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Thursday, May 29, 2008
School days: An autobiography

I WAS WHAT EDUCATION PROFESSIONALS call a "challenging student." As an illustration, I have one especially distinct memory from my youth: Mrs. Ferguson, the owner and operator of Mrs. Ferguson’s Kindergarten, picking me up by my shirt collar, stuffing her face right into mine, saying: "Don't ever do that again!" 

Upon several decades of reflection, many in the educational system -- including some time as a teacher myself -- it is now my view that Mrs. Ferguson should have done exactly what she did. This was an exemplary case of "hands-on learning." What Mrs. Ferguson was doing, by re-enacting what she had seen me do to a fellow student, which was re-enacting what I had seen the Lone Ranger do to a bad guy on our black and white television set, was help me develop understanding.

I understood -- don’t do stuff like that -- at least not while Mrs. Ferguson was watching. Her lesson probably kept me out of a lot of trouble in elementary school -- though not nearly enough, I’m certain, for my parents’ satisfaction. (I have three brothers and two sisters, and I am pretty sure that I spent more time in detention, in suspension or sitting in the principal’s office than the other five did combined -- if we don't count my brother Bobby's stint in summer school at the lovely Hargrave Military Academy.)

I cannot claim that "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." (In fact, I have considered titling the autobiography of my pre-school years "I Didn't Learn Nothin' in Kindiegarden.") The fact is I did learn quite a lot, just very little at the time. Quick on my feet, quick with my tongue, I have always been quite a slow learner.

One particular day when I may have learned more than in any single day of my life was in the fall of 1957, the first day of first grade at Forest Hills Elementary in Danville, Virginia.

A true school learning experience came early on that day. Before the first recess of the morning, our teacher, Mrs. Ragland, had set the tone for the year. Due to talking out of turn, or some other egregious sin, David Cross would have to stay inside while the rest of us went out to play. Now, David was the sort of boy who desperately wanted to do nothing more than please his parents, be on the good side of his friends and do just what the teacher asked of him.

Once, many years later, one of my classmates from that year, Truxton Fulton, reminded me of what kind of child David was. When the teacher was looking for volunteers, David would use his left hand to hold up his right arm so he could wave higher and longer than anyone else -- that is, so he could please, please, please be the volunteer for whatever task it was.

After about 15 or 20 minutes of recess, I got the assignment of going inside to get David to bring him out. I guess Mrs. Ragland thought that was some sort of reprieve. I don't know why I got the assignment. Doubt I volunteered. When I got to the classroom, David had his head on the desk and he was crying. Made me mad. I don't know what I said to him, though I think it was something on the lines of "It'll be alright. She's stupid anyway." I don't know exactly what I thought except that I didn't like a person who would do that to someone like David.

But I do know what I did. At the end of the day, as we lined up to "be dismissed," I was whistling. Not very well, I'm sure, because I can't to this day. Mrs. Ragland said, "Whoever is whistling, please stop." So, I did -- for a moment. Then Mrs. Ragland said again, loudly, "Whoever is whistling, stop!" So, I did -- for a moment. Third time or so she figured out it was me. I was caught! Oh, no! My punishment: I had to stay in after school -- on the first day of school.

Know what I didn't do? Put my head on my desk and cry. Know what I did learn? I don't know either -- but I don’t think it was whatever Mrs. Ragland was trying to teach.


Gary D. Gaddy, a frequent visitor to Mr. Gordon's office, was only suspended once for just a couple of days during his six challenging years at Forest Hills Elementary School.

A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Thursday May 29, 2008.

Copyright  2008  Gary D. Gaddy

Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 8:24 AM EDT
Updated: Wednesday, May 28, 2008 6:31 PM EDT
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