Think back over your years at school, over the good and bad. Then tell me about your favorite year in school. Why is it your favorite? Because it was the easiest? Or because it was the most fun? Tell me why you picked it, then don’t forget to give us the rest of the details. Just because it was an excellent year, doesn’t mean nothing bad happened, right? Did you break an arm the year you were voted Class Clown? Maybe failed Algebra the week before you started going steady the first time? As always, I want you to think, revel in your memories, and share every last detail with us. And have fun with it!
Easy. Third grade. Hands down. No contest. In third grade, I was in Mrs. Elliott’s class. The first day of school started off in a grand fashion. She had already made a seating chart for us. On each of the desks was a little slate made from black construction paper, popsicle sticks, and white paint. The slates had our names on them, along with the school year and Mrs. Elliott’s name. She also painted a little apple on each slate. I was so touched. No teacher had ever made anything like that for me. I’m sure making one for each student required a great deal of time. I kept it for years and years. Eventually, I told myself it was silly to keep it, and I threw it away. I’m so sorry I did that.
In third grade, I learned I was the best speller in my class. As a girl who always got picked last for athletic activities, it was a real boost to my self-confidence to be picked first for spelling bee teams each time. I earned my reputation when Mrs. Elliott asked me to spell “giraffe,” and I did it! The kids in my class were in awe. I missed one word on a spelling test the whole year. It was “receive.” I never spelled it wrong again. Mrs. Elliott used to call out the scores on our spelling tests. She would say, “Dana], minus zero,” as she gave me back my test. I will never forget the collective shock as the class recited with her one time: “Dana,” she began… “minus zero,” the class groaned the way kids groan at smart kids who blow the curve (not that Mrs. Elliott had a curve). She smiled and said, “Minus one.” The entire class gasped. My own jaw dropped.
In third grade, I also learned to write in cursive, to multiply, and to divide. I learned about the Living Desert and got to observe the Gila monster who lived in a terrarium in our classroom. I learned about rocks – sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic. When we were assigned to go out and collect rocks of different types, my friend Danny was the only one who knew what Mrs. Elliott meant when she said to find a rock with something growing on it. How could something grow on a rock? I wondered. So I learned about lichen.
I think it was in the third grade that I gained my deep appreciation for books. I certainly read a great deal before third grade, but it wasn’t until third grade that I discovered the joys of chapter books. Through Mrs. Elliott, I was introduced to the wonders of Superfudge, The Boxcar Children, and Shel Silvertein. I tried to check out Superfudge from our library for months after she read it to us. Everyone else in my class must have been trying to do the same thing. A few years ago when I saw a copy of The Boxcar Children in a store, I had to buy it. I remembered with perfect clarity how Mrs. Elliott read it to us, and how we cheered out loud as Henry was running the race. We were ecstatic when Henry won. Talk about getting kids involved in books.
The year wasn’t all moonlight and magnolias. My beloved cat Princess died that year. That was very hard. I’d never lost a pet before. She had feline leukemia. It was only about two days from her diagnosis to her death. She died on my grandmother’s couch. She let out a cry, seized up, and then went limp. And my dad cried. I don’t think I had ever seen him cry before. I cried for days. I visited her grave in my grandparents’ backyard for a long time.
On the plus side, I became friends with the best girlfriend I ever had while I was in the third grade. She’s rotten at keeping in touch, so we have lost each other over the years. But from third grade until eighth grade (when I moved), we were inseparable. We played lots of games together. She told me what I needed to do when I kissed a boy (years later), but didn’t offer to demonstrate on me, thank you very much. She taught me how to put on lipstick by holding the tube in my bra à la Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club (that too was years later). She is a very special person. I love her very much.
And lastly, one of the most important things that happened to me in the third grade is that I was encouraged to write. Mrs. Elliott wrote on my report card, “Please encourage Dana to write. She has a gift…” Those words are stamped on my heart. In the third grade, I was given a plastic stencil toy. I made up a book about a little bug named Herman who was balding and lived in a mushroom. I made the drawings with the stencil toy. I shared the book for show and tell. I tried to give it to Mrs. Elliott, but she could not accept it. She told me one day I would want to have it. I believe my grandmother has it, but I’m not really sure what ultimately happened to it.
Mrs. Elliott made me feel good about myself. She told me, in her indirect ways, that I was talented and smart. She was loving and nurturing. She was the best teacher I ever had.
Third grade was the grade when I showed my peers I had value. Second grade for me was hell on earth – I was teased mercilessly by my peers, my parents separated in a very nasty way, and it was my first year at a new school. But third grade… third grade was when I came into myself.
Mrs. Elliott, wherever you are, God bless you. I love you.