Last year I was in the first grade and I get to do it again! Mrs. Mitchell likes me so much, she asked me back again this year. I have a way with people. I love the first grade.
8:30 – Give a high-five to the crosswalk lady, great Mrs. Mitchel with a hug, flirt with Abigail.
9:00 – The Pledge of Allegiance (I get to lead it today, which is for the best. When the other kids lead, they are monotone and uninspired. When I lead the pledge…well…)
“Please stand”. (I wait and check to make sure everyone has placed their hands over their hearts before I begin) (With dignity) “I pledge allegiance to the flag of” (Punch next part) “The United States of America”. (Increase the urgency) “And to the republic for which stands”. (Increase my dynamics) “One nation under God”. (Beat- then try to cry) “With liberty and justice” (beat, let it sink in…) “for” (Lift both hands to the audience) “all”. (I bow and wait for applause). “Thank you, you may be seated. Mrs. Mitchell, the class is yours”.
9:15 – A volunteer to feed Oliver The Third, our class goldfish. (I raise my hand first)
10:00 – Lewis and Clark and The Great Frontier (I tell the class about my dad’s friend who was in prison and now lives in a Teepee)
Snack – (I help Mrs. Mitchell collect her papers then I eat my Banana)
11:00 – Jane has 4 cookies. Jane gives 1 cookie to Sam. How many cookies does Jane have left? (“Three”, nailed it)
12:00 – Lunch recess. (In my Charlie Brown lunch box is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and baby carrots. I hit the monkey bars and swings)
1:00 – Sitting on the rainbow mat. (Mrs. Mitchell puts on a record, The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, a story we follow along as Mrs. Mitchell holds up the book and turns the pages. I listen, sitting Indian style, with my hands in my lap, smiling)
Then it all falls apart, every day, same as last year.
1:30 – “A” next to a red apple, “B” by a bird, “C” by a cat, and this continues across the wall, above the chalkboard, like railroad tracks to nowhere.
Reading is overrated.
I have never seen Will Robinson reading while Lost in Space or Arnold from Diff’rent Strokes or Daisy Duke read. THIS is my destiny- a cute orphan in hot pants exploring the galaxy, in my own TV show. I just need a theme song and a catch phrase.
I take out my pencil and writing book. The writing book has thick grey paper with lines and dashes, to illustrate where the letters go. I practice writing my name. This I can do, I have to. Someday I’ll be writing my name over and over on shiny pictures of my face, for my fans: S-h-a-y B-r-a-n-d-o-n B-u-r-k-e.
My first signed picture will go to Mrs. Mitchell. She has earrings that match the holidays and arms like bread dough. Once, when I was sad, she gave me a big, long hug; I could feel her belly pressed against my head, like a welcoming, warm, oversized beanbag.
Mrs. Mitchell gives us two assignments; the first is to write rhyming words. When Mrs. Mitchell calls on me, I haven’t written any rhyming words; I’ve drawn a pig on my lined paper that I wanted to be a turtle, so I improv- “Shay, ray, stay, play”. Mrs. Mitchell praises me, then tells me to rhyme with one of the words written on the chalkboard.
“Which one?”, I ask
“Any of them.” She waits.
“(Beat) Mrs. Mitchell, I really like your Easter Egg earrings.”
“Thank you, Shay, now can you give me a rhyming word for bag?”,
“Tag, sag, rag, f…, beanbag.”
Next, we are to read from page 8 of our 1st Grade Reader. Mrs. Mitchell gives us a blank paper, to draw a picture illustrating what happens in the story. I look at the story; it’s short and should be easy. I read to myself, words, words, words, words, words, words. I recognize some Js and Ls and Cs and other letters scattered around the page. I start drawing my picture. Maybe my theme song should be like The Brady Bunch. Here’s a story, of a Shay Shay Shay Shay, who was living with Shay Shay ray stay and play”. It’s my turn to share my picture about the story in our book. All the others taped on the wall have a similar theme, a boy and a girl on a green hill. There is also a bucket turned sideways. In John’s picture the boy looks dead, with red crayon coming out of his head and Xs on his eyes. Abigail drew a boy and girl with a sad face. She wrote the letters J-A-C-K above the boy and J-I-L-L above the girl. There is blue crayon coming out of the bucket. Their pictures aren’t great, but Mrs. Mitchell tells them they are. My picture is of a purple spider, but I wanted it to be a crab.
