Mrs. Pittman and the Second Grade – Logan, New Mexico 1967
It is a cold, blustery Tuesday afternoon in eastern New Mexico, November 1967, and as I ride the school bus home, I think hard about how I can avoid going back to the second grade and Mrs. Pittman tomorrow. I always hope I’ll catch a cold (maybe death) overnight, or there is the eternal excuse of a stomachache.
I hate second grade; everything about it makes me want to cry. Billy Jack Shiplet makes fun of my home perm, Tommy Barber tells dirty jokes I don’t understand, Glenda acts like she isn’t my friend anymore and of course, once again, my mother has trimmed my bangs too short and I look like an idiot every day. I stand in front of the mirror every morning pressing my bangs against my forehead, willing them to grow, grow, grow now, right now, before I have to get on the school bus, and my brother Klee stands outside the door, yelling for me to get out of the bathroom. There are four of us to get ready every morning, and only one bathroom, and there is always yelling.
At least I can read, faster and better than almost everyone in the class except for Allen Smith, while Timmy Casaus and Jerry Bob struggle with the simplest of words. Jerry Bob is paying for being the chosen scapegoat of the angry Mrs. Sandoval in first grade – he never learned to read very well because he was always frightened. That round reading table was in his bad dreams every night, and now, Jerry Bob, who was my first friend in Logan when I was only four years old, tries to be sympathetic without seeming to be. He doesn’t want the other boys to know that I’m his friend and that he feels bad for me. But he knows what its like to be hated by your teacher. On Sunday morning we sit together in primary Sunday School class with Dolores Williams putting the felt Jesus and the disciples and the boat on the stormy sea up on the black storyboard, and he punches me on the arm and whispers, “I hate school too. Don’t you?” and I am reminded of the summer before when we stayed outside in the sand with the Tonka trucks, building an entire county until the sun went down, every day for weeks. Those were the days, I’m thinking to myself. I hate second grade.
Yes I can read, better than almost everybody. Jolene Cessnun wants to be my friend just because I can read so well and get to go up with the first group when Mrs. Pittman calls for reading practice. I’m pretty good in math – we add up numbers that have two or three digits, and I do fine and behind Mrs. Pittman’s back, I stick my tongue out at Billy Jack when I get the answer right and he doesn’t. But none of that matters to Mrs. Pittman. She is nicer to Timmy Casaus than she is to me, and he can’t even read. For some reason that my second grade mind can’t grasp, or maybe for no reason at all, she has chosen to be displeased with me. Everything I say, every word that comes out of my mouth, she mimics in front of the class. She accuses me of whining. When I approach her desk with a question, she lifts her birdlike eyes to me, staring through her thick bifocals, and in her sharpest tone says, “What is it now, Bunny?” and I am frightened out of knowing why I am there in the first place.
She keeps me in from recess, confirming my worst fear, which all along has been that my mother will come to school to see why I keep complaining of being too sick to go to school, and while I sit at the round table where the reading groups gather each afternoon, Mrs. Pittman says, “So, can you tell me why you don’t LIKE second grade? Why you don’t LIKE me?” I am frozen, wishing to be out on the playground with my friends, playing kickball and getting tagged out, happy even to be with that mean Shelly Henry who will laugh at the way I say my name, “Bunny Tewwy.” In my smallest voice I say, “I like you Mrs. Pittman. I really do.” I fidget, twisting the hem of my yellow dress with matching bloomers and the matching scarf, made just last weekend by my mother at her Singer sewing machine. I silently plead with Mrs. Pittman in my mind, please, please, please let me go now, please don’t make me sit here while the other kids talk about why I’m having to stay inside with you. But Mrs. Pittman, my own personal Atilla the Hun of Logan Elementary, sends me to my desk to put my head down and think about why I can’t seem to not be a baby. I know that she will just lift her hands with a hopeless smirk next time my mother comes around, and she’ll say, “Betty, I’ve done everything I can. She’s just spoiled – you know how it is with the youngest. Nothing I can do about it.”
