Monday, October 16, 2017

“Grade One Begins or the Inauspicious Start of my Educational Career,” by Anne Burlakoff

I'm not very sentimental, and not one for keepsakes, mementoes and pictures. But there's a crescent-shaped scar on the first knuckle of my right hand that never fails to remind me of some events that occurred when I was a child growing up in a hamlet called Strabane.

My family lived on a country road with a few neighbours but no one nearby of my age. As number four of seven children, I was the stereotypical neglected middle child. My father was at work in Hamilton every day. All of the big kids (my older brother and two sisters) went to school while the little kids (my younger brother and two sisters) were at home taking up my mother's time and energy. As a result, I was left to my own devices much of the time. 

I tried to help my mother by pulling weeds out of her vegetable garden but to my eyes all the plants looked the same, and she was not pleased. I brought her a bouquet of wildflowers from the field but it turned out we both had hay fever. I went to catch pollywogs in the creek but fell in, appearing at the back door in clothes so muddy I had to be hosed off before I was allowed to enter the house. Feeling unwanted and unloved, I tried to run away from home, but couldn't get past the end of our driveway because I wasn't allowed to cross the road by myself.

Too young to go to school and too old to play with the babies, always either underfoot or ignored: by the age of five I was in need of a big change in my life. I needed something important and useful to do. I needed to go to school.

Strabane Public School was about fifteen minutes' walk from our house down Brock Road. Built around 1930, it was originally a one-room red brick schoolhouse. At some point two new classrooms had been added, no doubt to accommodate some of the 1950s population explosion known as the baby boom. Grades one to eight were divided among the three rooms, each room with one teacher for two or three grades. There was neither the space nor the money to offer kindergarten. As a result, my siblings and I began school in grade one.

I turned six in June and finally, after a very long summer, the big day came. My mother braided my hair in pigtails and dressed me in leotards, a starched white blouse and a plaid skirt.

 I had a reputation as a puker in situations of stress or excitement, so my sister Beth, under strict orders to make sure I arrived clean, fulfilled her obligation by marching me down the road at arm's length so I couldn't throw up on her new shoes.

When the bell rang we formed two lines at the door, girls on the right and boys on the left. Grade ones were at the front, with grade twos behind us and so on. The sevens and eights had their own entrance on the other side of the school. 

My sister Susan shared a classroom and a teacher with me but she was in grade three, sitting on the far left of the room and pretending not to know me. We were instructed to sit in alphabetical order, so I was second from the back. 

Unbeknownst to everyone, including me, my eyesight was quite poor, so everything written on the chalkboard or at the front of the room looked fuzzy. We were given thick red pencils which my little fingers found quite difficult to hold. The boy behind me used his to poke me in the back repeatedly. I soon learned that yelling out in class was a bad idea.

For the first month or two, the grade ones were only expected to attend school until lunchtime, so at noon my first school day was over. During the summer I had received strict instruction on how to walk properly on a country road with no sidewalks: always face the traffic, walk on the shoulder when vehicles approach, look directly at the driver. I was now allowed to cross the road by myself and had practiced with my siblings, but this was the first time I was to walk home alone.

I got halfway there before I ran into a problem. The Ormerods' flock of geese, usually to be found swimming about in their pond, had meandered onto the road and were spread across the bridge, blocking my path. These were big Greylag geese, well known to be aggressive. The gander, at least as tall as me, sensed my fear and immediately turned in my direction. I backed up a few steps and he took a run at me, flapping his wings and hissing loudly. I turned and ran, stopping a short distance up the road.

I waited and waited, hoping in vain that the geese might forget about me and waddle off home, or that a car might come along and force them to scatter. No such luck.

Eventually I walked back to school. When I appeared in the doorway, my teacher immediately summoned one of my older sisters to take me home. Naturally, by the time we got back to the bridge the geese were gone.

Several days later I was again headed for home, skipping along and singing to myself. As I passed the Walkers' house I saw their little black dog lurking behind the lilac bushes on the front lawn. I had been warned a dozen times that dogs will chase you if you run, but I couldn't help myself. He shot out, caught up with me and clamped his jaws around my calf. 

I fell on the gravel shoulder of the road and scraped both my knees. Thrusting out my arms in an attempt to break my fall, my right hand met the curved bottom of a broken Coca-Cola bottle which sliced upward into the knuckle of my first finger. The dog, having completed his mission, skulked back behind the bushes to await his next victim. I got up and limped home, bloodied and bruised.

This second incident was too much for my mother. She decreed that henceforth I should stay at school all day so I could be accompanied by at least one of my siblings on the walk home. Since I was the only child in grade one in the afternoons, the teacher moved me up to the front and I happily read books the rest of the day while listening to the lessons taught to the other grades.

There is still a very faint scar on my left calf from the dog bite, visible if I look hard enough. I rarely notice the one on my knuckle anymore. I still have six brothers and sisters, now spread around the world. The geese and the dog are long gone, but the lilacs and the pond remain. Strabane School still stands, but was sold by the school board and became someone's house at least twenty years ago. All of this reminds me that I, too, am different yet still the same, at heart the little girl in pigtails skipping up the road with one eye out for danger but still stopping to listen to the frogs.

Anne Burlakoff is not of Green Gables but fantasized that she was for a number of her childhood years. She currently lives in Dundas, Ontario, and is working her way through Brian Henry’s classes one by one.”

See Brian Henry’s schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Algonquin Park, Bolton, Barrie, Brampton, Burlington, Caledon, Georgetown, Guelph, Hamilton, Ingersoll, Kingston, Kitchener, London, Midland, Mississauga, Oakville, Ottawa, Peterborough, St. Catharines, St. John, NB, Sudbury, Thessalon, Toronto, Windsor, Woodstock, Halton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Muskoka, Peel, Simcoe, York Region, the GTA, Ontario and beyond. 

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