She was my first crush. And given my age at the time – seven – it’s no surprise she was an older woman.
For purposes of this piece, I’ll call her “Miss K.” She was new, a young teacher who swept into our second-grade classroom on the first day of school and instantly swept me off my feet.
When you’re in second grade, everything in your school is big: from desks and books to kickballs and jungle gyms, hallways, lockers, the cafeteria, etc. And these big things all contribute to making a second grader’s experience big as well.
But in those first days and weeks of that school year, nothing – and no one – was bigger than Miss K, who arrived to co-teach with Sister Thelma, a nun who by my seven-year-old math had spent somewhere between 70 and 10,000 years on this Earth before any of us (Miss K included) was born.
By the time I attended Catholic elementary school, only a few nuns remained, most of them being replaced by lay teachers (i.e., teacher from the “general population”). Miss K was, no doubt, part of the changing of the guard.
And I was in love, in that innocent, naïve way only a seven-year-old can be.
Miss K didn’t walk, she glided. She wore brightly colored, modern clothes, “cool” ensembles like that of Marcia Brady or Laurie Partridge. And when she talked, she didn’t sound like a teacher. She had a style; graceful yet comfortable, stern but calm, one that commanded the respect and admiration of every second grader in our school.
Even when she “scolded” us (it’s what we called it back then), it sounded different and progressive, like we had been transported from our semi-rural, upper Midwestern town to sunny, surfy southern California.
Back then, those charged with common classroom misdemeanors – talking out of turn, cutting in line, making faces at your classmates, things like that – were sentenced to standing in the corner. The duration of the sentence generally matched the crime, and it was announced prior to incarceration.
But not for Miss K. No sir my friend, for her, “David, go stand in the corner for 10 minutes” wasn’t gonna cut it. Her delivery was more like something you’d have heard in a 1970s cop show, delivered in a low, sultry tone by a “lieutenant with an attitude.”
“Haznaw, hit a corner.” That’s how she did it, and it always got immediate results. No excuses, no backtalk. When she said, “Hit a corner,” you hit it, and you hit it now.
How long was your sentence? Only Miss K knew, and she’d release you when she was good and ready, and not a second earlier. Now, let me be clear about a couple of things. Given that it was her first teaching job, I’m sure Miss K was just as nervous about her early days and weeks as we were simply for the fact that we were second graders in a school also had eighth graders (basically, adults by our standards).
And, like us, I’m sure everything seemed big and scary to her as well, especially as part of the new guard of teachers and administrators working in a parochial school even though they had not dedicated their lives to the service of their faith. A tall order to be sure (pun intended; maybe you have to be Catholic to understand that joke).
That aside, for this second grader (and I can’t believe I was the only one who had a crush on her), she was iconic, and being told to “Hit a corner” was a badge of honor in my eyes. I couldn’t wait for those words to come my way, to get her attention; to be the center of her world for even a second.
The thing is, as a painfully shy, well-behaved rule follower, I wasn’t on her radar. Throughout the day, I’d watch her as she glided from kid to kid, helping others, reprimanding those who misbehaved, fielding requests from students who needed a tissue or help to tie their shoes.
I observed her as she learned the finer points from Sister Thelma and decades of experience she had earned teaching hundreds – maybe thousands – of second graders before us. But I was so shy at that age, I even had trouble doing something as mundane as asking to go to the bathroom, so it seemed like she didn’t know I existed.
Then, one day, we were working in small groups. Coincidentally (because in second grade you never got to choose your own group members), my best friend/cousin Mike and I were teamed up, along with several other students. (Even back then, when Mike and I got together, we tended to live in our own little world without paying much attention to those around us, not because we didn’t want others around us; instead, after “experiencing” us together for even the shortest amount of time, others generally preferred to leave us alone. Some things never change.)
Anyway, we were working on our project du jour, something simple and relatively fun (by school standards) like a mural or timeline, that could hold a fidgety, scatter-brained second-grader’s attention and give the teacher a well-deserved break from, well, a bunch of fidgety, scatter-brained second graders.
As we got comfortable, Mike and I talked while we worked. No big deal because during this project, talking was not only allowed but encouraged, if it pertained to the subject matter at hand. At one point, one of us said something funny (likely something funny only to us; that still happens five decades later), and we both laughed. Then, uncharacteristically for me at the time, I escalated the situation by playfully hitting Mike in the arm.
Then, it happened.
“Haznaw, hit a corner!” The words came out like a cannon shot, shaking my entire body. I was frozen, shocked and frankly, disappointed. It didn’t feel at all like I had imagined. Instead, those words hit hard, hurting me, like a prize-fighter stung by a right hook to the jaw when he was expecting a left jab to the ribs. Immediately, Mike went “stealth mode” (head down, coloring furiously with whatever crayon he could find), and I felt alone, singled out, guilty … and again, disappointed.
I was disappointed because that attention I had so craved wasn’t at all what I had expected. But more than that, I was disappointed in myself, a shy, well-behaved, seven-year-old who had been singled out for his behavior, his misbehavior. And I was disappointed that I had let her down, my first crush, the person whom I wanted to impress the most.
I couldn’t look at Miss K. I was too ashamed. So, with tears welling, I slowly made my way to the nearest corner to serve my sentence. In “second-grader years,” it felt like an hour, but it was probably about 90 seconds. Nonetheless, it was an eternity. And then, as I stood facing the shiny, sea-green tiled wall, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was hers.
“OK, David,” she said quietly and with no malice, anger or disappoint whatsoever in her voice, “you can go back to your desk.” I looked up, tears still at the ready, and as she looked down at me, she smiled and walked me back to Mike and my group, with her hand on my shoulder the entire time.
I had a good second grade year, and I’m sure it was largely due to Miss K, not because I had a crush on her or because she finally put me at the center of her world (even if it was only for a few seconds), but more likely because she was working just as hard to prove herself as a teacher who belonged in an extremely challenging profession as I was to prove myself in a school where just about everyone, and everything, was bigger than me.
(Man, she wore cool clothes.)
© 2022 David R. Haznaw