I made it through the 4th grade and our small, drafty house started to feel more like home. We began to get more settled into the rhythm between the 3 of us (me, Mom and John). Mom worked late, but would always leave us a note on the kitchen table if there was something she wanted us to do for supper. Sometimes it was putting potatoes in the oven so they would be ready by 5:30pm. In the summer, the list was a lot longer. She would leave us a note every morning with chores for the day. John and I always groaned when she wanted us to clean the refrigerator. It meant taking everything out and thawing out the freezer. Then wiping everything down and putting everything back. It usually took a couple of hours with both of us working on it. Otherwise the chores included sweeping, vacuuming, dusting, mopping the kitchen floor, cleaning the bathrooms, etc. Somehow she always found something for us to. She’d also leave instructions for what to have for lunch as well. A lot of times it included a box of macaroni and cheese or a sandwich. Mom did a good job working and still tended to our basic needs.
One summer morning I went out to check the mail, when a young girl zoomed up on a bicycle and came right up to me by the mailbox. I was a bit leery of people at this point, but she stopped her bike, which was obviously too big for her, and started talking to me as if it was the most natural thing to do.
“Hi!” she said cheerfully. “My name is Julie, what’s yours?”
“My name is Julie too!”
“Neat! What grade are you in?”
“I’ll be going into the 5th grade.”
“Me too! Do you know which teacher you’re going to have?”
“Miss Trapp.” (It was known throughout the school that she was the favorite 5th grade teacher, and I was relieved to be assigned to her.)
“Me too!” she said, her voice raising even higher.
“Where do you live?” I asked. I hadn’t seen her before, and I w
as hoping she lived nearby.
She described the route to her house, which was only 3 or 4 blocks away.
“That’s close!” I said.
“Yes!” She seemed as excited about meeting me as I was about meeting her.
“I’m going to go now. See you in school! Bye!”
“Bye!” I answered as she rode off as fast as she appeared. I would have loved it if she stayed longer, but it was a wonderful initial meeting. School would be starting in a couple of weeks, and in the last 3 minutes, my world suddenly felt as if it had just gotten a little brighter. I couldn’t wait to get to know this girl who had my same name. I was really looking forward to 5th grade.
The school system had designed a wonderful system for opportunities to play a musical instrument. If we had an interest in playing in band in the middle school, then in the 5th grade we were asked to test out different instruments to see what we were naturally inclined to play. Once I played through various instruments, I was given the option of flute or clarinet. I liked both of them and couldn’t decide on just one, so I asked my mom what I should pick. She encouraged me to play the flute. Her final selling point that won me over was that she played one in high school band and all the way through college, and said she could help me with it. So began my 12 years of flute study.
They rented the instruments to us at a reduced rate, and on Tuesday mornings, the flute players could get a free group lesson at 7AM. When the weather was warmer, I’d ride my bike, since it was a much faster and more pleasant way to get to school. (And felt less dangerous in my mind in regard to strangers!) For some reason, backpacks weren’t used back then, but we did have book bags. My mom sewed me one and when I rode my bike, I hung it on my handlebars. It threw the balance off, but I got used to the extra weight.
One fall day, I was riding my bike with my books and flute in my bag for the early 7:00AM lesson. The roads were quieter that early in the morning, and the air was brisk. It felt like I was running late, so I looked at my watch to check the time. I forgot about the extra weight, especially with the additional weight of the flute in the bag, and the handlebars whipped to one side spinning my bike out of control. I crashed in the middle of the road, with my chin sliding against the pavement. My old injury from a swing set incident was ripped open and I cried in agony. My biggest fear at the moment was that I was in the middle of the road and someone might run over me, but the street was empty. There was no one there. It was hard to move. My knees scraped, my body was banged up from the bike, but it was the chin that was hurting the most. I remember clearly the different levels of emotions I felt. I had the obvious physical pain, but I also had emotional pain - anger for the self-inflicted accident, chastising myself for forgetting to compensate for the weight, and sadness that I had to ride there on my own in the first place. Sadness, that there was no one there to help me. And then there was the relief that no one saw me make such a foolish mistake.
I picked myself up, slowly walked my bike to the bike rack and went to the flute lesson. The rest of the school wasn’t open yet, since it was so early. I was in so much pain, I could barely open my jaw. I was grateful the band instructor was there and I could ask him to take care of me. He could at least call my mom. Unfortunately, he saw me as an over-reactive little girl, looked at my chin, and said, “It’s only a little scratch, you’ll be fine.” I fought my tears, knowing that there wasn’t anything I could do to change his mind. He made me do the lesson, and with agony, I attempted to play a few notes, but could barely move my jaw. I knew he thought I was being a baby about it. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
At 7:30AM, I went to the school office, and told the secretary about my bike accident. She was sweet and empathetic, and immediately called my mom. I was so grateful she believed me. My mom picked me up and took me to the doctor. They considered stitches because of the tear, but due to the old injury, they decided a butterfly patch would hold things together better while it healed. I was so glad I didn’t have to go through stitches again. I had to wear that patch for several days, and when the band teacher saw me, he was visibly shocked, but didn't say anything to me. (Side note: Even as a 10-year old, I would have had more respect for him if he apologized, or at least said that he didn’t realize how bad it was.)
One of the best things that happened to me in the 5th grade (besides meeting Julie) was my 5th grade teacher, Miss Trapp. She was young, beautiful, loved children, and enjoyed teaching. She kind of reminded me of Mary Tyler Moore – the age she was in the Mary Tyler Moore show. She was kind, yet had boundaries that everyone respected. It was a joy being in her class. She would switch up the desks in different configurations, freshening up our perspectives and giving us opportunities to get to know each other. I never saw her treat anyone unfairly or show any favoritism.
My luck was different when it came to reading. We were assigned different teachers for reading, because they wanted to prepare us for changing classes and teachers like we would the next year in middle school. My reading teacher, Mr. Vnuk, was the least favorite of the 3 options. It’s hard to know what goes through people’s minds, and it’s impossible to know what they are going through. But for us, the kids, Mr. Vnuk had a short fuse and it was obvious he hated teaching.
In history, Miss Trapp taught us about the Constitution of the United States and petitions for amendments. We were given an assignment to write our own petition. She let us have special parchment paper that we could copy our final draft on, and said we could burn the edges to make it look aged. I was excited about the assignment. She encouraged us to write about something that we personally felt should be changed. I knew immediately what I was going to write about. I was going to make a positive change for this school. Mr. Vnuk was not only one of the 5th grade teachers, but he was also the playground supervisor; and I was going to petition that he be fired from the playground.
I’ll tell you how the school reacted to my assignment and why I felt it was an appropriate request in the next blog. The reaction to my petition was beyond anything I could have imagined. I had no idea I was about to experience the “real” world of politics at such a young age.