Evocative means, “having the power to evoke, or cause, a particularly emotional response (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). “It’s elementary, my dear Watson”, for example, evokes memories of reading a huge, red book, filled with stories of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick, Dr. Watson.
Elementary, a singular word, also is evocative for me. Elementary years of education in the Luxora public school system comes to mind. Interestingly enough, the only pictures of my earliest years come from my presence in the school on “picture days”. Days when you went to school with your best smile and looking as good as you could.
You would calmly/nervously/anxiously wait for your turn, for the photographer to take your picture. It would be the only picture taken of me during the entire year, and it had to look good. Later, we would be able to borrow someone’s school yearbook, and there I would be, with my best smile.
It’s elementary the way your picture would magically appear with your teacher and your class, as if you all had been together at the same time. We hadn’t, that was a special treat reserved for seniors in their last year of high school.
After looking for the pictures of your brothers, sisters and friends, then you would turn to the pages where the sports pictures were at. Football, basketball, baseball, track and field, the sport didn’t matter. There would be the team picture, and if you were lucky, you would appear again, with your best smile or your best menacing look, depending on the sport.
For football you scowled, the idea was to look mean, like a hungry panther who had not eaten in a month, staring down its victim. Athletics and basketball was about the poetry, the rhythm and the majesic nature of the sport, there you endeavored to look as artistic, fluid, and self-confident as possible.
It’s elementary, this art of picture taking. In my mind’s eye a succession of teachers reside in the place of the teacher. There was Mrs. Johnson, my first grade teacher, and my favourite. Next came Mrs. Wilkins in second grade and Mrs. Mills in third grade. Mrs. Wilkins actually wrote that I didn’t do as well as I could have because I was too self-confident. Mrs. Mills was by far and away the cutest teacher i ever had, and the one teacher that simply let me, be me. It worked mighty fine for me in third grade.
Then there was Mrs. Norris in 4th grade, and for some reason, we didn’t get along at all. she didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. We both knew it but remained civil to one another throughout the year. She felt I didn’t work hard enough, played too much, and was capable of achieving much more than I was.
The truth of the matter is another one, however. 4th grade wasn’t challenging me in any significant manner, on the one hand, and there was a girl in class that sat right behind me that I had my eye on. Yes, that was one great year, and no, I won’t embarrass the girl by publishing her name here. Brenda Bonner would never forgive me if I did that.
Brenda had a sister named Sarah, if I remember correctly, who was in the same grade as my sister Linda. Anyway, one day Mrs. Norris accused me of talking in class, and I went into self-defense mode, “showing out” in an effort to impress Brenda. Denying that I had been talking, already wrong (yes I regret it now), I even turned fully around to face Brenda and ask her if I had been talking. Brenda, bless her soul, agreed with me, saying divinely, angelically, “No. No Mrs. Norris, he wasn’t talking to me. Why would he be talking to me?”
Obviously Brenda didn’t get it, but soon she would. When she received a short but simple letter from me, all would be clear. The letter read: “I love you. Do you love me? Yes or No.”
The letter was returned, clearly marked, “No”. My broken heart lasted until I finished 4th grade and baseball season began. Baseball, that was enough to resuscitate any boy’s broken heart. You could smell baseball season. Flowers in full bloom and the green grass grew and grew. Freshly cut green grass in early Spring still, to this very day, evokes baseball in my mind. Yes, it would be Spring. Warm, sunny day followed warm sunny day and school got closer and closer to letting out for the summer.
Classes got increasingly shorter and shorter on content. Teachers and students both yearned for the lazy days of summer. Three whole months of sleeping late, going to baseball practice in the afternoon, or we might even have a game to play. Often than not, we would all have to pile on the big yellow school bus and away we would go to some distant town to play baseball. (Little League baseball is a story for another day).
But before all of this came to pass, we had to get through football season. Whether I knew it or not, I had embarrassed the one person who was responsible for my education that year. Though Brenda’s refusal to involve herself in any romance with me had cured me of women for the next 5 years (I would not dare to look twice at any girl until 9th grade), I still had Mrs. Norris to deal with. Wait, she had a score to settle with me, and she had the power.
It seems that one great day I had a chance to go to the high school, along with my friends Cedric and Oscar, to take some sports pictures. We were managers for the football team. As “managers”, we would do anything the coach needed to help him support the team logistically. In other words, as 4th graders, we were ball boys.
