Lessons Learned in Kindergarten..Twice

Susan Duncan

“Just what makes that little ol’ ant think he’ll move that rubber tree plant? Anyone knows an ant can’t move a rubber tree plant!”
~ Sammy Cahn

“No, Uncle Jim, I do not wish to start going to school to learn to be smart. I’d rather stay at home and be just like my mommy and daddy. I have no time for kindergarten. I need to play.” ~ Susie, precociously mature and a seasoned “aunt” (to a nephew) already at age five in 1951…

In spite of this emphatic declaration of intent, off I remorsefully journeyed to take a right onto Jefferson Street, then a left  onto Walnut Street and, once tentatively inside a set of double front doors, onward through a long spooky West Ward hall into Mrs. Olive Sheehan’s “garden for children” -- morning session. A full day would have been unfathomable. For years thereafter, I felt stigmatized believing that A.M. kids were

dumber – actually we qualified as younger which appeals to me considerably now!

Met by a grandmotherly lady with fluffy white bluish-tinged hair who was sensibly shod in rubber-soled loafers, I remained certain that I’d rather be rushing giddily about my own house. I paused to study this person’s face. Sweet, stern, a tad wrinkly, she smiled very seldom as she remained unquestionably in charge of her austere classroom. Principal Willis also had fluffy hair.

Daily, for the nine months ahead of both of us plus a herd of other tiny kids, “teacher” consistently appeared in uniform-type soft crep-ey dresses (usually purple) all shaped alike and accented by assorted sparkling necklaces, brooches and earrings. Her spectacles draped around her neck with long chains, a sight totally foreign to this sheltered kid, I stifled my giggling whenever she adjusted her dangling bi-focals, resting upon her ample bosom, upward to perch upon her nose. Each time she completed that maneuver, her face resembled a drawbridge from some Disney movie I’d viewed at the Columbia Theater.

She either paced slowly around this somewhat haunting, echoing, cavernous “kiddie garden” or stationed herself at a huge desk. Often, a beautiful winged-back chair served as her throne for story time. I pretty much loved her…and feared her. Each of us pupils had brought a planter for our desks, from our respective houses so that we could learn to care for and nurture whatever cutting we received from her precious humongous rubber trees stationed in every corner. My little ceramic, rather odd, black swan still roosts cloistered inside one of my kitchen cabinets.

I recall vividly our re-enactments of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, munching popcorn with Indian tribes, and the total confusion when a month later I transformed from a Priscilla Alden to the Virgin Mary or maybe an angel for our live nativity program choreographed to impress visiting mothers in December. Theatrical moments peppered throughout the year -- starring five year old kids -- must have served some purpose, although we all remained clueless as to why we might be scooting our desks into circular formations for these pint-sized Broadway shows.

Fated with historic participation in the trendy debut of the Americanized version of half-day sort-of-mandatory kindergarten (invented by a German guy), I desperately attempted to latch onto some logical reason why! I had involuntarily abandoned my fun, comfortable dwelling adequately equipped with toys, pets, a refrigerator filled with pop, a yard, a private toilet and fluffy terry-cloth towels to become part of a large group ordered about by a well-meaning but unflinchingly strict woman occasionally barking at us all morning long.

My progress report, mid-way through this anything but academic year, indicated: talking out of turn, yet shyness (?), and perceived obstinacy in the face of “socialization” attempts.  My courteous behavior in the presence of adults earned accolades. To this day, I disagree with personality/intelligence labeling by educators who push kids along contrived paths year after year all weighed down by imaginary sandwich boards advertising their assets and liabilities as if set in stone. “BEWARE THIS CHILD! Instructions for use, usefulness or uselessness attached!”

How I survived was attributable to both snack and nap times. Lugging individual throw-rugs from home, a room full of Linuses armed with security blankets pretended to snooze. Music wafted while we appeared to replicate fallen midget soldiers strewn about our battle field of a mercilessly hard unyielding linoleum floor. I scooched down tummy first. I repeatedly raised my legs from knees to toes high into the air, gradually lowering my lanky limbs, convinced that from this position I’d eventually slip feet first into an imaginary deep blue sea (lurking beneath my oval, braided rug.) Never happened, but I continued every day until summer vacation! 

Seven agonizingly, slowly progressing years later, I served as a “cadet teacher” alongside Judy Brallier, newly transferred from the Kosciusko School System.  Esteemed Principal Pence contributed his two cents toward our selection.  This prestigious honor translated into serving as junior high school aides to … beloved Mrs. Olive Sheehan.

Kindergarten – Part Two!
In all kinds of weather, “Miss Judy and Miss Susie” trudged to kindergarten classes as the green-plant fixated matriarch shifted to her new brick headquarters located beside Mr, Sharp’s band building.  OUR TASKS:  polishing leaves of those familiar rubber tree plants, frosting cookies, sorting jumbo crayolas, tying shoelaces, monitoring loose teeth, assisting with boots and leggings, decorating valentine depository boxes, scotch-taping paper shamrocks onto window panes, reading stories aloud, escorting paint-smocked children across the playground to Mr. Kind’s art room, and conducting miniature orchestras performing cacophonous rhythms with cymbals, wood blocks, and iron triangles struck by mallets.

Little did I realize that I would be so impacted by my experiences that someday I would attend a teachers’ college.  Under Mrs. Sheehan’s professional tutelage, I observed firsthand that patience, discipline, organizational skills, and regimentation assure  successful learning. On the sly, though, I vowed that should I assume the valiant role of educator, whether in a classroom or the world at large, I would avoid categorizing individuals and instead appreciate diversity. Additionally, I pledged that I’d neither cater to students whose parents might be self-important squeaky wheels possessing a sense of entitlement, nor, finally, would I polish leaves of rubber tree plants ever again!

Susie Duncan Sexton grew up in a very small town, Columbia City, Indiana. After graduating twelfth in her class at Ball State University (winning the first ever John R. Emensaward for "most outstanding senior"), she returned to her hometown where she has worked as a teacher, a publicist and a health lecturer. She currently writes two monthly columns "Secrets of an Old Type Writer" for a popular local blog Talk of the Town and "Homeward Angle" for daily newspaper The Post & Mail and has contributed to the literary journals, Moronic Ox, Poetic Resonance Imaging, and Writing Raw. You can find out more about Susie, read her columns and essays, and order her new book “Secrets of an Old Typewriter” at www.susieduncansexton.com