Mrs. Komnenovich was my fourth grade teacher.
I was nervous on the first day of school, but the
butterflies in my stomach were especially active since it was the first day of
a new school. We had moved for the
second time in eighteen months so this was the third school of my career in
public school and it was different from the previous schools because those
classrooms had all been on the single floor; Monfort Heights Elementary was a
great big, old, three-storey building with a basement. When Monfort Heights
Elementary inhabits my dreams it is always much bigger and has multiple
basements; it also has many, many stairs between my classroom and the bus and I
am always worried the bus will pull out before I can get there. It had a
gymnasium but no pool. However, in my dreams there is a pool deep within the
twisting and turning bowels of the hulking building - way beyond the lower
level locker rooms. This all sounds more ominous than I intended, but I think
the occasional dreams are just a way for me to work through particular stresses
in my life.
I do remember bits of that first day of the fourth grade; especially the
other students since this was my first time meeting them. The common names were Mike, Dave, Bob, Rick, and Tom for boys,
as well as Karen, Mary, Debbie, Barb, and Lisa for girls. There were so many Karens
that one girl opted to go by the pet name her family called her. Then there was
also the girl of Greek heritage who, shocking to the rest of us, had no middle
name yet when spelled out on paper her first and last names alone were longer
than any of our three names.
That year was the first year that lessons in stringed
instruments were offered in our school district and it had been decided to begin with fourth graders although the band instruments did not begin until the fifth grade. The “orchestra” teacher traced our hands on a piece of paper and
recommended an instrument based on the size of our hand and the length of our
arm. I picked the violin and I was surprised when my parents actually rented an
instrument and encouraged me to play. Once we got to junior high and then high
school, we were the class to introduce strings to each new school and we were
the first orchestra students to graduate. Many kids dropped out
along the way, opting to focus on sports or band or choir or art, but I managed
to hang in there. I enjoyed it, but I also felt obligated to stick with it. If
we all dropped out then future generations might not have this option. In
retrospect, perhaps it was silly of me to that kind of pressure on myself, but that
doesn’t make it feel any less real.
Fourth grade class work was challenging. I had always worked
hard in earlier grades because I wanted to do as well as the really smart kids.
You know the type: those who would shout out the last word on the spelling test
although the words were given in no particular order or who finished the math
assignment so quickly that they got to help the teacher grade the other papers.
In the third grade I had always felt a step behind in math; I never could seem to
finish quickly enough to help Mrs. Miller grade. My mom tells me it is because I struggled with the multiplication tables. Apparently I was a step behind
here at Monfort Heights as well. There were three fourth-grade classrooms and
for reading and math the students were divided by ability. At math time I found
myself in another classroom with all the students of the middle group; I felt
humiliated that I wasn’t good enough for the higher group. For reading, I was
sent to Mrs. Richardson’s class – also the middle group.
In Mrs. Richardson’s class, I learned the importance of a
good name. It happened only once, but I remember it well. While taking
attendance she commented about how strong one boy’s name was: Ben J. She
said it sounded like he would be a lawyer or a judge or something. She repeated
his name for emphasis. I still wonder how his life turned out.
I didn’t stay forever in Mrs. Richardson’s class because one
day she sent me back to my homeroom for reading. I had been promoted to the
higher reading class! I was stunned and embarrassed; I hoped I didn’t draw the
attention of the other children at that moment. But I was satisfied that I was
finally where I wanted to be.
That year was the first year I felt mocked and bullied by
another student. I wanted to do all things well and I wanted to be noticed, but even when I did well I did
not wish to draw attention to myself. In art class when I lamented the less
than satisfactory result on my project, one girl began to mock me. I think she interpreted my self-deprecating comments as false humility and decided to call
me out on it. She was a popular girl who always wore the latest styles and
confidently spoke her mind, so of course I wanted to be like her. I was
miserable when she teased me about my accent which, unfortunately, was stronger
whenever I returned from a trip to southern Kentucky to visit extended family.
