Miss Martin said we were going to do spelling next, which pleased me – I liked spelling. But when she started putting words on the blackboard, my stomach tightened. Why was she writing so fast? And what were those hieroglyphs?
It was the first day of second grade at my new elementary school in Narragansett, and not much was going well. I didn’t like being the new kid in class. I didn’t like riding a bus to school. And now, sitting at an old wooden desk with its useless inkwell hole, I didn’t like that Miss Martin was writing words on the board in cursive.
I didn’t know how to write in cursive. At Nelson Street School in Providence, where I had attended first grade, we only used block letters. Back home, you didn’t learn cursive until you reached third grade.
My family had moved to Narragansett in August, to a cedar-shingled Cape about 200 yards up the road from Salt Pond. I was a world away from the double-decker in Providence where my grandfather lived upstairs and my best friend was next door. Now, when I looked across the road, there was nothing but uninviting woods. By bedtime, the solitary streetlight seemed only to accentuate the darkness.
Still, there was one upside to the move: we had gotten a dog. Georgie was 100% mutt, with a soft, black coat and watchful eyes. Each morning, she greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail. At night, she sometimes slept on my bed, and I kept my feet warm by sliding them beneath her.
But on that first day of school, with Miss Martin’s cursive spelling words vexing me, Georgie seemed as far away as our old Elmhurst neighborhood.
I said nothing as everyone began copying the words onto their paper. Eyeing the first one, I strove to duplicate its slanted lettering as best I could. Hmm… Not bad. On to the next word… And the next… And when I got to the last one, I was relieved – my words were a reasonable match to the ones on the board.
Miss Martin looked up from her desk. She had short blond hair and perfect red lipstick. Her voice was clear and friendly. “Don’t forget to put your name at the top of your paper,” she said. My stomach tightened again, only this time it was worse. What did “John Walsh” look like in cursive? I had no idea.
I anticipated the comments I’d hear from my classmates in the cafeteria at lunchtime: “Hey, there’s the new kid – can’t even write his name.” Cue the laugh track from the Charlie Brown specials on TV: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”
I squirmed in my seat, moved my pencil to the top line, and scratched out J-O-H-N W-A-L-S-H the only way I knew how: in stop-and-go print letters. When we passed our papers forward, I buried mine at the bottom of the pile.
That night in bed, I worried about what Miss Martin would think. I wanted her to like me.
The bus ride to school seemed shorter the second day. I made friends with a kid named Jeff. His teeth were crooked, just like mine. School was better, too. Miss Martin’s flash cards turned math into a game. And playing tag during recess was fun.
When we returned to our classroom, our spelling papers from the previous day were waiting on our desks. Holding my breath, I saw that my paper sported a red-ink “Good!” and a silver star. And below my blocky J-O-H-N W-A-L-S-H, Miss Martin had written my name in cursive as beautiful and neat as the dress she was wearing. That was the extent of her instruction – no summons to her desk, no classroom call-out; nothing but a sample signature delivered silently to me.
I appreciated Miss Martin’s discretion. I sensed it was filled with understanding, even love.
That night, as my brothers lay on the floor watching Lost in Space on our black-and-white TV, I sat at the desk in our den and traced Miss Martin’s sample signature over and over again. By bedtime, I had mastered my cursive “John Walsh.”
I went upstairs, brushed my crooked teeth, turned out the light in my room, and fell into bed. As I slid my feet under Georgie in the darkness, being the new kid in class didn’t seem quite so bad any more.