Snotty nosed Kirk Talbot sat in front of me in Mr. Holovakia’s alphabetized fourth and fifth grade classes at Spring Farm’s Elementary School. Kirk was in the fourth grade of the split-class with me. We refused to study while our classmates in the higher grade followed direction of the greasy-haired teacher. When Holovakia turned his instruction to the Fifth Grade side of the class, our sinister selves emerged.
Near the window in the last row, names T-Z were like cows to pasture. Mike Zimmerman hated reading as much as Kirk and me, but was fierce when it came to creating spit-ball shooting contraptions from everyday ink pens. Kirk and Mike were in constant battles of saliva soaked balls of paper. Despite a true, inner desire to learn to finally read and not flunk like I did in second grade, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to jab holes into tight- fitting, bell bottom slacks that Kirk bent over in while aiming for the space between Mike’s lost-looking Mennonite eyes.
Kirk’s hair was like mine– Mick Jaggerish, falling in one big bang of brunette bronze into cunning eyes that peer like that of lizards aiming for a fly with a long, split tongue.
When Kirk abruptly turned in Linda Blair fashion to face towards the blackboard when Mr. Holovakia looked our way, he appeared, in my childish eyes, like Dorothy Hamill.
My mother made a formal complaint to the school principal regarding Kirk and the ineffectiveness of split fourth and fifth grade classes. Mom wanted me moved away from him. After a radio wrist-watch that my grandmother Meme gave to me the Christmas of 1975 went missing, my mother was outraged.
“I told you not to take it to school. What do you mean you lost it?”
“I don’t know, Mom. I was sure that I put it in my desk before recess, but after we came in from playing kick- ball, it was gone. Maybe Mr. Holovakia took it thinking we ain’t supposed to have radio wrist-watches at school.”
“I bet it was that litter bastard, Kirk Talbot, wasn’t it? I want you to not talk to that boy. He’s bad seed.”
“I can’t help it, Mom. Kirk sits in front of me.”
“Well, I’m going to this PTA meeting tonight,” Mom threatened while applying heavy make-up from a round, mirror and pad- filled cylinder. Mom was like a white Lt. Uhura from Star Trek when she was pissed.
“I want that watch back and that lousy teacher you have is going to pull it from Kirk Talbot’s filthy little hands.”
I was terrified. I didn’t want to move away from Kirk in class. I had a crush on him, but Mom was on the war path. My Mom always got what she wanted from men because she is very pretty.
Kirk was absent from school on Monday following what likely had been a heated Friday night PTA meeting at Springs Farms Elementary School. I was happy Kirk was out sick. The coast was clear. With his big head full of uncombed hair out of the way, I had unobstructed spit-wad aim at my cousin, Steve Smith, who sat in front of Kirk in class. Steve rarely toyed with improvised school weapons like cafeteria milk straws converted into deadly blow-guns. His game of goofing off was more advanced.
Kids in the fourth grade with names starting S-Z were sheer geniuses when it came to inventing ways of rebelling against our teacher and a school with rules that were far too stringent. It was easy to fool around without getting caught in our row of chairs next to large windows that overlooked corn fields and rolling hills in every direction. We were like privileged snobs sitting in the orchestra section of a theater. We, the lower- lettered names, sat like kings and queens of parliament, in seats of prestige and intelligence. All I could do as a little child trying to obtain a decent education was hold up spectacles and watch all that was happening around me in what was later deemed ‘the goof-off row’. It was so much fun. Life was rich and there was so much to be learned.
We studied hard to out- do each other with mischievous tricks that we pulled from sleeveless t-shirts. Instead of primitive spit-wad shooting, my cousin Steve spoke in a near-perfect Donald Duck dialect by puffing air into his cheeks; squeezing oxygen through the opening of his mouth, using his vocal chords to project Walt Disney into young, learned minds. Mr. Hololvakia was busy writing instructions with chalk on a blackboard. He didn’t know that quiet, brown-eyed Steve was the one who could create the sound of the cartoon character in near perfect pitch.
“Go to heaven and take a U- turn,” Steven, squawked like Donald Duck. He projected a hysterical avian voice across the room like a ventriloquist. His aim was the back of a plaid green jacket worn by Mr. Holovakia. The smelly wool coat hid a ‘ring-around-the-collar’ stained dress-shirt, but the thick wool garment was no defense to the hysteria Steve’s duck accent had on the students. Even on the most humid of school days, Holovika wore that smelly jacket in class. In a rare twist of fashion, our teacher took off his coat and tossed it to the floor.
“Kirk Talbot, Mr. Holovakia shouted without turning from creating Roman Numerals on the blackboard. He paused in writing in white for one moment while adjusting thick, black-rimmed glasses that caressed his face like pop-bottles over thirsty, cavity-filled mouths before ripping off his coat like an animal.
“If that is you making that Donald Duck sound, I assure you that you will be at the principal’s office by mid-afternoon.”