Look, I’ll be honest with you. As ball boys, and 4th graders, your presence around a junior high football team is more symbolic than anything else. you are supposed to bring the team good luck, something like a talisman or good luck charm. In addition, you were taught early about the rituals of belonging to a sports team.
So, we come back to school, having had our pictures taken with the big boys from the high school, OK, Junior High School, and we feeling very good about being 4th graders. To top everything off, I had missed a test (imagine that), and now it was recess.
Recess, what a magic word for me. Play time. We had this huge football field to play on. We could run and jump for days on end and not be bothered by anyone. Or, for those less athletically inclined, there was a big slide, really big, to climb up and slide down on.
Or if you had a partner, you could get on the see-saw and try to make it reverberate hard enough to throw your partner off.
Or, if you wanted to get on the swing set, you could swing high into the air, and feel the horizon rise and fall as you went higher and higher, especially if you had someone pushing you.
You get the picture, recess was a time of magic. It was marvelous, it was magnificent, it was the greatest part of the school day, by far. So, you can imagine my obvious consternation when Mrs. Norris informed me that I had to stay in and do a test while the others went outside to play. It was only fair, she said to me (while smiling diabolically, knowing thazt she was inflicting great harm upon me).
There was no way out, and I sadly sat down to take the test, wondering if I might get a few minutes to play before the bell rang to call us back inside. I remember seeing the first question, and then the multiple choice answers: A, B, C or D. From somewhere inside of my mind, no, my soul, a small voice whispered to me, “Write the alphabet, from A to Z, give her the test, and run outside to play.”
So I did. And three minutes later I was outside on the football field, playing as carefree as anyone else. I had actually mentally written the test off, accepted whatever consequence a grade of zero (0) points, absolute failure, would bring me.
Mrs. Norris, however, bless her heart, had already decided that she wanted to know what I had learned, and not what I was capable of doing when denied recess. So, she made me take the test again. I had to write out, from beginning to end, every single question, and then answer it too.
It was the longest test I had ever taken at any time in my life up until that point. A couple of days later I received the results. I had made 100% on the test, a perfect score.
You might say I was extreme, all or nothing. But it isn’t true. The test had been a science test, and I had discovered a long time ago, very long, in fact, that the key to science was reading. If you could read, science was nothing but another book to be enjoyed, with an unendless series of topics and stories to be read.
I had become a legend among the teaching staff of Luxora Elementary School, however. Mrs. Norris had shown the results of both tests to her colleagues, along with the story of what had happened. From that day forward, until I left for 7th grade, the teachers let me do anything I wanted to do. If I wanted to read a book, while they taught science, or history, or math, that’s what I did.
In sixth grade, Mrs. Stubblefield, my homeroom teacher, would write a lot of material on the board for us to copy down. Because I still wasn’t wearing glasses regularly, I would often find myself walking up to the board, copying down what she had written. She did that a lot during that year, all the while talking about cosmonauts and astronauts.
I must have been the only kid in the world who had not seen the first Moon Landing in 1969. I had no idea who Neil Armstrong was, nor what he had said (One small step …). I think Mrs. Stubblefield knew this about me too, and took maximum advantage of it. In short, she fascinated me like no other teacher had ever done before, by simply talking about a place that very few humans had ever pysically been, the moon. I figured out for myself that the moon was not going to be my destiny, but that I was going to travel far, very far from home, one day.
It was elementary, and the treasured memory of the teachers who understood me well enough to help me get through elementary without self-destructing, is near and dear to my heart. Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Wilkins, Mrs. Mills, Mrs. Norris, Mrs. Robinson, and Mrs. Stubblefield were all brilliant teachers in their own right, and they made a tremendous impact on me, not so much by their ability to teach me academic topics, but by their ability to deal successfully with the unique challenge that I presented to them: a bright, intelligent boy from a poor, disadvantaged socioeconomic background.
They did their jobs extraordinarily well with me, these six women, and my debt of gratitude to them is enormous. I hope to hear from them again, when I meet them all in heaven (surely heaven was awarded to them for putting up with me for one year). It is my fervent wish that they will say to me, “Well done, Thomas Jerome Baker. We are proud of you…”
Something like that, a moment of such proportions would be a cause for elementary delight. Yes, it’s all, in the end, elementary, my dear…