The New School in a Rustbelt City

I did third grade twice: once in Alvina’s room at Yoder School and once in Mrs. Lott’s room in Flint, Michigan. Mrs. Lott taught at South Bendle Elementary, eight blocks from our new home in the parsonage of the Mennonite mission church. Mr. Watson, the principal, looked at my age and said I was in third grade. No matter that I already knew how to divide and had already read Charlotte’s Web. So I dutifully re-solved last year’s math problems and answered endless comprehension questions from third grade readers.

Alvina liked school, but Mrs. Lott didn’t. And I could see why. Her room was full of too many noisy kids. These kids, I decided, must not have had parents who taught them to listen to a teacher. In Mrs. Lott’s crowded room, there weren’t enough desks to go around, and we had to share books. Besides all this, there were no meadows or woods around the school, no place for her to send students to gather flowers or to read under a tree.

No wonder she looked too tired to get excited about a lesson. She sat there behind her desk with her curls tight, not bouncy and free, her mouth in a thin straight line, and worry wrinkles across her forehead. I felt sorry for her. But I also felt restless—rutschy, as we said in Pennsylvania Dutch. Still I tried to be good, to not make even more trouble for Mrs. Lott.

In Mrs. Lott’s room the flies around the window sills droned on and on. I stared out the window and watched a colorless elm leaf drift from a tree. The breeze lazily picked up a corner of the American flag, then changed its mind and dropped it. I watched the second hand tick past the minute hand, and I squinted my eyes to catch the hour hand move. Is this what school would be like away from Alvina? And somewhere inside me, an ache began to grow.

I figured it out on my paper. Counting this year, I’d have to sit in school for fourteen years to get my college diploma—almost twice as long as my entire life so far. I had thought the hard part was over when I said good-bye to Yoder School, but now I knew the hardest part lay ahead.

The back of my throat hurt, like it was bleeding. I buried my face between my arms on my desk. I can’t do this, I thought. But I had to. I wiped my sniffles on the sleeve of my dress and picked up my book. I had to find the gumption to carry on—to learn to be a good teacher without Alvina.

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