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The Dreadful Vocabulary Drill

School is back in full swing across the county with big yellow buses, crossing guards and football games. Even though summer was way too short, I was ready for fourth grade at McKenzie in September 1952. I knew nearly all my classmates, the nooks and crannies of the old brick building, and I actually looked forward to learning new stuff. My after-school piano lessons with Mrs. Myrtie Berry Westcott would soon start up again, and mama had even enrolled me in dancing class one afternoon a week. I loved reading, I loved music and I loved drawing, so as long as we had library books, singing and art classes school would be okay. Who knows, I might even enjoy tap, ballet, and ballroom dancing.

School went fine for the first few weeks but gradually I figured out that my teacher didn't like me. She didn't call on me, she picked on me. She didn't correct me, she criticized me, and I couldn't understand why. I managed to stay under her radar by doing my work as quickly and quietly as possible and daydreaming the rest of the time.

Things came to a head one day with a vocabulary drill. My desk was away from the windows, half-way back on the hall-side row. She started on the other side of the class, requiring each row of students to make a new sentence with the designated word. To make matters worse, she walked between the rows and faced the kid whose turn it was, tapping her pencil against the pages of her grade book as she waited. If he came up with an acceptable sentence (no matter how dumb it sounded to me), she'd check off his name and step to the next desk. Borrrrrrringggggg. Off my mind drifted into a chapter of my latest Nancy Drew library book.

Suddenly I felt her presence it was my turn. I looked up, and there she stood with her grade book. My mind completely blank, all I could see was her scowl and all I could hear was the tap-tap-tap of her pencil. I couldn't remember what the vocabulary word was, much less how to make a sentence with it. I had paid attention for the first row of kids, sort of half attention to the second row, but since then my mind had been many places, none of them this classroom!

"We're waiting, Betty," she said. My face grew hot, my tongue seemed to get tangled up in my mouth and I couldn't get any word out, much less the vocabulary word.

After another moment, she proclaimed in exasperation, "You could have repeated the sentence the last student gave." I could have? If only I'd been listening! Shaking her head, she hooked her finger and pointed me out of my desk and onto a straight-back chair in the hall. It seemed like forever that I sat there, thinking how I never wanted to enter that room again and face the smirks of the other students. Betty's daydreaming again, ha-ha-ha. But only a few minutes later she motioned me back inside the room and the day went on as if nothing had happened. I did my utmost to never let her get the best of me again.

In spite of my terrible lapse that day some good things happened in fourth grade. Our class learned an Irish jig and an old fashioned square dance, demonstrating our new abilities to the whole school on stage in an assembly program. The girls showed off our frilly dresses and slips, Mary Jane shoes and lacy socks, the boys looked spiffy in their look-alike pants and shirts, and we had a blast. It was a pretty good year except for that miserable vocabulary drill, in spite of the teacher keeping an eagle eye on me the whole time for some strange reason.

A few weeks ago I went down to the Administration Office for a printout of my parents' school records to add to my family tree. Out of curiosity I requested my own records, first grade through twelfth. There at the bottom of my fourth grade report was an amazing handwritten note: "Demand strict obedience from Betty from the outset. She is a gifted child. M.R., 1953."

I wish I'd known she thought so the day of that dreadful vocabulary drill. I thought she didn't like me, maybe even hated me but she was trying to challenge me, to rein in my overactive imagination. She didn't totally succeed in doing that, but she did make me pay attention and work harder in class.

As I read that little note several times, my attitude toward her changed from resentment to gratitude. This is way overdue, but Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds.


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