I’ve always found it interesting to listen to my friends talk about their childhood memories because many of them have so many memories connected to people and places. I’ve often felt like the odd one out when we sit together and share our pasts because I can’t recall things like the names of my kindergarten and first grade teachers or the names of any of my friends before the age of seven, the names of any of the friends I had my junior or senior year of high school outside of that one girl in my youth group and the youth group leaders my senior year.
Yeah, that makes me feel weird.
But I do remember the day in second grade when I was in maybe my second or third week of Brownies and learned what poison ivy looked like and what it would do to me if I was to come in contact with it.
I remember that day because I thought those grownups were idiots.
How in the world could a plant do that?
I was sure it couldn’t. So I rallied together a few fellow rebels at the park on the day we were supposed to walk around and just “spy” this so-called malevolent vine and then draw a picture of it in our nature journal (ridiculous assignment, by the way), and instead convinced my compatriots to join me in an act of boldness that would surely prove the adults were feeding us a load of crap.
And rub that so-called poison…
ALL. OVER. OUR. BODIES.
We sure did.
Stupid grownups don’t have a clue.
Of course within a few hours I began to itch. A short time after, a rash began to appear. My left arm and my right leg were particularly bad, for some reason.
The next day, little blisters began to rise up, but what was particularly alarming was the swelling that began in both of those areas. It got so bad that I couldn’t bend my arm or my leg.
My mom flipped out, so upset that the Brownie leaders had us actually LOOKING for poison ivy.
“Why in the world would they have SEVEN YEAR OLDS searching for that stuff?!!”
I’m no fool.
In fact, I continued to be no fool until I was a grown up woman and even then made sure Mom was in a great mood before I told her the truth about that fateful day.
You guys, I ended up getting two rounds of steroid shots and missing two weeks of school over that little stunt.
But I definitely remember it.
And I’ve discovered that if a moment in my childhood and adolescence didn’t come with that kind of a punch, it just didn’t stick.
I guess when you’re busy trying to take care of the needs caused by your alcoholic father, you kind of don’t have a lot of room in your mind for remembering less important things like the name of your kindergarten teacher.
I do remember the name of my second grade teacher, though.
She actually wasn’t my FIRST second grade teacher.
She was my SECOND second grade teacher.
That was fun to say.
We moved back to my hometown of Jackson, Tennessee in October of my second grade year after living in Nashville for two years while my father tried his hand at store manager for JC Penney and then decided he wasn’t well-suited for the job, and somehow thought a traveling salesman was more his style.
I think what was actually more his style was a per diem, total anonymity on the road, and the freedom to sit and drink at any bar he wanted in each town he landed each night.
Anyhoo, back to second grade… moving back to Jackson was a good thing for us. Somehow we were able to buy a little house in a neighborhood with loads of kids, and we were back in town with family.
I started my new school with great anticipation.
But things got off to a rocky start.
Apparently, Mrs. Fesmire had a particular handwriting style she expected all of her students to have mastered by the time they came to her classroom (as second graders, mind you), and I did not have this style mastered. In fact, I didn’t know anything about this style because in Nashville, I learned a completely different handwriting style.
After a few days of instruction (you know, because most seven year olds have amazing dexterity and are able to pick up new handwriting techniques lightning fast), I had yet to reach her level of expectation and so she began to lose patience with me.
One day she began to stand at my side while I practiced, and when I made a mistake she slapped the back of my shoulder.
That was a surprise.
That went on for a few days, then she began to keep me in from recess and make me write sentences. And to add insult to injury, she stood over me slapping my arm or shoulder when I made mistakes.
Dolores Umbridge, anyone?
I’m not even kidding.
So this went on for a few weeks. I think I tolerated it for so long only because the kids in the class really rallied around me. I was the new kid, so it felt really good when they became so fiercely loyal and began to try to scheme with me ways I could get eventually get revenge.
I mean, really, those kinds of moments are some of my favorite childhood memories. How weird is that?
Not the teacher-slapping-me moments, to be clear. The kids-rallying-around-me-BECAUSE- the-teacher-was-slapping-me moments.
Important distinction to my neuroses.
But the day finally came when I’d had enough.
Fesmire had had enough, too, I guess, because that day, when I made my usual handwriting mistake, instead of slapping my arm or shoulder, she hit me on the back of the head.
I’m out of here.
The next day I decided I was sick.
And the next day.
And the next.
And my beautiful, savvier-than-she-let-on mother deduced that something was up.
We had a little chat. And the thing was, I trusted my mother. I knew she loved me desperately and wanted to take care of me, but I also had a pretty clear sense that my father sometimes stood in the way. And I also sensed that often she was drained of all that she had because he took it all from her, so she did her best, but her best didn’t always mean that I got what I needed.
But that day she stood up for me.
And I know this because I never remember another problem with Mrs. Fesmire.
We never talked about it. It’s just that I was never hit again.
It always kind of nagged at me that we never talked about it, though. I mean, granted, we had much bigger fish to fry. Still, it was a pretty big fish in my Fry Daddy. But I tucked it down deep with all the things as was my go-to coping style and occasionally told the story as an anecdote at a party that usually made people chuckle uncomfortably while I guffawed, not understanding what the discomfort was about.
Then, a few weeks ago, my brother and I set aside a day while he was visiting with the intention of finally going through boxes of Mom’s things that remained to be sorted since her funeral over a year ago. This was a daunting task, not because of the amount to go through (she had pared down her material things to a very few), but because we knew these particular boxes contained all the memorabilia that she had considered most important from her life – from our lives.
There are many posts to be written about what we found in those boxes, but what is pertinent to this post is this: My mom kept many of the things my brother made or wrote during his elementary school years. Meaningful things, to be sure, but many things. But she only kept one thing from mine.
She kept about a dozen samples of my second grade handwriting.
When I pulled those samples out of the box, my heart started beating fast, and I felt a rush of emotion that I feel washing over me even now as I write this.
She was 27-years old when she went to bat for me that day. A 27-year old young woman drowning awash as she faced life as a mother with two young children with little to no support from a deceiving, foolish, negligent husband (and this is being generous).
And what I thought was to her just something she “took care of” on the list of all the things that had to be taken care of that day was actually just as monumentally meaningful as it was to me.
It carried that all important punch… for both of us.
And it feels really good to know that now.