|West End Elementary School|
Joplin, Missouri vi Wiki-images.
I realized I struggle holding back tears when I changed schools in first grade after my parents' custody fight, a fight my father won, a battle in which the court declared my mother "unfit" to raise her two daughters in 1965 America.
I learned the news the day my stepmother Jean sat in her mother's blue '63 Corvair outside West End Elementary in Joplin, Missouri awaiting my sister and me. A shy, quiet, frightened girl, I rarely spoke at school but remember my seat partner whose blonde curls lay in perfect ringlets around her head in stark contrast to my jagged-edged short hair, the product of a home cut.
My teacher, Mrs. Young, was finishing her last year teaching, which I did not know at the time and only learned the last day of school when she kissed me on the cheek and said her tearful goodbyes to each child. Nearing the end of my own long teaching journey, I realize both the nostalgia and regrets Mrs. Young must have experienced in that final year as she guided a room of 1st graders on their learning journey.
Throughout 1st grade I'd developed an uncomfortable normalcy with my teacher's clipped voice and regimented classroom structure. I struggled to see the board and often hid inside my own skin as I folded my shoulders into my chest and bent over my workbooks. Both in class and on the playground I struggled to fit in as often happens with children living in poverty. My lazy eye--that looked like its job was to guard the bridge of my nose rather than view the world--compounded my social awkwardness. I don't remember progress reports, but I did earn a presidential reading certificate at the end of the year.
When my stepmother arrived that April day and said, "You'll be living with your dad and me from now on and going to school in Webb City," I cried. As uncomfortable as I was when Mrs. Young told me one day to tell my mother to buy me a toothbrush, I feared changing schools more, so I cried.
And I did not stop crying.
I met my new teacher, Mrs. Testament, in the front office of Mark Twain Elementary in Webb City, Missouri. Her appearance and voice frightened me. Mrs. Testament possessed a wide girth. Her ample ass raised the back of her dress so that it resembled a reverse high-low style and revealed her nylons' rolled tops. Above the hosiery I saw dimply upper thigh flesh. Thinking about Mrs. Testament's appearance now resurrects an image of the Trunchbull from Matilda in my mind.
I do not remember Mrs. Testament's greeting, but I sensed her annoyance. A 1st grader does not know the challenges facing a teacher forced to accept a new student in late April. Both her appearance and voice frightened me, so I cried as I followed my new teacher to her classroom.
"Stop crying," Mrs. Testament commanded. Her anger brought more tears to my eyes. I sobbed in uncontrollable spurts and choked on my own breath. Snot streamed from my nose to my top lip. The more Mrs. Testament demanded I stop crying, the more I sobbed. I wanted to stop crying. I strove to gain control of my composure. I could not. My fear and sadness overpowered my will. I had no control over my own emotions.
"We have a crying room for kids who won't stop crying." Mrs. Testament wrapped her hand around my upper arm and pushed me down the hall to a small room I later identified as the Health Office. "You can come back to class when you stop crying." Still, I cried.
Alone in the Health Office slash Crying Room, I struggled to control my wails and sobs. Various school officials visited me in the Crying Room. They uttered words meant to comfort, but even these brought more tears.
These trips to the Crying Room became a version of Groundhog Day during the next two weeks. I'd arrive at school. See Mrs. Testament. Start crying. Find myself sobbing in the Crying Room. Repeat.
At some point my father and stepmother must have had a conversation with school officials about what would work best for the remainder of my 1st grade year. Someone must have realized I could not learn locked in the Crying Room.
I returned to West End Elementary and the familiarity of my seat partner's perfect curls and Mrs. Young's routine. She gave each girl a paper parasol on the last day. I opened mine and shielded my face under its pink flowers when I began crying when Mrs. Young kissed my cheek and said, "I love you."
Even though I left Mrs. Testament's class, I did not escape the Crying Room. Its physical structure morphed into a type of locked-in emotional reality for me. For more than 50 years I've fought my tears. I tend to cry more when I am angry or hurt. Less when I am sad. More when I'm disappointed in someone in whom I once had faith. Less when dealing with individuals I see as self-serving and egomaniacal.
As a child, I cried when my my father spanked my sister Gaylene. As a student I cried over math. As a teacher I cry for students and for myself in moments of regret, in times I made wrong decisions. As a reader I cry when reading a sad story or poem. As a citizen, I cry for my country.
If I'm struggling as I have this past week, the mere sight of certain people pull tears from my eyes.
For long periods I reside in my mind's Crying Room.
Looking back, I should have realized sooner the symbolic significance of those 1st grade days. I should have realized when an environment brings me to the brink of despair, I need to exit the crying room. I look around for an exit sign and see none.