She’s right of course. I am spoiled. I live in a house where I am the youngest of four, and my daddy says I am a beautiful smart girl, and my mother is the center of my universe, and the only time I get into real trouble is when I don’t share with my brothers and sister. And then there was that time in the first grade when I kept wetting my pants, but I seem to be over that now. So I am spoiled by being loved and watched over by my big brothers (although Kent sometimes puts my head inside that black dirty clothes hamper for no reason, making me scream at the smells and the darkness. It doesn’t matter, because afterwards he offers me a nickle if I won’t cry and tell Mom.) and by having a dozen dogs and cats and cousins and a treehouse that is mine alone. I spend every Friday night in Tucumcari with my Grandma Ayres and my cousin Susie, and Grandma Ayres’ fridge with a top shelf full of Fresca and Dr. Pepper. We get blueberry Pop-Tarts for breakfast. Sometimes, just before Lawrence Welk comes on, Grandma fixes hot Dr. Pepper with lemon for Susie and me without us even asking.
We spend Saturday morning reading comic books at Cooper’s Grocery while she shops for Sunday dinner, and then she gives us each a dollar and we go to Surplus City, where we dawdle over important choices – rhinestone jewelry, a felt purple cow, a book about Louie the Fish. Grandma never hurries us over our shopping choices. We buy our trinkets or our books and climb into her white 1965 Chevy Impala with the plastic bubble upholstery covers and go home to a lunch of pimento cheese sandwiches before we have to go home to Logan. We go to Logan knowing that we’ll be back tomorrow after church to eat red velvet cake and that pork roast that Grandma just bought at Cooper’s. We will get to eat right after the men, and the table will be laden with lima beans and mashed potatoes and macaroni with tomatoes and green beans with fatbelly and fried okra and over on the sideboard will be two pecan pies and a cherry pie to keep the red velvet cake company.
Saturdays are best because we get to shop with Grandma and look forward to Sunday dinner with our cousins. Sundays are pretty good until dinner is over and we’re headed back to Logan to church that night, and then I remember that even if we get to have cold cereal for supper tonight and watch the Wonderful World of Disney after church, tomorrow is Monday and I have to go to school. Sunday nights are the worst. Well, besides Monday mornings.
Mrs. Pittman is right. I am so spoiled that I can hardly stand to be away from my mother for even a night, unless it is to go to Grandma Ayres’ or to Susie’s. Even if I spend the night at Susie’s and then cry to go home, my daddy will come to get me at 11:00 p.m., driving the 23 miles from our farm to his brother Marvin’s place. I have been to sleep at Glenda Horne’s house once or twice, and I am trying to be brave, but I tend to avoid that sort of thing in the second grade. Too scary.
But nothing is as scary as Mrs. Pittman is to me at this moment. This is what I’m thinking on this November afternoon going home on the school bus. Junior Osborn has alway been our bus driver. He’s at the Baptist Church as often as we are, and visits with my parents two or three times a week, his wife Mildred having us over for coffee after prayer meeting on Wednesday nights. He drops off Vernon Mathis and his little brother, with only the Bruhns and Walker kids and us left, and then the Halls, who have to ride the bus another thirteen miles out on the Trigg Ranch road after our house. He’ll let the Bruhns out, and then Junior will head north to drop off Mary Anne and Wesley Walker before taking us home and then taking the Hall kids out to the ranch.
Although they usually ride with us, there’s not a single Tixier on the bus this afternoon – their mother picked them up from school, having come in from the ranch to rail at the principal for expelling Mona for wearing too short a skirt. It is not the same as her defending Quentin for sniffing glue, but she is still the stuff that small town legends are made of, this mom of those six Tixier kids. Unlike my parents or all the other parents I know, Mrs. Tixier will fight the administration and always say her kids are right. There will be no threats of a paddling when they get home – those Tixier kids know that they can do no wrong, and the minute Mr. Burgoon tries to say otherwise, their mother is there, throwing her hands up, threatening to pull her kids out of school and run them to Tucumcari. Of course, she doesn’t go to the Baptist Church. That might explain her behavior. I figure God must not be on her side so she has to fight harder all by herself.
All four of us are on the bus, Klee, Kent, Belinda and I, which is an oddity now that my sister Belinda is a junior and a cheerleader and rides home with boys most afternoons. She is only 16, but beautiful and popular, Most Beautiful for three years in a row, Homecoming Queen over and over, and nice as well, the shining example held up to me by that horrible Mrs. Pittman. “Your sister is so nice, why can’t you be just like her? Everyone likes her. Why doesn’t everyone like you?” I want to yell out that no one likes me anymore because they’re afraid to be my friends, afraid that they’ll be the target of the teacher’s anger just by association. During second grade recess, Julia Hall is trying to get Glenda Horne to play with her instead of me, and it is only by virtue of our both being at the First Baptist Church every time the doors open that I get to spend more time with Glenda.