Kirk could not defend the accusation of making funny voices, nor do anything to get back at Steve with Holovakia fuming at the front of the classroom. After the mysterious voice of Donald Duck faded, when the class had finished giggling, and Holovika returned to his numbering, Kirk nailed my cousin with a ‘greenie’ spit-wad on the back of his head. Steve wore hair spray on his helmet-like, feathered hairstyle. The soggy pieces of paper bounced off, as if Steve had Wonder Woman’s bracelets as barrettes in his hair.
Holovika had to do something to break-up our ring of devilish fire. We were a motley crew that needed separation if anyone were to learn anything in school that year.
Report cards had just been issued a day before the PTA meeting. I assumed that Kirk probably received a few red ‘F’s’ and was now ‘sick’ from severe whippings he received from his grandfather who was raising him on a shoestring budget and an unlimited supply of hickory sticks. I doubted Kirk’s grandfather attended the PTA meeting to talk to our teacher like my mom had. Kirk showed me the welts hidden under a baseball shirt with insignia of the rock band Kiss on the back. The souvenir rock band shirt covered the bloody welts on his back perfectly.
Kirk, my childhood sweetheart, looked just like a diamond back rattlesnake with his shirt up.
How could anyone hit a child so hard, I wondered as Gene Simmons stared me down in painted face while I tried to get an honest education. Kirk was a bad boy, but he wasn’t a snake. He must have received a bad whipping and was sick from report card blues, I assumed.
Concerned parents like mine flocked to the PTA meeting. My mom was very concerned about how I was acting in class. I thought for sure Holovika would tell her about my mischievousness. Two of her boys had already been ‘held- back’ in school once. We moved to Three Springs in the middle of a school year, two years prior. The adjustment was too much on me. I started Kindergarten at four and seemed always a little behind. Mom didn’t want me to flunk again.
Mom seemed happy in her new marriage. I watched her do her long, straight hair with a round brush and hair dryer and was so proud of how she salvaged our lives. She looked shinier than an apple on a teacher’s desk as she headed out to the school to meet with my teacher on a rather cold Friday night. I knew after Mr. Holovakia met my mom that my difficulties in school would end. Mom had a way of working with my teachers. She explained my slowness to them. She taught them how to bring me out of my shell, academically.
Spelling was hardest for me. We had weekly tests at school. Mr. Holovakia stood like a green Ronald Reagan jellybean at the front of the classroom, perched under the American flag appearing patriotic and smart. He pronounced words like Walter Cronkite. Students were required to write down the correct spelling of his words next to pre-numbered lines in school issued note pads. Words on the tests were already known. Students had time to study. They were inside of spelling books that every kid, including Kirk, Steve and me had. My mother sat with me for at least an hour every night with a wooden spoon. She cracked me on the arm each time I mixed up an A with an E or an I with a U. If I miss-spelled a word, mom ‘stirred’ me while cooking dinner.
Her new marriage gave her a glow. Living on the farm with Dad was hard on Mom. She had so very few friends then. Perhaps I was a poor speller just to get all of her attention now that she seemed happier and was making lots of new friends in town and in the school system. Nobody lived near us at our old house. And our old school, Brady Henderson Elementary, was an hour bus ride away from where we lived at the top of Stone Creek Ridge. The new school in Three Springs was better. The environment was more relaxing and entertaining. It was good to see Mom getting dressed- up again. I was sorry that I didn’t try harder in school as she headed out the door to meet my teacher. I knew I could have made all “A’s” and “B’s”, but I didn’t feel like it. I had other things on my mind. Times were changing. We all had social lives, and my life too seemed romantic with Kirk Talbot, the spit- wad master sitting next to me in class
I thought for sure my mother had Kirk expelled from school that Monday morning, or worse yet, she put a curse on him for ‘stealing’ my radio wrist-watch. Mom is as sweet as a rotten apple. Her temper rarely surfaced, but when it did, even grown men were terrified of her hard cider.
“I talked to your teacher about your watch,” Mom explained when she returned from the PTA meeting. “He thinks Kirk Talbot took it. He promised to contact Kirk’s guardian. Are you sure he stole it or did you give it to him?” Mom asked.
“Honest, Mom. I don’t know. I could have lost it myself. It ain’t no big deal. I could never hear anything on it anyhow.”
“Your grandmother gave you that radio watch! I ain’t never seen a fancy toy like that. You need to stop being such a girl and stand up for yourself! That watch was a gift,” Mom yelled.
I couldn’t help it. I didn’t care. I still couldn’t spell worth a damn and that watch meant nothing. My grandmother was out of my life following my parent’s divorce. I couldn’t talk to her with that watch anyway
Mr. Holovakia was in a pleasant mood at school on Monday morning with Kirk out sick. Our teacher explained a new grading system that he planned to implement. He called it his ‘AG Plus- Plus’ system. To kids like me, stronger in reading and writing than in math, Mr. Holovakia’s new grading system seemed very confusing. He promised that anyone who got everything correct on future tests would receive a green ‘AG++’ marking on their papers. Somehow, although it made absolutely no sense to me at the time, a true 100% would count twice when Mr. Holovakia figured out grades, averages and who would sit at the front of the classroom.
