Grade 5 started out on an auspicious note. I not only had a new haircut, new clothes and new shoes, but I had also been taken to Ann & Hope to have my ears pierced!
I’m sure I felt stylish and grown up as I got to ascend to an upstairs classroom. I think this was the year that the lunch boxes gave way to school lunches, although I’m not really sure that was such a good thing for a budding vegetarian. Nevertheless, I set out to walk to Danversport Elementary School from our apartment on River Drive brimming with enthusiasm for my new status as part of the upper echelon in the grade school that would only contain us for another year.
I was taken aback almost immediately when I was assigned to Mrs. Luoma’s classroom in which I only knew two or three other kids and no one else! I’d always been shy, often painfully shy, and this was about to be my worst nightmare in school yet. I felt it in my bones. I’m certain I turned pale as a ghost and wished I could flee the scene before anyone noticed me. (Sound familiar to previous stories I’ve shared?) Yet this fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Luoma, was nobody’s fool. She was tough and I’m pretty sure she’d been forewarned about my proclivity for hatching nearly foolproof escape plans.
I was seated in the first row, dead-center in front of her desk. There was only one door to enter and leave through and I wasn’t about to jump out a window, even if I could see the fire escape not far from the ledge.
By the end of the first day I knew I wasn’t going to make it in a sea of strange faces. I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t find my voice and mostly I was afraid of this loud teacher, with her brightly colored clothes and jewelry, high heels, strong perfume and her no-nonsense, take-no-prisoner’s style of teaching. So I did the only thing I could do: I complained loudly and often enough to Mom that she intervened on my behalf. After all, I’d managed to stay in school (mostly) during fourth grade and she sure as heck didn’t want to see me backslide into playing hooky in fifth.
Dear old Mom called Principal Robinson, whose office was at the Riverside School. She must have been very persuasive, because suddenly Mrs. Luoma was called out into the hallway for a chat. The next thing I knew (and I remember this in great detail) Mrs. Luoma, with a very stern expression on her face came back into the room with her eyes on me like a laser beam and her voice dripping icicles as she said: “Laurie Liscomb, get your desk and your things together. Push them across the hall to Mrs. Grabowski’s room. I understand you have friends in there.”
I stood on wobbly legs, gathered my few belongings and pushed that desk and attached chair just as fast as I could under her withering gaze. I may have had to tolerate sheer terror for the couple of minutes it took me to move, but once I was out of there and back with kids I at least recognized, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and settled down.
Perhaps the most important face I saw was my good friend Wendy. Wendy’s parents always bought her the latest Nancy Drew books and Wendy was really cool about lending them to me. I’d learned that I no longer could try to hang on to them, to “keep them safe from Wendy since she didn’t take care of them,” so things were fine.
Now that I was settled in my second classroom of the year, there were other challenges to face: the hot school lunches that were delivered half warm and mostly soggy, the girl’s bathroom down in the basement and gym classes in our regular classroom with our desks pushed to the side. I’m sure these things existed in Grade 4 at the same school, but they are magnified in my mind as much more serious issues in Grade 5. Those trips to “the basement” were scary! We always had to have a buddy go with us, but it was still the place where a fraidy-cat like me would be threatened with a good beating up by the tough girls!
As time went by they did have us switch teachers for different lessons during the day, and I was placed with Mrs. Luoma for math. She was horrified when she found out that I had come out of fourth grade without having an inkling of how to do long division. Whoops. I guess that back in Mr. O’Shea’s class I was so involved with Roman numerals that long division somehow passed right by me. In the end, I grew to have great respect for Mrs. Luoma and she patiently taught me long division so I could catch up with the rest of the class.
Fifth grade also heralded the birth of my interest in newspaper writing. Oh sure, when Mom wrote “Getting Personal” for The Danvers Herald years before, I’d tagged along to the office while she wrote her columns. I’d offered pointers and suggestions and helped correct misspellings typos, but this time I had a mission. The energy crisis was upon us and I’d seen all the lights on at the Liberty Tree Mall an hour past their closing time.
I’m not sure why my parents and I were out and about at 11 p.m., but we were. My first published letter to the editor (also The Danvers Herald, but Mom no longer worked there), plainly states that it was after eleven. I still have the original copy, saved in my school days journal.
One final note about fifth grade: our quarterly report cards consisted of a single piece of paper, broken down into numerous categories. Of the three choices: “Almost Always,” “Frequently” and “Seldom” from which the teachers could use to rate us in said categories, I achieved “Almost Always,” well, almost always. Which leads me to the question: what in tarnation was I up to the rest of the time?