I'm sure I learned a lot of stuff in first grade—how to spell two-syllable words and basic math symbols and chisanbop—but I don't remember learning any of it. I have only two clear memories of the first grade, of which the report card thread put me in mind.
The first is drinking milk when Mrs. Ballas left the classroom during snacktime. I don't remember why she left—probably to run off some dittoes (it was like the internet, but with a hand-crank) or because she had to fart and didn't want to do it in front of a classroom of six-year-olds. I just remember that we were told to eat our snacks and drink our tiny cartons of milk and be quiet and don't leave our seats for any reason.
Maybe it was because Mrs. Ballas was out of the classroom, but I decided to try an experiment with my milk. There were two ways to drink milk: Through the provided straw, or straight from the inevitably mangled crease at the paper carton's opening. For unknown reasons (besides being a six-year-old), I wondered what would happen if I put the straw in the carton, closed the opening, and then tried to drink the milk upside-down from the straw.
What happens is that milk pours all over your face and down the front of your shirt.
I sat in the back of the class, near the sink, which we used to wash hands after painting projects and under which was stored the magic green powder that was poured on vomit. So I got up from my desk, without even a thought for the don't leave your seat rule, to clean the milk from my face and hair and clothes.
Immediately, the classroom filled with "ooooooh!" and "sssssssss!" and "I'm gonna tell!" My face burned red. I was going to be in big trouble. I hastily grabbed a few paper towels, dampened them, and returned to my desk, as 25 other judgmental faces glared at me.
My mind raced. I never got in trouble. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. Part of my mind was in a spiraling panic about the consequences I was going to face for breaking the rules. Another part of my mind was angry at my classmates for threatening to be tattling jerks because I didn't want to sit in class with milk souring on me.
The moment Mrs. Ballas returned to the classroom, half a dozen kids ratted me out. "Melissa got out of her seat!" "Melissa went to the sink while you were gone!" "Melissa broke the rules!"
Mrs. Ballas looked at me with surprise. She asked me if that were true. I quietly stammered that I'd spilled milk on myself and had gone to the sink to clean up. Mrs. Ballas said, "All right, that's understandable. Next time just wait until I'm back, okay? Rules are rules." I apologized, red-faced. The tattlers laughed with satisfaction, except for one boy, constantly in trouble himself, who complained so bitterly that I wasn't being punished that he got the demerit he believed I should have gotten.
A few minutes later, we broke for reading group. Mrs. Ballas came over to my desk and kneeled down beside me. "I don't mind that you got up to go to the sink," she whispered. "I trust you. It's everyone else I've got to worry about. I'm not mad." She winked at me. I felt confused, and relieved, and had some creeping sense that it was okay to break some rules, for some reasons, sometimes.
* * *
The other memory I have of first grade is that I was not a good colorer. I tried to stay inside the lines and use the right colors and follow the other Guidelines of Good Coloring, but my artistic talent is pretty limited. (You're seen my comics, right?)
Every time we had a coloring assignment, Mrs. Ballas would pick the best three and put them up on the cupboard doors. Mine were never chosen. I didn't care about the public display, but I did care about feeling like I was failing.
(That I felt as though I were failing merely by virtue of not being recognized as one of the best is a whole other issue entirely, and valuable lessons about that came later than first grade.)
One day, Mrs. Ballas, annoyed with the lack of seriousness with which certain members of the class were approaching their coloring assignments, held up one example of terrific coloring (care of the girl who would go on to become valedictorian of our graduating class a decade later) and one example of terrible coloring (care of Demerit Kid).
Valedictorian's was perfect in every way, as defined by the Guidelines of Good Coloring. Demerit Kid's was a giant mess, a jumble of scribbles that didn't even look good from a conceived chaos standpoint. He just didn't give a fuck, and it looked like it.
"Scribbles do not good coloring make!" Mrs. Ballas informed us. "Your coloring must be careful and you must take your time to color calmly. And don't think you can get away with a bunch of scribbling in the center and then only take care at the lines. I can tell. The whole thing must be tidy and precise!"
I felt solidarity with Demerit Kid, and the other scribblers in the class whose work never made it to the cupboard door. I resolved not to care about ever getting on that door.
Mrs. Ballas handed out that day's coloring assignment. It was an orange. A real one-crayon job. I pulled out my orange crayon, and a wave of defiance overcame me. I began to scribble furiously in the center of the orange—jagged, careless lines going every which way, exactly the sort of coloring Mrs. Ballas had explicitly just told us not to do.
This was a radical act for me at six years old. I'd gotten out of my seat for a reason. This was just sheer rebellion.
Scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble scribble. Layers upon layers of criss-crossing orange crayon. Scribble scribble. I filled in the white spots at the margins.
With my giant pencil, I wrote "orange" and my name at the bottom of the page, then turned in my paper.
A few minutes later, the bell called out the end of the day, and I grabbed my Kiss backpack from the cupboard and walked home, my mind reeling at the thought of what I'd just done. I was so intensely reflective about my orange that I couldn't even be bothered to yell back as Chad Brown side-stepped alongside me all the way home, chanting, "Boobies boobies let's see your boobies!"
Maybe my act of insurgence was already out of my head when I got home; maybe I tossed and turned about it all night. I don't remember, although I was prone to fits of outsized worry about everything then. (Then. Ha.) My memory only picks back up the next morning, when I walked into the classroom to discover my orange hanging on the cupboard, and decorated with a gold star. The best of the best.
I wanted to laugh. I wanted to tell Mrs. Ballas my secret. I wanted to wonder aloud to someone wise how it could be that deliberately breaking the rules so hard could have resulted in that gold star.
It occurred to me that maybe grown-ups didn't know everything after all.
I sat at my desk, and looked at my orange, and smiled. And then, still smiling, I turned my face toward Demerit Kid, who was holding a straw to his lips though which he blew a spitball that landed smack in the center of my forehead.
I still scribble when I color.