The only equation I understood in regards to Mr. Holovika’s new grading system was that we would have to start moving to a new desks each Monday. Our class would no longer follow rules of the alphabet and last names. Going forward, it would be publically known who was dumb and who was smart in class. Holovakia was going to line us up based on brain size. Kirk picked the right day to pretend he was sick.
I was surprised when Mr. Holovakia moved me into the third seat position, just behind the Yingling twins. What did Mom say at that PTA meeting?
The smartest kid in the class would be granted the privilege of sitting in the desk adjacent to Mr. Holovika’s desk and would be allowed to take out the chalkboard erasers outside each morning to knock off the dust. Each week, as our teacher figured out our new averages using the AG Plus- Plus system, we would have to move from desk to desk. Of course, those who were failing would be grouped together in the last row near a large bulletin board, where large posters and maps hung like centerfolds in prisons and jails.
The blue tiled floor under Kirk’s cluttered desk was covered with brown topsoil that had fallen from the tread of his black and white sneakers. I noticed all the mud as I reached inside my desk to pull out my books and pencils to move towards the front of the class.
The screeching sound of my classmate’s chair slid over tiny bits of gravel every day for an entire school year. His scratching sound would not be missed. The sound of his chair moving gave me the willies, but now, under AG++ rules, there would be silence in the seat in front of me. I was about to leave Kirk the dust. I just had to prove that I was smarter than the Yingling twins. They were clever girls, but I had common sense. The Yinglings, one blonde and one red haired, never participated in any unruly activity in the last row and were our teacher’s pets. Now I was one too– thanks to Mom.
I would have much rather ran my fingernails across the chalkboard than to hear the sound of Kirk sliding back in his chair, but this didn’t seem fair to my challenged friend. Kirk never sat still. He had such a bad home life. All day in the classroom, he slid back and forth, bumping the edge of my own desk with a plastic red chair, turning around occasionally to tell me about his grandfather’s cows and horses.
“I can ride bareback,” Kirk explained.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“No saddle. You just hold on to the horse’s hair.”
“That’s cool, Kirk!”
“I’m gonna own a farm with a big white house with five bedrooms when I get married,” Kirk explained to me while carefully adding more rubber cement to a big, grey rubber ball he stored in his desk and pulled out each week, following art class, to add to what he referred to as his ‘giant boogie’.
“So what? I’m going to have eight kids and all of them are going to have their own bedroom!” I promised.
“I’m going to marry Penny Chillcote,” Kirt boasted. My feelings we hurt for a moment, but then I realized that I was just a kid still, and eventually, I too would marry a woman as nice as my mom and Penny Chillcoat.
“No you h’aint,” I remarked. “Not if I marry her first.”
Penny sat four rows away from Kirk and me on the other side of the class, yet somehow, as if Penny had telepathy, she turned and smiled the moment I said those words.
“Do you like her?” Kirk asked.
“I think so,” I explained to my closest friend in class. “Did you ever see her hand with six fingers?” I asked. “Her extra pinky is so cool.” Kirk looked jealous, but I didn’t care. If he wanted Penny for himself, he could marry her and arrange to have that extra appendage removed before slipping on a ring, or perhaps, like me, Kirk would want her to keep her extra finger. Penny and me both did two years in the second grade with blue-eyed Mrs. Beck. Both our grades were good enough for passing, but because we were slow readers, Mrs. Beck talked our mothers into ‘holding us back’ at a PTA meeting. I loved Mrs. Beck. She told me all about her contact lenses for reading, and once took them out in front of me because something flew into them. She revealed bright green eyes, like mine. Mrs. Beck convinced my mother to hold me back a year. I loved her.
“I want to talk to my husband and keep him in my second grade class again next year. I like Charlie. He’s very smart. He just needs the right guidance, Mrs. Taylor, oh, I mean Mrs. Smith,” Mrs. Beck said to my Mom. My second grade teacher was married to Mr. Beck, the school principal. My Mom did everything that Mrs. Beck told her to do in regards to my education and a second year in the second grade was all that I needed to get right on track.
Mom wore a golden pair of earrings to the PTA meeting when she went to meet with Mr. Holovakia. Although my Mom only made it to tenth grade before my older brother was born, she took the education system seriously and used every thing in her power to create genius offspring. None of her kids were going to be without a high school degree like she was.
Mr. Holovakia’s eyes were big and round like my Mom’s Hula- Hoop earrings that Monday morning when Kirk was absent from school. I felt as smart as the Yingling twins as I took third-chair…