over the loudspeaker. Miss Campbell allowed no leaning, no wandering eyes, only rapt attention on the flag hanging over the chalkboard, hands on hearts and serious expressions.
One freezing January day, I wore green corduroy slacks beneath my favorite jumper and stood at attention at 2:30, praying for the quick end of the "Star-Spangled Banner. " Miss Campbell hadn't let us go to the bathroom since lunch and I was dying to pee. By the rockets' red glare, my bladder couldn't hold any more and I let go what seemed an endless warm stream, soaking my green pants, filling my saddle oxfords and spilling onto the floor in a humiliating puddle.
I stood until all my classmates had fled, then waited as Miss Campbell surveyed the situation with a glaring eye. She told me to strip off my pants and run home. There would be no consequences or comfort for my insubordinate bladder, only a cold eye from her.
Third grade brought no embarrassing accidents, just a chain-smoking teacher who left us to do our multiplication tables most of the day so she could escape to the teachers' lounge.
Fourth grade, January again, my teacher is Miss Ramsey -- kind, wise, round and old. I am the lead speller in the class and the fastest at math races. One day I am concentrating on a test in the silent classroom when salty saliva fills my mouth. I swallow it and focus back on the test, then my mouth fills again. Miss Ramsey walks past my desk and when I look up, my stomach wrenches. I throw up just past the heel of her sturdy, lace-up shoes.
The kids hold their noses and try not to laugh as the janitor sprinkles the pile of vomit with what looks like sawdust before sweeping it up. Miss Ramsey washes my face and hair in the girls' bathroom and sends me home, advising me to eat saltines and drink warm tea.
Fifth grade, no hitches.
By sixth grade, my family has moved to a new town. My school is a new suburban model and my teacher is a jolly red-haired man, Mr. Hartman, just out of teachers' college. He lets us paint murals of the ancient Greeks on the back walls of the classroom.
I have almost forgotten the even-numbered year curse until Judy Vogel, the girl who sits in front of me on the fourth row, doubles over with appendicitis one day. We send flowers to the hospital and whisper all day, wondering aloud if she will be OK.
I don't tell anyone, but I'm sure I am next. I sit in my desk, looking at the empty back of hers where her ponytail used to hang, wondering when the hand of God and elementary school will smite me, what physical disaster will finally mark my sixth year in school.
The next week, Larry Davidson, the crewcut kid who sits behind me on the fourth row, walks in with a huge cast on his arm. He was thrown by a horse over the weekend and has three breaks. I sign his cast, breathing gratitude and relief. The even-year curse has skipped me. I've been spared.
I am so nice to Judy Vogel and Larry Davidson for the rest of the year, it would make you want to throw up.
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