Julia’s parents are heathens, I’m pretty sure – they don’t even bother to take Julia to church, which according to Brother Arnold means she is bound for a Devil’s Hell. She’s not even Catholic, which may be another kind of heathen, but I’m not sure what kind. Catholics are different from someone who doesn’t go to church at all. Not being Catholic means Julia Hall doesn’t get to get out of school early on Ash Wednesday and get smudged like Belinda and Apolonio Ramirez and Veronica Tenorio and the Lujan kids. Julia Hall isn’t anything, and I’m having a hard time knowing why God is letting her wriggle her way into Glenda’s good graces while I have to sit in from recess and think about why I don’t like second grade.
And so Junior drops off the Mathis kids, and then it is the Bruhns, turning a wide circle in their driveway. What I don’t know in the second grade is that when I am an adult, every book I read about white trash will conjure up that daily memory of the Bruhn’s driveway and front yard and house, as well as the rest of the farm with their rusty combines and falling down outbuildings and corrals. When I read In Country and the story is about southern white trash in Kentucky after the Vietnam war, the picture in my mind will be August Bruhn’s yard. What I do know is that Junior Bill Bruhn sometimes grosses me out because I’ve seen him wipe his boogers on his pants legs. Julia Hall says that is better than eating them, but she is the girl who has already, on a sleepover, taken me into her brother’s bedroom to show me the underside of William’s top bunk, where he has wiped what looks like a million boogers.
I am mostly grossed out by boys in general, but booger-wiping boys make me want to move up to the front seat of the bus, which I can’t do anymore because then Junior Bill Bruhn and Julia would tell the entire second grade tomorrow that I really am a baby. I don’t yet understand the term “adding fuel to the fire,” but I know that I’m not going to do anything that will make things even worse than they are.
Now it is only Mary Anne and Wesley Walker, and us and the Hall kids, and Mary Anne and Belinda are whispering to each other in a seat at the back of the bus, heads bent in close telling secret high school girl stories. Wesley bugs Kent with silly questions about cars- he really wants to be Kent, but hasn’t figured out how to be as cool as my brothers. He has the slightest of lisps, which I will eventually, at seventeen, find attractive, but now, having overheard my brothers talk about him out in the barn while they’re working on a tractor, crawling around on their backs in the dirt, I know that they are just very slightly somehow out of his league. And Wesley Walker doesn’t know that Klee is the one he should be taking to about cars. Klee at 14 knows everything in the world about cars. He is already busy planning the type of car he will buy the minute he is old enough to get his license. Turqoise Blue, 57 Chevy, 454, something like that. I hear those words while I feed my rabbit Thumper out in the barn. Klee and Kent talk about tire rims and horsepower and I pretend to try to teach Thumper tricks just to hear their voices in unguarded conversation. They don’t know I’m there- I’m waiting for the moment when they launch into some story about kissing Mona Tixier behind the lockers,so that I’ll have a story to pass along to the kids on the playground. If I can ever get there.
Because they ride the bus together and because our parents are great friends, my brothers will always be nice to Wesley, unlike the Hall boys, who sit silent and sullen even further back on the bus. I have never heard them speak, those Hall brothers. Maybe they need to be taken to church. Maybe they need to learn not to wipe their boogers on the bottom of the bunk. Maybe the fact that their mother is a largest woman I’ve ever seen makes them quieter than the other boys I know. Maybe all that living on the ranch so far from town has ruined them for the rest of us. I personally like to think that maybe having that horrible Julia Hall as a sister is damaging in and of itself, but she really is only a skinny little black-headed second grader, and God knows that Mrs. Pittman likes her.
Then Wes and Mary Anne are being dropped off, and I am wondering what happens to their mother’s lilly pond in the winter. Marcene has a back yard like none I have ever seen, full of day lillies and tulips, grass greener than it should be out here on these dusty dryland farms, and back in a corner under a tree, some sort of tree prettier and fuller than the standard Chinese elms throughout the countryside, she has had her husband Raymond sink an old bathtub, filled it with water and goldfish and water lillies. Marcene’s backyard is like the Secret Garden and I am worried on this November afternoon about the frogs and the fish and the water lillies. What happens when it freezes? Do the fish die or just go to sleep for the winter? I am not silly enough to ask Wesley while he’s badgering my brothers, but I am longing to know the answer.
