Kindergarten marked the first and only year I attended a private, religious school. I don’t remember the name of the school, Tabernacle of Eternal Damnation or something, but I do remember my teacher, Mrs. Starks. She was approximately 8 feet tall, as skinny as skinny could be, and had mounds of curly brown hair that she wore in a massive heaping bun clipped to the side of her head with a pastel bow. I remember thinking her head would snap off from the weight of the side bun, but thankfully, it never did.
My mom worked down the hall in the Pre-K daycare center, and I remember being really aggrieved that I couldn’t just wander down to her classroom any old time I wanted to say “hey” or ask why my PB&J was made with grape instead of apricot jelly, the HORROR. No amount of pleading swayed Mrs. Starks; she was firm on the no-visiting-mom’s-classroom rule, but this didn’t stop me from asking permission every.single.day. for the entire year. I bet that was her favorite part of the day!
Our classroom was co-educational, and I was thrilled that I could sit by BOYS. During naptime, Adrian Delgado and I would snuggle our mats up against one another and furtively hold hands under a shared blanket. One day, Mrs. Starks caught us and told us that Jesus would make our hands rot off if we didn’t stop clasping them with those of the opposite sex before we were grown-ups. It was a chance I was willing to take, but Adrian apparently wasn’t ready for that level of commitment. The next day, he moved his mat ALL the way over to the other side of the classroom during naptime. In retaliation, during out-loud prayer time, I loudly asked Jesus to forgive Adrian for being a booger-picker. I don’t think it was true, but who knows? Maybe it was. At any rate, I was standing in the proverbial salvation gap for Adrian; I was proving my hand-holding worthiness. Still, he was unmoved. We never held hands again.
Every morning, we would line up outside the hallway next to laminated teddy bear cut-outs with our names on them. This took an inordinate amount of time because, as it turned out, kindergarteners couldn’t read. Eventually, Mrs. Starks replaced the bears with new ones that were different colors. From then on, we simply had to locate our teddy bear color to find our spot in the single file line. Once inside the classroom, we spent the morning reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to both the American and Christian flags. Then we counted to 100, recited the alphabet, and sang The States Song. At some point in the day, we played Candyland and ate soggy Fruity Pebbles from white Styrofoam bowls.
During one such snack time, things took a turn for the worse when, in a desperate attempt to get a second-helping, I told Mrs. Starks that Fruity Pebbles was the food I most missed when living in Africa. I then went on to tell her, in detail, about my family’s time in Africa, serving as missionaries. I even told her that we had left the family car with my grandma while we were overseas because we rode everywhere by elephant. My elephant’s name was Curious George. This story was interesting for 2 reasons: My parents were never missionaries in Africa or anywhere else, for that matter, and Mrs. Starks apparently caught on to my lie around the time I chose to name my transportation elephant after a book she had read aloud that very day. The next day, my dad came to my classroom during Sharing Time and made me apologize for lying, in front of the whole class. During Closing Prayer, Adrian Delgado loudly implored Jesus to forgive me for being a liar. Jerk.
Brian Palmer was a tiny little boy in the next class over who, despite Adrian’s warnings, fell madly in love with me halfway through the school year. Despite his embarrassing prayer, I was still holding out hopes of a reconciliation with Adrian, so I never held Brian’s hand. Despite my rebuffs, Brian would often spend recess picking handfuls of dandelions to present to me during Sharing Time. After several days of this wooing, I decided I liked Brian more than I had ever liked Adrian. So, at lunchtime, I told him, “I’m not going to hold your hand, but you can keep giving me flowers.” Even at age 5, I was selfless like that.
At the end of the year, Mrs. Starks organized an official graduation ceremony, complete with baby blue gowns and mortar boards, flower corsages for our mothers, and actual gold-plated trophies. Graduation was a very big deal; my grandma sewed me a floor length pink and purple flowered dress with a big white, ruffled collar. Mama sponge-rolled my hair the night before while Daddy shined my white, patent leather dress shoes. The day of graduation, I secretly picked out the trophy I was hoping to win: the shiny green Perfect Attendance trophy. After presenting our Safety Week poster boards, reciting our numerals, and singing Jesus Loves Me, Mrs. Starks called my name to receive my coveted trophy! In a final display of humble sweetness, I held my trophy high and stuck my tongue out at Adrian.