Hearing the James Blount song “In 1973” this morning prompted me to stop and think about what I was doing in 1973. I started fourth grade that year, and my memories of that year mostly involve fourth grade events. Mr. T. was our teacher. He was the first male teacher I had, and his reputation for strong discipline was legendary at Franklin Elementary. I was so scared of him for the first two months of school I was afraid to ask for permission to go pee. I didn’t get off to a great start with him, either. I lost my recess and had to write fifty sentences on the first day of school for failing to keep my mouth shut. It wasn’t really my fault. I swear. Our desks were grouped together, and my pencil rolled onto Larry O.’s desk. I retrieved it, but he swore it was his, and we proceeded to argue about it for the better part of social studies class. It was a brand new pencil with a Frito Bandito eraser, and I was not about to lose it. Larry was as stubborn as I was, and somewhere between Columbus’ voyage to America and the first Thanksgiving, we lost recess. It was one of many lost recesses. My elementary school report card is filled with comments like “out of seat too much” and “talks too much”. It’s no surprise I ended up with a career in journalism.
I eventually grew to like Mr. T.. He was an excellent teacher and was probably a little ahead of his time in the methods he used. Fourth grade was the year of the multiplication tables, and he rigged up this homemade gizmo that set off a buzzer when you guessed the right answer to each math equation. We used it for individual practice, and I thought I’d wear out the buzzer before I learned all of my twelves. He brought his pet boa constrictor to class, and he was always challenging us with some kind of riddle or trick question. He kept us on our toes, pushed us to learn and rewarded us at the end of the year with a Moon Pie and RC Cola party. There was no goofing off in his class, though. He ruled with the confidence of Castro and the sword of fear. Whenever someone got in trouble you felt sorry for the accused because no matter how guilty he was, the punishment would be harsh and swift. Of course, you were also secretly relieved that if someone was going to get caught, it wasn’t you. I vividly remember the day he grabbed Billy Z. by the hair for some infraction and shook his head like a dirty rug. Billy was stunned, and the rest of us were terrified. You could have heard a pin drop for the rest of the afternoon. Billy showed up the next day with a buzzed head. I was scared for his life but impressed with his defiance. On another day Mr. T. tied Greg R. to his seat with a jump rope for failing to stay seated and posted Laurie L.’s sentences on the wall for all of us to admire when she tried to race through that punishment with tiny scribbles just above the lines. She got another 1000 sentences assigned to her since the first 250 were so pretty, he said. Mr. T. made fourth grade worth showing up for class.
It was a year of slumber parties, usually at Lisa M.’s house. We rode horses there. Lisa’s mom went to beauty school that year and practiced on her kids. It was not unusual for Lisa to get on the school bus each morning with a new perm or frosted bangs. She had a puffy wash and set hairdo for picture day, and I made her mad by laughing at it. My weekends were filled with Nancy Drew and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Mood rings were popular and jean legs were bells, big bells with patchwork fabric sewn onto the bottom. My mother loved that trend because she could squeeze extra months of wear out of my pants. My best Christmas present that year was my first bra. It was a yellow elasticized number that was pretty but definitely unnecessary. All of us girls came back from Christmas vacation excited about our new bras. We talked about them endlessly and showed them to each other in the restroom. There was more flashing going on in that restroom than at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. We talked non stop about boys, too. That was the first year we really started to notice them. It was the year we noticed them noticing us.
It was a year of many changes for us. It was a good year, a fun year. We were oblivious to all of the Watergate, Vietnam, Cold War fallout swirling around us as we practiced our multiplication tables in rural, small town America. 1973 was a good year if you were nine years old at Franklin Elementary. Thanks James for reminding me of that.