Mary Anne is standing at the rail in the front of the bus, telling Belinda that she’ll call her in a little bit, as long as no one has our party line tied up, and Belinda does what she always does after Mary Anne gets off the bus, something that makes me feel safer and prouder. She gets up from that seat she shared with Mary Anne and moves nearer the front of the bus to sit with me, not speaking and almost certainly thinking about whatever boy is in love with her today, but she is beautiful and popular and my big sister and suddenly she is sitting right next to me, even if it is only for a mile.
Junior pulls the bus in the half circle drive that runs past our mailbox set in a milk can full of heavy dirt and rocks. We get off the bus, the very lightest of misty rains hitting our backs. Its one of those early winter afternoons when the house sits welcoming us, cobalt blue trim around the casement windows, steely gray tin roof, the front door beckoning, only used when we come in from the bus. Otherwise we always park in the back and come in by the kitchen, petting big black Sambo who lays on the porch awaiting our arrival. Sambo is old, older than my Grandma in dog years, and there is talk that he won’t last the winter, but it is one of the best things about second grade, the fact that Sambo is still there every afternoon when we get off the bus.
When I return to this house as an adult, I will realize it is tiny, less than 1000 square feet, housing the six of us for years. But now it seems huge, like a castle to me – my mother is inside, and it will be warm. And as we walk across the lawn, heads bent against the cold, we hear the unmistakable sounds of music coming from the house, loud music that isn’t the soundtrack of Oklahoma or Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass playing on our old record player. The window frames seem to shake.
We burst though the door all at once, the house smelling like stew and donuts, the donuts just now coming off the stove. They are both in the house, mom and dad, which seems odd since dad is usually out in the barn or on the tractor or tending to the pigs. But the music, omigosh, the music. Its something unrecognizable, someone even fancier than Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, and it sounds rich and full and before I can figure out what’s happening, Kent is at that new cabinet in the corner, opening the lid, yelling “what is it, Pop, what is it?”
They have been to town, my parents, to Tucumcari to Western Auto, where they bought, on time of course, this most beautiful of pressed wood veneer cabinets, with the brass fittings, and when you open the lid, there it is, a record player that we are now to call a turntable, AM/FM radio and wonder of all wonders, an 8-track stereo. The music comes from the manufacturer-issued 8-track tape, songs of someone called Mantovani, and we all watch in awe as dad shows us how you can move from song to song just by pushing the track button. I am overwhelmed by the sound – there are speakers built into that cabinet, and I feel like I’m in a concert hall listening to REAL music, surrounded by strings and horns and drums. The music seems to bounce off the ceiling of our little house – there is so much of it. I am astounded – I know we have no money and yet here we are the owners of this amazingly rich piece of furniture out of which sound issues. We have always had music in the house, but it has never sounded like this. It’s like magic, like sitting at a concert, or at least what I imagine it would be like since I haven’t ever done that.
My brother Kent runs to the basement where he and Klee sleep and where he hides his prized possessions, and returns with Merle Haggard on an 8-track, something he bought at Surplus City with really no way to listen to it except when he rides in the pickup with our cousin Joe Frank. He pops it in, that satisfying thwap when the tape engages, he puts on Merle Haggard, who begins singing in the middle of a song, “down every road there’s always one more city. . .” and we’re all laughing and talking at once and then dad grabs mom by the hand, and she throws her head back and smiles like a schoolgirl and they dance right there in the living room while Merle sings. I am in heaven, surrounded by these people that I know and love and trust and live with every day, covered up in this music and laughter, watching my parents dance with one another while the boys fiddle with the dials and switch the music to another track, “Mama tried to raise me better but her pleading I denied. ” My dad never misses a beat, just moves a little faster and they are fifteen again, unmarried and without children, dancing at someone’s house after church on Sunday night over in the Porter community. Then dad grins at me and I know this is my life and they are right here, still happily in love with each other and glad to have us.
Mrs. Pittman is miles away and I am warm and happy to be in this place with these people, donuts waiting on the kitchen table. I’m pretty sure there is no dancing at the Pittman house this evening.