So I worked hard to perfect my speech and use of grammar so as not to be
considered backward or stupid.
But English and grammar were difficult subjects for me – and
my grade card showed it. I was devastated when my report card had a C next to
English. Until that first fourth-grade report card I had straight As. I
now recall that the school I attended for the second half of the second grade
and for all the third grade was significantly behind the schools I attended in
the first and the fourth grades. But the only thing I could think of when I saw
my very first C, was that I was frustration because so much of the new curriculum
seemed foreign to me. I felt dumb.
Despite the challenges of fourth grade, there was one
redeeming thing about it: Mrs. Komnenovich. Mrs. K. (her name was often
shortened thusly because the closest some people could get to pronouncing her
name was Ms. Kuh-nen’-a-vich) must have been petite, because she didn’t seem
very tall or wide to me. She wore polyester pantsuits and the tops were usually
white or ivory colored and were printed with floral or geometric designs. Her
lipstick was too bright, but she smiled often. I do remember an occasional
student getting into trouble, but I do not recall her raising her voice or
yelling. She didn’t have the walls covered with stuff like the classrooms of
today, but the bulletin boards were always colorfully decorated and she planned
crafts around the holidays. Best of all, at the end of the school day if our
class work was completed, Mrs. K. played games.
I don’t recall if I ever had a teacher play “Around the
World” like Mrs. K. The game is played with flash cards. A student stands next
to the person seated behind him who is also standing. The first person to
correctly identify the card moved to the next person behind and the loser is
seated. Sometimes the subject was math, but my favorite was when she used the geography or States flash cards. The other students were familiar with the
game, and Ricky W. blew us all away when it came to identifying the shapes of
countries. With the States cards the subject would vary: state bird, state
capital, or the state itself. I lived
for the days we would play “Around the World”.
Sure, fourth grade was difficult, but there are lots of good
memories, too. Some of the friends I made there were with me the day I
graduated from high school. Since there were 557 students in our graduating
class, I had lost contact with many of those kids because our academic focuses
varied and some attended classes in other buildings in business, car repair, or cosmetology. I did see them in the halls from time to time. But I met
others who moved up through the ranks from other schools that fed into my high
school. And, thanks to Facebook, I have reconnected with some of those people.
We are parents and grandparents now and retirement is not so far off. I still
wonder where some of them are and what they do.
But the reason I began this story is Mrs. Komnenovich. I
wanted to tell you about the last day of fourth grade. All the achievement
testing was done. The field day competition was over. All the milestones for
the year had been reached. And we had one more “Around the World” game to play.
She got out her grade book for reference and we began in the front, far right
corner of the classroom. These questions were different. It was the Who’s Who
of Mrs. K’s fourth grade class of 1973. Who has the highest grade point
average? Who has the second highest grade point average? Who had the highest
score on the achievement tests? Who had the most (fill in the blank)? The
questions went on and on. She had prizes for the students who had achieved
The answers to most of those questions were obvious to us
all. We all knew who were the brightest and most talented among us. But there
was one question that had the entire class stumped. I believe every single
person had a guess and absolutely no one could give the correct answer. Mrs.
K. burst into laughter after my guess, an action which I tried not to take
personally, but how could I feel badly when nobody else could answer correctly either? Finally, Mrs. Komnenovich had to tell us who had the second highest score on the achievement tests. It was …
me. The whole class fell silent and stared at me as stunned as I. I slunk down
in my chair then went to her desk to retrieve my prize. Me?
Today, I have my doubts as to whether Mrs. K. would be
allowed to share those stats with the class as it is probably against the law,
ethics, and school policy to do so. But I am so glad she did. I might have felt
like I was lost somewhere in the middle when it came to grades and ability, I
might have seemed shy and backward to others, but on that last day of school
Mrs. Komnenovich found a way to let me know that I was special, too.
Thanks, Mrs. K!