This is Chapter 7 in a series called Telling My Story.
One of the two enduring pleasurable activites of my life is public speaking. The other, if you have not already guessed, is writing. The first time I stepped up to a microphone to speak in a formal setting was at my eighth grade graduation, as I had been chosen as one of the two speakers from my class.
That in itself was surprising, because I had only moved to the little town in Northern California during the semester break and the whole five months from then until graduation was a comedy of errors and misunderstandings. But it was kind of fun.
Because I had been to so many different schools my transcripts, as you can imagine, were like trying to piece together a jigsaw puzzle. Three months here, six months there - it was a mess. My 8th grade year, I had begun the school year in Illinois, moved to the state of Washington, went to school there for three months, and then we moved to California at the holiday break, landing in the little town of Oakley (not the real name) in late December just before Christmas.
Oakley's elementary school system, in 1959, was configured on a structure that was already outdated even then. For example, top students were placed in 8-A and the worst academic students were assigned to 8-D. Anytime you had to say which class you were in, it was like announcing that you were either "smart, stupid, or so-so". In between the two extremes, 8-B and 8-C were similarly arranged based upon the students' prior year's performance. Because my transcript had not yet arrived from Washington the day Mom took me to enroll in school, I was assigned to 8-D. Mom tried valiantly to explain that I was an A student and should not be placed in 8-D.
It wasn't that she thought less of students who struggled with their studies, but she thought I would not be very challenged in those classes. The registration people did not believer her and insisted upon putting me in the lower class. And it was lower, literally, as it was housed in the basement of the school, with the only windows being up near the ceiling, as we looked at the ground and a couple of feet above it. We never saw the sky from that classroom.
As it turned out, it was one of the best experiences of my entire elementary education, and here is why. Students in the "middle classes" of 8-B and 8-C had apparently settled into their own comfort zone, and this included their teachers. But between 8-A and 8-D there existed a keen rivalry in everything from dodge ball to spelling contests.
Enter bright-eyed naive Marsha from the Midwest, who knew nothing of all of this. As soon as I had turned in a few assignments, my teacher, Mr. Van de K., began to pay special attention to me. He would smile and nod as he read my papers and soon was using some of my work as examples to the rest of the class, to my embarrassment. (I was trying to fit in, after all.)
Before long, whenever we were having study time, he would say to me, "Marsha, go over and see if you can help Janie (or Mary or whomever) with the assignment, since you have finished yours." I was glad to do it and was surprised to find my help was welcomed. Many of these kids wanted to do well, but did not have a parent at home to help with homework or they just needed things explained at their own level. It was fun "playing teacher" and it helped me make friends more quickly.
Near the middle of the semester the annual essay contest was announced. Fliers were distributed all over school and some were posted at businesses around town. Mr. Van de K. approached me and suggested that I enter the contest. He and Mrs. C., the haughty 8-A teacher, had been sniping at each other for years, as each year one of her students would win the contest. She was not kind about it, and Mr. Van de K. was sick and tired of his students being the brunt of her archly condescending criticism.
The topic of the essay contest was assigned each year by a panel consisting of members of the school board and the chamber of commerce. That year's topic was to be "Historical Trailways" highlighting the paths that had led to America's greatness. Immediately trails like the Appalachian Trail, the Lewis and Clark Trail, the Pony Express route, etc. sprang to mind.
I thought and thought, and decided that none of those really described how I thought America had achieved its prominence in the world. I decided to write on Industrial Trailways outlining the way things like the invention of the cotton gin, the sewing machine, the Bessemer steel process, and the Industrial Revolution in general, had created a society of achievement and prosperity.
Okay, it was not brilliant, but it was enough "off the beaten path" so to speak, that it caught the judges' attention. (I know, that was a pitiful pun. Sometimes I just can't help myself.)
The day they announced that I had won, and took my picture for the local paper, I was more tickled to see Mr. Van de K.'s ear-to-ear grin than I was over winning. Of course, my parents were proud, although a bit startled. I remember my mother asking me, "How do you think of these things." I didn't know, I just knew that concepts interested me more than the concrete.
Well, school was a smile-a-thon for several days. Mrs. C. grudgingly congratulated me, while snidely insinuating that "maybe I had had a little help?" I thought Mr. Van de K. was going to blow a gasket when I told him what she had said. Next, Mrs. C. belatedly tried to arrange to have me transferred to her class.
Mr. Van de K. offered me the choice, and I politely declined, saying I liked it where I was. He grinned some more and went to tell the highbrowed Mrs. C. that "Marsha had elected to stay in the basement with his class." She barely spoke to me the rest of the year.
So ended the year, with my invitation to speak at the graduation. Mr. Van de K. strutted around the school grounds like a proud mother hen for days, and several of the kids in 8-D cheered when my name was announced as a graduation speaker. Finally, they had a champion and I was as glad for them as they were for me. 8-D had made the grade! And I had made some friends.