Mystery Sneaker, which was the "Holy Grail" of vocabulary development in Mrs. Hickman's first grade class.
She was telling us the class rules, and every single one of us was at attention. After all, she had attention as being the “strict” teacher and her tall stature, tightly wound red hair, and impeccable wardrobe reinforced that. Every once in a while, though, I’d sneak a glance at the back of the room at the giant target, which took up the entire bulletin board with its eight multi-colored rings and brown bull’s-eye that read “Mystery Sneaker.” I had no idea what “Mystery Sneaker” meant, but I knew that it was probably important to Mrs. Hickman, who was still talking but now looking straight at me. I sat up, looked right at her and allowed her to continue.
It was my first day of first grade and I was scared out of my mind.
Now, when I was five years old, I really didn’t know what “strict” meant, let alone that a “strict” teacher could be a good teacher. I just knew that “strict” equaled “mean” and that meant bad. Such information concerning Mrs. Hickman was gleaned from conversations with older kids who had been through first grade at Lincoln Avenue Elementary and spoke from experience—but also spoke knowing that we had no b.s. filter and it was fun to scare younger kids, even though some of the stories were true. We found out right away that if your desk was too messy, for instance, she would put a sign that said “Lincoln Avenue Garbage Dump” above it. And on the bulletin board behind her desk was the paddle.
Brown and stamped with “RAH,” the paddle looked like something she had gotten from a sorority and was single-handedly the source of every rumor about Mrs. Hickman. Students who never had her and never would know about the paddle and the more you heard about it, the worse it became. It didn’t merely hang on the wall. Oh no. The word on the Lincoln Avenue playground and the homes of Sayville elementary school students was that if you got out of line in any way, you got hit.
Now, I know there are people who did receive beatings at the hands of teachers, administrators, or nuns at some time or another. But by the time I got to school in 1983, I am sure that if Mrs. Hickman had hauled off and beaten the crap out of me because I didn’t clean my desk, tenure or no tenure, she would have gotten into serious trouble. In fact, there was one time you did get a paddling and that was on your birthday, and even then it was a light tap or two (though I’m sure that you couldn’t get away with that today). But when you sat in the classroom and looked at her desk, there it was, hanging, taunting you, telling you that she meant business.
And she did, although she didn’t need a paddle on the wall to show us. She marked up our work with a red pen and expected nothing less than what she knew were our best efforts. I remember one night sitting at the top of the stairs crying because I had colored in the exercise in my phonics book using a green Whitman crayon and had colored it so thickly that it prompted her to write, “Messy! You can do better!” Maybe I was being hard on myself or had a need for approval from authority figures, but this feeling that I had let her down was a sign that she was effective.
But as we discovered, she was effective because despite the pressure of high expectations and perceived fear of the paddle, she wanted us to love being in her class. I’m sure that’s why she turned learning to read into a game. Because when you’re six you may have a natural curiosity but you don’t have the natural love of learning that makes you purposely want to delve into existential philosophy or debate the merits of socialism in regards to public policy. No, you are still getting the shakes from naptime withdrawal and you’re still struggling with making a lowercase n not look like a lowercase h. So, with our education at such a base level, she knew that she not only had the challenge of teaching us how to read but the opportunity to make us want to read and love words and love reading and that is why the very first thing you noticed when you walked into the classroom wasn’t her paddle, but the giant target. (more…)