I went to kindergarten, first grade and half of second grade in Miami Florida at Coral Gables Elementary . I loved Florida. We moved there from Chicago, and we had a small boat and went to the beach a lot. I was thin and tan, and my hair was bleached blonde by the sun. I didn’t like school too much – it was big and I felt lost there. I used to run out into the garden and climb in the locquat tree in my pyjamas to try to avoid going. It was a public school but very regimented and with a strict dress code (skirts and pants suits for girls, trousers for boys, only certain colors).
My first grade teacher made me write numbers over and over again – trying to improve my penmanship by making me do more. It made it worse – I just wanted to go faster to get over the hated task. I had to do it again and again. I never got better at it. She also would hold the girls in class by ourselves before recess sometimes, ask us to raise our hands over our heads and do a ‘skirt check’ to see if the length of our skirts were too short. Our recess was spent doing calesthetics guided by a teacher. We did not play freely with each other. Our lunches were also done in organized fashion, and we had to bring our trays up to our teacher for permission to leave the table. I refused to eat my brussel sprouts. I was forced to eat them before I could leave the table. I did and promptly vomited them back up. I wasn’t forced to eat them after that. But our reading levels were high and I was in the highest reading group.
I went to the half of second grade in Lansing Michigan at Delta Mills Elementary (which I detested and which no longer exists today – it closed in 1982). The school contrasted with Coral Gables by having no dress code, and no discipline at all. I was bored there. Reading was not divided and I wanted to scream waiting for each student to poorly read aloud something I’d finished in the first 5 minutes. I was happy to leave that mess.
I spent the rest of my youth starting from 3rd grade in and around Ada Michigan, best known for the pyramid sales scam of Amway Corp. In fact Richard DeVos (son of Richard DeVos) was my spelling partner in 5th grade at Ada Elementary School before he was pulled out of school due to kidnapping threats. Our family lived in the part of this map called F-6, towards the more rural, poorer end of the township. Or should I say, middle class area – many of the people I went to school with had tennis courts and horse stables and giant ‘country estates’ more than houses.
In school, I quickly found that I was teased incessantly for having to wear an eye patch for a year (to this day I use only 1 eye to see), wearing glasses, and for being ‘ugly’ (since that area of Michigan is full of Dutch Christian Reformed escapees from Holland, and my looks did not conform to their ideals of snub-nosed blue-eyed blondes). I was even called ‘Chinese’ and ‘Flat face’ due to the way my eyes looked (I come from a Slovene/Polish background). I had girls tell me I was invited to their party and when I accepted, tell me they were joking and would never invite me to their birthday, and laugh at my reaction (which was not to cry but to look really confused, like – why would you bother saying this to me then?).
I spent 3rd grade playing with what are now termed ‘developmentally disabled’ students. To me, they were accepting of me, and I could help them out. They didn’t tease me, and in fact were somewhat interesting to observe.
When Richard Nixon was running against McGovern, they had a mock election in my class. We were in I think 3rd grade, so this was really a reflection of what our parents thought – not our own political knowledge or opinions. It was done anonymously. At the end when the votes were counted only one person had voted for McGovern. It should have been me, but I’d opted out and voted for Nixon because I didn’t want to be picked on. When the results were in, everyone turned to me and pointed saying it must have been me voting for McGovern. So it didn’t matter – I would be seen as the outsider no matter what. Step one of me realizing I would not fit in even by trying, and that it would be better to just stick to my beliefs instead. Then there would have been 2 votes for McGovern…..
Given that I could beat up nearly every boy in my class, could pick up the heaviest girl in our class and walk around with her piggyback (Sue Standard, poor girl was also teased mercilessly) and that I ran and ran and ran in the countryside around my house I was very annoyed when in school teachers would ask only for ‘strong boys’ to help move desks or other physical ‘helper’ tasks during class. I wanted to do that sort of thing and help too – but I had to sit there. I was a girl and assumed to be weak. This was getting annoying.
For awhile in 4th and 5th grade I had the nickname of ‘horse’ by my classmates because essentially to escape the teasing, myself and two girlfriends who were a grade below me would play ‘horses’ out in the empty field, far from the other kids playing on swings, slides and the like. It also was a way to play a male role, rather than a traditional female one, even though it was that of an animal.
Sometimes we rounded up other girls from their grade in our ‘herd’ and made them run around with us, herding them, biting and kicking at them, and acting as the lead stallions. Kind of interesting. But we didn’t really speak to them as equals or friends – and it was a type of bullying. The other thing we did to act out was to get destructive. I beat up nearly every boy in my class, and we would also stand in ‘stalls’ in the old railroad caboose that was in our playground and repeatedly kick against the boards in the car, in fact breaking them – obviously we were frustrated and angry little girls, all of us.
Gwynne later moved away, and became a ‘born again’ Christian. But for a time we were pen pals. I am not sure what happened to my other pal, as she was in the year below me and we lost touch. I ran into her once again in high school and we briefly recounted our days as ‘lead stallions’ and had a laugh. It was slightly embarassing. At that time, I read nearly every ‘Black Stallion’ book, and any other book about horses that was in the school library. Gwynne had a real horse named Babe, though she was not very expert at riding her.
I briefly took some riding lessons from an instructor out at her place, though I don’t remember the whole story. After Gwynne moved away the horse herding died out, and the only thing I would play on in the playground was the monkey bars. I got very strong arms from this, and established a record in the girls version of pull-ups for our elementary school, which was called the ‘flexed arm hang’. That year (6th grade) we were told of some new award – the Presidents Physical Fitness badge, and I far and away acheived that goal and got my badge. None of this, however, helped in the popularity department (the slightly anti-social playground behavior was probably fairly off-putting).
Another memory I have of this school is a teacher in 5th grade (who was a pastor on Sundays at the Dutch Christian Reformed church) telling us that he could accept other religions, but he could not understand how it was possible for someone to not believe in God and he was very derisive of anyone who could not accept a God and in fact Jesus as lord (so much for Jews in my class if there were any). Our family didn’t go to church unless my grandmother came to town, and the concept of God was something I did not believe in as an all powerful entity. I’d read the Bible a lot and thought it was interesting, but really contradictory and seemed to be written by a whole lot of people with varying opinions and quite a lot of it seemed anti-woman. I didn’t see how it could be written by people inspired from receiving ‘one god’s word’ directly. I had read about other religions like Buddism, and that seemed very interesting. I had looked up the word ‘agnostic’ and it seemed to fit my state of mind. His opinion left me feeling very outside of the rest of the class who seemed to nod in agreement.