“Shay, did you read the story?”
“You drew a picture of an Octopus.”
I look down at the story again, trying to absorb it. “…did you know the Easter Bunny isn’t real? Jesus is, and He died for our sins.”
This is the same most days. School is fun until after lunch, then it’s not, except for Wednesdays, when the fancy people come.
The fancy lady has red hair, big lips and a skirt that twirls. She looks like one of the ladies on the cover of my Uncle Mike’s magazines. The fancy man has yellow hair, a billowy shirt and a brooch. If he had a crown, he’d look like the picture next to “Q”, for queen. They are the fancy-dancing-couple who show up on Wednesdays to rehears with us for the Cinco De Mayo Festival. The fancy lady and the fancy man stomp twice, turn, then clap twice. She- head held high and pouting. He- smirking with an eyebrow arched. They have my full attention. I love them.
They teach us to stomp La Cucaracha. Abigail and I are the best, so the fancy couple put us in the front row. I stomp, with my hands clasped behind my back. I look at Abigail and try to raise an eyebrow and look severe, like the fancy man, but I can’t help but smile; It’s so much fun. We turn in opposite directions, then stomp and clap, twice. I think I love Abigail; I think I want to be a fancy man. I know I love to stomp the cockroach. “La cucarcha, la cucaracha… Dinero para gastar”
2:30 – Parent meeting
My mom sits in a chair built for smaller legs. It’s odd to see her like this, not because the chair is small, but, because I’ve never seen my mom sit without laundry to fold. Mrs. Mitchell gives me a booklet and tells me to go to the back and trace my letters.
“He’s not lazy,” Mrs. Mitchell tells my mom, “Shay is a joy to have in class. He participates, makes friends easily and is always willing to help. I thought he just needed another year to mature and catch up. He has a highly active imagination but still tends to get distracted and not finish his work.”
“I’m not sure what you mean” my mom replies.
Mrs. Mitchell and my mom look over at me.
I’m by the fish tank. I’ve got a small American flag in my hand, a Dracula cape around my waist and my schoolwork in front of me like sheet music. “It’s an honor just to be nominated, now join me in singing He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
I smile at Oliver The Fourth,I can tell he is a fan.
Mrs. Mitchell looks back at my mom, swinging her shamrock earrings.
My mom looks at Mrs. Mitchell, rolling her eyes.
My mom believes in work. She never spoke much about her time on the farm, except mentioning once, that, on her way home from school she would dig up a raw potato, wash it in the creek, and have a snack.
I like to imagine her as Laura from Little House on the Prairie. But Laura spent too much time narrating; Laura could never dig up a fully grown oak tree, carry it on her back, while feeding a baby and stirring a pot of beans. My mom doesn’t waste time talking about her life. Writing a memoir about her childhood, trying to make the obstacles she’s overcome clever or interesting would be self-indulgent.
My mom doesn’t indulge, I don’t think my mom daydreams; I don’t even think she sleeps. She does think there is a solution for everything. The solution is, stop complaining, stop talking and do what needs to be done, this includes: setting broken bones, putting down a sick dog, dealing with marital issues and raising children. If any of these are completed without a little dirt and blood under your nails, then you probably didn’t do it right.
Her callused hands, as strong as her work ethic, turn the pages as I follow the adventure of a determined little train. She points at a word. The word doesn’t interest me, but the red-brown fingerprint she leaves on the page does.
My Uncle Carl thinks repeating first grade, was “Buuuuuullshit. We-ell… hell! He’ll figure it out on his owns. My daddy never didn’t learnt to read and write.”
