Thursday, January 13, 2005

Shades of Light & Dark

Previously, on Woolgathering. The year 1963 was a dark grey splotch on my personal history. The summer events of 1963 were covered in the previous essay. The later part of 1963 saw the first defining moment of my generation – the assassination of President Kennedy. (Yes, I remember very well where I was when the news came. Our 4th grade class had just received our new Weekly Reader and I was reading an article on the Pennsylvania Dutch.)

Now let us explore some of the events leading up to the summer of 1963.

We moved frequently from the time I was born until I was nine-years-old, as my father received calls from various churches through south and central Texas. We were living in Sutherland Springs when I was born, but I only called it home for a short while. From there we spent some time living in the back yard apartment belonging to my great-aunt Fay on Springdale Road in Austin while my father ministered to a mission church in north Austin. Our next move was to Manchaca, just south of Austin and from there we went to San Gabriel in Milam County. After San Gabriel we lived for a couple of years in Oak Hill on the outskirts of Austin, where I spent the first two years of my school career. After Oak Hill, we lived for 13 months in Victoria. Smiley came next and we stayed put for the longest period of time in my father’s career—9 years. Until then we had averaged about two and a half years at each church.

Victoria has the dubious distinction of being the shortest period of time we spent anywhere. The church was a fledgling congregation just trying to get its collective feet off the ground. It did not take long to see that it was a losing battle and that we needed to seek greener pastures quickly. The church just wasn’t able to support a minister’s family and on occasion we were literally digging pennies out of the furniture to meet expenses.

The year we spent in Victoria I was in third grade. I had had a good start to my education in the first grade with Mrs. Tillman in Oak Hill. I didn’t have a decent teacher after that until we reached Smiley and I started fourth grade. My third grade experiences at William Offer Elementary in Victoria were, for the most part, unmemorable.

My teacher had an unusual teaching style. She divided the class into 3 levels and worked with one group at a time on reading while the remaining students worked lessons written on the blackboard. I honestly cannot remember one thing I learned from that woman. Any ground I gained that year in anything but reading was self-taught. We never learned one thing about cursive writing the entire year, which was a standard skill to be mastered by third graders across the State. (I ended up teaching myself when I got to fourth grade, since that subject had been covered thoroughly by my fellow students in Smiley the previous year.) I was fortunate to be a self-learner since we spent most of the year performing work on what was essentially second-grade level, which put me at something of a disadvantage all the way around the next year in a new school.

I was a smart kid and I guess I knew I was getting a lousy third grade education. To add insult to injury, the woman consistently pronounced my name wrong. Hearing “Lucindy” made me cringe every time and I was too in awe of authority figures to correct her. Fortunately at the first PTA meeting, my mother was able to set her straight and relieve at least one of my many stresses that year.

I normally have a great internal sense of direction, but there are times when I get a mental block about particular locations. The entire William Offer elementary school was in my blind spot. Every morning the kids were expected to line up in their classroom groups on the covered walkway and wait for a signal to go to class. I was never able to find my group and mornings became pure torture as I would arrive and helplessly cast about for my proper place. Eventually I found that I could arrive just a little late and go directly to my classroom. That I could find. Something about that faceless crowd out front had me stymied.

Once I gave myself an anxiety attack and ended up being sent home. I had suddenly realized that I had no idea which locker in the back of the room I had put my things in that morning. The more I thought about it, the worse I felt and ultimately I became genuinely sick with worry. A nine-year-old budding control freak can’t rationalize that all one had to do was go back and start opening lockers until you stumbled across the right one.

I was probably one of the few students that year that got an unscheduled visit with the cafeteria workers. Of course it was a major embarrassment, hardly an honor. I had perched on the edge of the slide, talking with a group of girl friends. It had rained the night before and there was a nice little puddle in the bottom part of the slide, so no one was able to play on it. Some boy, probably trying to get my attention, ran past and pushed me into the puddle, soaking the front of my dress. I spent the next hour sitting in the kitchen with my dress spread across an oven door to dry. I, who loathed bringing attention to myself. What a nightmare.

Even Christmas brought misery. We had little money that year, but we had managed a teacher gift of a set of sachets. I was quite happy to put my package under the tree, but when time came for the teacher to open her presents my gift was nowhere to be found. I was very upset, but by that time I was beginning to accept that things were just not going to go my way at this school. (No one ever figured out what exactly happened, but sometime during the spring that package mysteriously turned up in the teacher’s desk drawer. Perhaps someone’s guilty conscience or maybe it had fallen under a piece of furniture and the cleaning people finally found it.)

One thing that didn’t upset me would have had I any idea what was going on. The Cuban Missile Crisis played out during that school year. We third-graders didn’t have a clue how serious world affairs had become. My only memories of that period involve a couple of drills that involved the students walking home in the middle of the day. Shoot, anything that got me out of that school was cause for celebration. Thankfully, I was totally oblivious to the reasons why.

While things at school were pretty much awful, there are some pleasant memories from that year. We lived in a rental house on a tree-shaded street and most of the houses on that street had children. The street had little traffic except for the kids playing up and down, visiting each other’s yards. I was especially close to the girl next door who was one year behind me in school. We shifted back and forth between yards and houses and had a grand time. Her father had installed a true playground quality swing set in their backyard for his two girls and we spent many an hour swaying to and fro.

I learned to ride a bicycle thanks to Beverly’s mother. My mother spent that year fighting a chronic strep infection and was not the most athletic type at her best times. My father was seldom home. My friend’s mother wanted me to be able to ride like the other kids on the street and spent one afternoon trotting behind me on Beverly’s bike while I mastered the necessary balance to ride on my own. I’ll never forget that she gave me her time to teach me something I came to love for many years afterward. She also fed me many grilled cheese sandwiches and made me feel welcome in her home. That meant a lot to a shy kid who generally felt out of place wherever she went.

Beverly’s older sister Glenda introduced me to the Trixie Belden girl detective books, providing me with hours of blissful reading. She also owned the first Barbie doll I had ever seen. We were sometimes granted the privilege of playing with her dolls and her array of doll-sized appliances, which probably began my love of miniatures and dollhouses.

On frequent occasions all the kids on the block would gather in one yard and take turns presenting entertainments for the others. We sang, we danced, we performed tricks, we repeated half-remembered scraps of the television shows we had seen. We were truly awful, but we had marvelous fun and we never admitted those performances were anything but wonderful.

Our time in Victoria was short and stressful. We made our escape to Smiley after 13 months. Sometimes I wonder how different our lives might have been if we had not answered that call to Victoria. Perhaps those 13 months were necessary in order for us to find our way to Smiley and relative happiness for 9 years. I think fondly of my time playing on Alcoa Drive and try hard to forget the rest.

My world was generally a gray place in Victoria. But I learned that even in the dark times, you occasionally find a ray of sunshine to enjoy, however briefly. I learned to ride a bike. I made a good friend. I discovered some new interests that stayed with me. After awhile the rest didn’t matter so much.

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