In sixth grade I had a teacher that I think may have been senile – or, on her way, anyway. I have no idea how old she really was, but to an eleven-year old, she looked ancient. I remember brown hair, so maybe she wasn’t so old as I thought, but she always seemed to be missing something – focus, or sharpness, alertness. She was off in outer space all the time. She wore glasses with really large frames, had a short haircut that was obviously permed – no way curls would look so tight and fuzzy on the top of someone’s head, yet the hair at the nape of the neck so straight. She had a hunch in her shoulders which may be part of the reason I remember her as old – she was a tall woman, though, so maybe she just carried herself that way to look less imposing.
She was a fan of Carly Simon – she used to hum or sing You’re so Vain under her breath all the time. Then she would laugh at how clever she thought the song was, and try to explain it to us in detail. None of us knew the song, and although we could understand the concept of the term “vain,” it wasn’t really a vocabulary term that we heard used in real life. We just thought she was crazy, but to this day, I cannot hear that song without thinking of my sixth grade teacher. I can’t for the life of me remember her name, but I can hear her voice… ”You’re so vain. You probably think this song is about you. You’re so vain. I bet you think this song is about you… don’t you… don’t you…”
She read to us after lunch every day, and though that reading time was meant to be fairly short – maybe 15 or 20 minutes, she often got so engrossed in the book that she’d kill an hour or even more. No one ever stopped her. The only book I remember her reading was The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, and that may be because I had read it already and begged her to read it to the class. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ll think it was a cheesy story, but the book is actually quite good – especially for kids in late grade school.
Our crazy teacher didn’t make us sit with our desks in straight rows facing the front of the room. We got to split off into groups of four and arrange our desks in little pods in random places throughout the classroom. I’m not sure it was the best idea to let us all sit in groups like this – we did spend tons more time whispering to each other and ignoring what the teacher was saying. In fact, many of my memories of that year don’t even feature her. It’s as though she wasn’t even in the room.
Of course, we got to choose a name for our group and hang a sign from the ceiling above our little cluster of desks. Not surprisingly, most of our group names were tied to whatever music we were into at the time. I remember a Motley Crew group, and my group was The Jackson Four. Thriller had been out almost two years, but we were still fanatical about that album. I only wish MJ had made a dozen more albums like Off the Wall and Thriller.
In sixth grade, I was a bored student. There wasn’t anything about school that challenged me. I talked to my teacher about it once, but she had few ideas about how to challenge me, and my small rural school didn’t have the funds for any kind of advanced kids. In the end, she told me I could work ahead of the class in math if I wanted to – at my own pace. That seemed cool. I finished the entire year’s worth of assignments in about a month. The rest of the year, when other kids were doing math, I got to read. So, while in some ways, I didn’t get challenged in terms of the difficulty of the work I was doing, I did get hours and hours of additional reading time in, which I’m grateful for.
I remember that we had salamanders as pets in the classroom. We kept two or three of them in a glass aquarium and fed them crickets, kept their water fresh in a shallow dish, and cleaned the cage regularly. Until they disappeared. Seems someone left the lid off of the cage and they found their way out – or maybe someone took them out to let them walk around and they got lost – either way, we were stuck with an empty cage for the rest of the year. At the very end of the year, we all chipped in to help clean up the classroom – organizing bookshelves, taking down our super cool signs hanging from the ceiling, sweeping up in hard to reach corners. That’s when we found the salamanders – very dead, very dried up. They had found their way behind a bookshelf and that was that.