By Robin Hemley
Hardcover, 336 pages
Little, Brown and Co.
List Price: $23.99
Most likely, you don't remember your nemesis in kindergarten, but I remember mine, probably because I had two. Virginia Adams was the teacher's pet, and our teacher, Mrs. Collins, hated me. She told my mother I was going to grow up to be "a thug." Those were her exact words. But she loved Virginia, and Virginia took every opportunity to flaunt her superiority. Often Virginia would sing to me: "I'm named after a state, and you're only named after a bird."
Mrs. Collins hated me because of an unfortunate encounter with a small rubber lobster. When we received our first report cards — full of Es and Ps and other letters hardly ever used beyond kindergarten — Mrs. Collins told us to bring them home to our parents, who had to sign them. In 1963, parents meant "Mom," and maybe that's even how Mrs. Collins phrased it: "Bring this report card home, and make sure your mother signs it before you come to class tomorrow." Most fathers, mine included, left the signatures and just about everything else to moms.
After my mother signed, I took a bath, and she allowed me to look at the card while in the water. I loved the pink report card and all those letters and words I couldn't read, and I loved my mom's signature, which was bigger than any other words inside the card.
Enter the lobster. Somehow, one of my little bathtub playthings, a thin rubber lobster about three inches long, found its way into my report card. Wet when it entered the report card, it dried and stuck between the thick pages. My older brother Jonathan probably did it, perhaps in payment for my flushing of his goldfish down the toilet the week before. I just liked magic. Now the fish is swimming in the toilet bowl. Flush. Now it's not.
When Mrs. Collins opened the report card the next day and brought it to her eyes to look at my mother's bold and beautiful signature, we both had a nasty surprise. The lobster popped up from the fold of the report card as though attacking her lips. She dropped the card and screamed, and after that I don't remember anything except that Mrs. Collins called my mother to school for an emergency conference and ranted for half an hour about me growing up to be "a thug."
At home, this type of incident would have provided great amusement for my family. But in my school life, this was serious. After the lobster, Mrs. Collins started a campaign against me. At sing-along, she accused me of mouthing the words (I most certainly did not! I shouted them!). When we finger painted, she accused me of finger painting "wrong" (is that even possible?!). For each offense, she sent me to sit facing the corner. At nap time, she'd hover over me and then press her foot into my back. She stepped on me almost every day.
Our classroom had its own bathroom, and we had to line up for it when we wanted to use it. Whenever I reached the front of the line, Mrs. Collins would grab my hand roughly and lead me to the back of the line. Of course, I'd do things in my pants as a result and then I'd get punished for that.
If I could have flunked kindergarten, I would have.
But I didn't hate Mrs. Collins. I was just baffled and wanted more than anything else to figure her out. The only clue I had that Mrs. Collins's Laws were not universally observed was when I tested her graham-crackers-and-milk rule at home. Mrs. Collins absolutely forbade us to dip our graham crackers in milk at snack time. Nothing upset her more, except maybe rubber lobsters. She explained to us that soggy graham crumbs, breaking off the Mother Graham Cracker, bobbed like little drowned bugs on the surface of a swimming pool or sank to the bottom like dead babies. And. This. Was. Disgusting! And she wouldn't tolerate it! Did we understand?!
So, of course, whenever she turned her back, we dipped our graham crackers in our milk, like some precision dipping team, and then stuck them in our mouths, gumming the soggy and delicious crackers. Nothing tastes better than disobedience. And one day when I went home, my mother asked me what I wanted for a snack, and I said, "Graham crackers and milk!" When she set them down in front of me at the kitchen table, I started defiantly dipping my graham crackers in my glass of milk and eating them. My mother seemed not to care. In fact, she turned her back on me!
"Look, Mom," I said. "Look what I'm doing!"
She turned around. "What?"
I dipped my graham cracker in my milk and stuck it in my mouth and bit down. Hard. There were crumbs in my glass, floating and sinking.
She thought this was a joke. She laughed. I was cute.
This should have been my first clue that all was not right in the grown-up world, but I thought the fault lay with my mother, that she had not been properly educated. I started to cry, ashamed that my mother was so uncouth.
On the last day of school, Mrs. Collins took me from the front of the bathroom line and put me in the back. Once again, I pooped in my pants, and I was mortified that Mrs. Collins would find out. While not quite as awful as dipping graham crackers in milk, pooping in your pants was right up there.
Every day, we had cubbyhole inspection. It's where we kept our blankets neatly folded and extra supplies. Before she'd dismiss us for the summer, on that fateful day, Mrs. Collins made us stand at attention beside our closed cubbies and await her verdict. She told us that we would not have summer if our cubbies were dirty, that we would stay in kindergarten forever and never go home. Ever. We all stood cowering, terrified by this possibility. Not having summer was one thing, but having to stay with Mrs. Collins forever seemed too much to bear. I was sure she was going to smell what I'd done when she approached my cubby, so I reached into my pants and pulled out what I'd done, which was luckily very hard and dry, and I secretly opened Virginia's cubby next to mine, expertly palming the turd, and snuck it inside. Then I closed the door.
When Mrs. Collins approached my cubby, I stood at the straightest attention I could muster, my eyes locked ahead of me.
"Step aside," she said and slid open the cubby and sniffed tentatively. She closed the door, said nothing, and moved on to Virginia's cubby.
"Why hello, Virginia," she said. "Do you have any pleasant plans for the summer?"
"My parents --" Virginia started and then stopped as soon as Mrs. Collins slid the door open and peeked inside. Mrs. Collins jumped back as though my dry turd would leap toward her mouth the way my rubber lobster had.
"Virginia!" she screamed, high-pitched, sounding like a bird in a state.
And then the scene blanks, and all I remember is looking in the window of the kindergarten after she had dismissed all of us but Virginia, who stood with her face in her hands, crying, while Mrs.Collins stood above her.