Does anyone remember the return to their classroom on the first day of school following the summer hiatus, a return to the unwilling pursuit of an education under the tutelage of teachers toiling at the elementary level? On that first day at my beloved school, every child in every grade (first through sixth) was privileged—nay, ordered—to stand in front of the blackboard, facing the class and disclose some or all of whatever they did on their summer vacation.
Some of my classmates stood stiffly throughout the delivery with arms held rigidly at their side. Others stood with hands in pockets or clasped behind their back, and in some limited cases, especially for the boys but occasionally for one of the girls, with hands covering their crotch, concealing that area of their anatomy. Whether that pose was an effort to divert from, or perhaps attract attention to that area, the “hands covering crotch” was limited by the teacher to a very few seconds, with the remonstration being made before the speech began and sometimes repeated during the presentation.
The title to each speech—the preamble, so to speak—was given rote and was identical for each student except for the name. My speech to my classmates began with this:
What I Did On My Summer Vacation, by (fill in first and last name)—as if the rest of the class didn’t know my name!
Everything that followed that ominous start was extemporaneous, a wandering recitation filled with numerous ands, uhs, thens, wells, ain’ts, mispronounced words, poor sentence constructions, conflicting subjects and objects, misuse of adverbs, long looks at one’s feet and even longer (and longing) stares through the classroom windows to the outside world.
Most errors were caught by the teacher, with the resultant corrections and reprimands. If anyone wonders how we got through the first day, just remember that we didn’t change classes during the day—our heinies were glued to our seats all day—we had more than enough time to finish.
A few of our What I Did speeches were mercifully terminated early by the teacher. A classic example of such action was the speech to which we all looked forward, that of a classmate known only by the initials W. A. It isn’t that I’ve forgotten his last name. I remember it well, but I must admit that, for some odd reason, I remember more names of girls than names of boys among my fellow students in elementary school—in fact, I am hard put to remember both given name and surname of any boy from those years (none other than W.A., of course).
W.A.—the boy and his name—is prominent in my memories of elementary school. A unique and very special person, I treasure his memory and could never forget him.
W.A. stuttered—not a slow, drawling stutter one would expect from a Mississippi stutterer but a staccato stutterer, a rapid-fire stutterer, one that soon had the entire class in tears, howling with laughter while our teacher faced away from the class with her gaze apparently fixed on something interesting outside the building.
Although she made no sounds while gazing, W.A.’s speech was apparently so effective that it made her tremble with pleasure—in fact it affected her composure so strongly that she invariably terminated his speech well before he finished. When she told him “That was very good, W.A., thank you,” W.A. always returned her thank you with his own, obviously heartfelt thank you, although it took awhile to return it. Once he got past the tee in thank, the you followed quickly and W.A. could then return to his seat.
We had ample opportunities to develop and perfect thespian skills in our elementary grades. In addition to individual performances in various holiday presentations such as Easter, Halloween, Independence Day and Christmas, we also appeared onstage as a group in the school auditorium, an area that daily doubled as our lunchroom. Each class went onstage en masse, and each student performed—each had a speech to give, a poem to recite, a song to sing, a story to tell, etc.
On a memorable day, perhaps the most memorable in the history of our school, the third grade students’ presentations began with a song by W.A., a heart-wrenching story about a missing cat, one that was last seen running over hill and dale with a dog named Bowser in hot pursuit. Here is the first line of the song, a line that was repeated several times in the song’s chorus:
Has anybody seen my kitty, has anybody seen my cat?
Note the letters b, d, k and c (k sound) in the line—it should not be necessary for me to describe how difficult it was for W.A. to sing that song, but I will attempt to describe the audience’s reaction to the song, a reaction that included faculty, lunchroom employees, visiting friends and relatives and every enrolled student that was fortunate enough to have attended school on that day, including W.A.’s fellow classmates.
The laughter was thunderous, but the applause was even more thunderous, a standing ovation that began just before the conclusion of the song. And for those that may be disposed to criticize the reactions of the audience, we should remember that in those days, particularly in my part of the country, very few things were politically incorrect—actually, neither were there many things that were politically correct.
In order to wrap up this posting, I urge the viewer to understand that W.A. was, without question, one of the most popular students in our school. We mocked him but we also imitated him, not to belittle but to share with him even a small portion of the laughs he garnered and the popularity he enjoyed—because of W.A. every kid in school could qualify as a stand-up comedian. And most important, W.A. was frequently surrounded by a bevy of cute girls. That’s a neat thing, regardless of their motives—like, who cares why?
I can never know whether he enjoyed his popularity or hated it, but in retrospect I suspect that W.A. tended to prolong his stuttering and perhaps even embellished and enhanced it—but I could be wrong.
W.A., if you happen to read this and you enjoyed your popularity, I’m happy for you. If you hated it, please accept my abject and heartfelt apologies. And if you are enrolled and performing in that brightly shining elementary school in the sky I say,
BREAK A LEG!
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.