Learning a Strawberry Flavored Lesson

“Hey Missy,” said Vicky Porter, lying on the mat next to mine. “Do you think we’ll get ice cream for snack today?”

Our kindergarten class was housed with the other kindergartens in a small trailer set apart from the “big” school. We could hear the noises of bulldozers and backhoes every day while construction crews worked on the addition that would house us sometime in the near future. Our daily snack was right after nap-time. On very lucky days an old lady with a blue paper cap covering her very tall, very white beehive would come from the big cafeteria pushing a small freezer cart full of Dixie cups up the wheelchair ramp and down the narrow, dark hallway from class to class. I was the only kid in my class who always picked strawberry. I liked the mixture of tangy and sweet melting on my tongue.

I opened one eye to look in the direction of the teacher’s aide who came to sit with us at nap-time while Mrs. Fleming, our soft-spoken teacher, took her lunch break. The aide was sitting at the desk, head on his hand, looking half-asleep himself.

“Nah,” I whispered. “We just had ice cream on Monday.”

I had a mind like that, always keeping track of the details of day-to-day life. I could have told you what I had eaten at every meal in the past two weeks.

“Shoot,” said Vicky. I thought her very daring. Shoot was on the list of near-curses we were forbidden to utter in school.

A few minutes later, Mrs. Fleming returned from lunch. “Were you children good?” she asked. “Did anyone talk during nap time?”

Vicky raised her hand. “Missy did,” she said.

My head whipped around. How could she? “But…!” I said. “Vicky talked first!”

“Did you talk during nap time, Missy?” my beloved teacher said.

“Yes, but…”

“Go stand in the corner,” she ordered.

I felt the hot pink flush spreading from my cheeks to my forehead to my neck as I rolled up my mat and made my way to the corner. There I stood, blinking back stinging tears of betrayal. I never trusted that Vicky Porter again. I never talked during nap time again, either. In fact, I had learned my lesson well. I never broke another rule in the next twelve years of public school. Period.

(And by the way, there was ice cream for snack that day. But I didn’t get any. I was still staring at the wall.)

My daughter is a different sort of animal. Apparently talking during nap time is small potatoes these days. If my daughter spent ten minutes in the corner every time she talked when she wasn’t supposed to she’d spend most of her time staring at the wall. Instead, each classroom has an elaborate system of warnings in the corner of blackboard often involving checkmarks and Xs and lists of children’s names.  Apparently the three-strikes and you’re out laws have penetrated elementary schools, except that “out” involves missing ten minutes of recess or not getting to take the attendance list down to the school secretary and the strikes can be erased with good behavior.

Recently the fifth-graders have gotten out of hand. It’s spring, and these kids will soon be off to middle school. Various illnesses have taken Saadia’s teacher down for the count, allowing these kids even more opportunity to act out with a substitute. Recorded messages from the principal are broadcast by phone to all parents of fifth-graders at least once a week that urge us to help control our kids’ behavior.

I was happy to say that Saadia seemed to be staying out of it. Periodically I would check in with an authority figure just to make doubly sure. After one particularly bad day, the principal pulled me aside to let me know that Saadia was keeping her nose clean, which seemed surprising but was certainly a relief. Maybe my girl was finally figuring out the system. I had gotten the message in kindergarten, but fifth-grade wasn’t so bad. She had learned to toe the line while misbehavior was still about not paying attention during math lesson and didn’t yet involve hiding in the bushes to smoke something illegal.

The next day I came to pick her up from her after school club but she wasn’t there. After some searching, I finally found her and several of her peers under the watchful eyes of a teacher’s aide and the school principal in a corner of the cafeteria.

“What’s up?” I asked Ms. Davies, the principal.

“Well,” she said, in a low voice so the kids wouldn’t hear, “I pulled the kids who acted out yesterday out of the classroom for in-school detention, explaining there had to be consequences for their behavior.”

“But Saadia was fine yesterday, wasn’t she?” I asked.

“Saadia asked to speak with me privately,” she said. Her eyes began to get teary. “Then she told me that she deserved consequences too.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because she had hit Steven,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“She was very sincere,” said Ms. Davies, “and crying and everything. So I had her come for in-school detention as well.” I noticed Ms. Davies’ own lip quivered a tiny bit. “Afterward I told the kids they needed to take responsibility for their actions, and that they should all follow Saadia’s example.”

What was this? I thought to myself. Saadia hauls off and hits a kid but emerges from it looking like an angel?

“Obviously you’re doing something right, Melissa,” said Ms. Davies. “You are doing such a wonderful job teaching Saadia good, strong values.”

I stood and pondered my kid. She was sitting at the end of a long bench hunched over a worksheet, sneaking looks at me every so often to see how I was reacting to this news.

Someone had learned a lesson or two, that’s for sure. Unfortunately it was a little too little, too late.

If only I had tattled on myself in kindergarten, I might still have gotten ice cream.