Everyone assumes I’ll catch on sooner or later. I think I can, I think I can. I think I can – until I do there are goldfish to entertain, pledges to pronounce and cucarachas to stomp.
Not only am I popular in class, but everyone is interested in my accent. It’s not like Uncle Carl’s, or Daisy Duke’s or anybody else in my family, TV or class: “A” a-apple, “D” d-duck, “S” th-thnake.
My accthent thoundth adorable to motht adultth but ithz fruthrating the hell out of my mom. I talk rapidly, loudly, and often. I talk to the mailman; I talk to the dogs. I talk to the homeless lady; I talk to my reflection in a shop window. I talk to old women in wheelchairs and strangers sitting on toilets; sometimes I’m sitting, talking through the bathroom door jamb, other times I’m peeking through the door jamb and talking- while someone is sitting.
When you are good at something, you should do it often and proudly. I believe you should share your gifts with the world. I’m not aware of how I sound, but I am aware it brings a smile to the faces of people I chat with. Ignorance might lead to awkward situations at a cocktail party or a swinger’s night, but I’m seven. One of the joys of being seven is not being self-aware.
Adam and Eve were ignorant and lived in paradise, before they took a bite of the aaaple, presented by the thtthhnake. The apple made them self-aware and embarrassed of their nakedness. I’m often naked and ignorant. It is bliss.
My bliss came in jeopardy when I met Ms. Thomas.
Instead of practicing for the Cinco De Mayo festival on Wednesdays, I am sent to the library, with a lady who smells of Listerine and exasperation (Two words I still have trouble spelling but can now pronounce perfectly when sober). I am sent to Ms. Thomas so; the truth can be revealed to me. The truth is, I’m saying my own name wrong.
Me – Thay Brandon Burke
Her – Did you say your name is “Thay” or “Shay?”
Me – Thay
Her – Shay
Me – Thay
Her – Shay
Me – Thththththay
Her – Shshshshhay
Me – (Pause) Do you want to thee my danth? (singing and dancing) “La cucarcha, la cucaracha… Dinero para gathtar!!!” (bow and wait for applause)
Her – (Pause, arms crossed) Gassssstar
Mrs. Thomas is not a fan.
At seven, I think of my diction the same way I would later execute my singing. It doesn’t matter if it’s perfect, as long as it’s loud. I sing as loud as I can at the Cinco De Mayo Festival with the rest of the school. I don’t dance La Cucaracha. While Abigail and the fancy people were perfecting their stomping on Wednesday afternoons, I was listening to Ms. Thomas pound out- “Shay-sold-sea-sells-down-by-the-sea-shore”, and the rest of her bullththit.
The speech therapy didn’t take. I did try; I just didn’t understand what the problem was. I was ignorant. The Bible says, “The truth shall set you free”. It took me until my mid-teens to start to understand the problem, and the truth shackled me.
In high school, boys would whisper as they passed me in the hallway. Their voices masculine, their diction perfect, “Hey- Shay, (beat) are-you-gay?” It’s a catch phrase I lived with, a theme song that played in my head at night.
I was 42 when I hired a speech pathologist and found out that the tongue lightly touches the roof of the mouth for the “S” sound and curls up slightly for the solid “SH”. I practice this now in place of the Oscar acceptance speech I never gave. I stand in front of the Jesus-Loves-You-mirror, that now hangs in my office. Jesus love, ”Shshshshshay”, You.
When I’m tired, or after five Bud Lights, I revert back.
“It’s Thththay, rhymes with gay, but without the lithp.”
I found another way around the gay sound. I adopted my uncle Carl’s accent. Nobody thinks you sound queer, if, you sound as if you are fond of camouflage clothing and spend your Saturdays bow-hunting deer, and your Sundays beating you wife.
“Yeeehaaw, and hell ya! Ya’ll can just call me Brandon.”
Call me Brandon. Brandon doesn’t rhyme with anything.