Friday in Staggerford: A Sixth Grader's Perspective
Based on Staggerford By John Hassler
This story contains excerpted material from the book Staggerfort © 1974-1977 by John Hassler.
Thank you to: [My Mom] who spent countless hours scanning the book so I could read it like the rest of my peers.
The sound of drums and trumpets woke me from my dream. The dream was about John, the boy I wanted to marry when I got older. I could not complain to Mom; she thought I was too young to have those dreams. Maybe she did not have those dreams in sixth grade, but I did. John was tall, dark and handsome, just like in the fairy tales. He was so tall Miss McGee always asked him to help with anything she could not reach. He was also nice. Not just the be-nice-until-the-teacher's-out-of-the-r
I knew this niceness was the only reason he gave me the time of day. I am tall, skinny and ugly. Miss McGee says I am not ugly and that what God did not put on the outside, he gave extra of on the inside, but I still say I am ugly.
I rubbed my eyes, grabbed my blue dress and white stockings and headed for the bathroom. Even though my teacher, Miss McGee will not let us wear makeup, I still try to make my face look good. I wash it three times in the morning and three times at night. I always fuss with my hair to make it look good too. Miss McGee says young girls don't need makeup; she says that makeup is the devil's way of tricking us into believing we're not good enough the way God created us. I am not so sure. Maybe I am good enough the way God created me, but good enough is not what Miss McGee always wants on writing assignments.
"Jennifer Anne Smith, you get down here now," Mom said. I guess with all of the dreams about John and noise from the band practicing; I had missed her first call for breakfast.
"Sorry mom!" I yelled as I ran down the stairs.
"That's okay. I know the band makes it hard to hear up there. Honestly, I don't understand why they practice so early in the morning." Mom set a plate full of toast, bacon, eggs and apple slices in front of me. I reached for the jelly, then realized it was in front of Mom. I remembered the lesson on table manners Miss McGee gave us and asked Mom to pass the jelly instead. "My aren't we proper! I'll have to thank Miss McGee at parents' night."
"Mom," I groaned. I liked Miss McGee, but I did not want her to use me as an example. Other kids would tease me.
"She'll be proud of you." I did not answer. I knew it would make Miss McGee happy to know I had used the skills she had taught us in class, but if the other kids teased me, I would have a hard time staying a good kid in the class.
While we were working on our reading, something called "Goths and Visigoths," Miss McGee told us that a poet would be visiting. She said his name was Herschel Mancrief. I could tell she was excited. She does not show excitement the way most of us do, but when she said the word "poet," she got this look in her eyes that I cannot describe.
"Meeting a poet is a memorable experience," she said. "When I was a girl, my class was visited by Mr. Joyce Kilmer, who wrote 'Trees,' the poem every child carries in his heart from the primary grades, and to this day I can recall what Mr. Kilmer said to us. He came to Staggerford a mere two years before giving his life for his country in World War One."
How does "Trees" go? I wanted to ask this question, but I was afraid. Luckily, most of the other students beat me to it.
"Heavens, surely you remember," she said. I noticed that she didn't look well. Then she started to recite the poem.
I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
I sighed contentedly; I liked it. Then, the door opened. Sister Rosie had a man with her. He didn't look the way Miss McGee always insisted the guys in our class look. She'd probably have said he was untidy; he was wearing a t-shirt under his suit, he had a moustache, a beard that didn't look nice at all and his shirt was dirty.
Miss McGee said she was pleased to meet him and modeled how she wanted us to shake hands. But Hershel Mancrief only said "Groovy," and tapped her hand. We knew better than to laugh. Miss McGee wouldn't have permitted that, but the way those two contrasted was pretty funny.
Usually when we have a visitor, Miss McGee is glowing with anticipation, but I noticed that she sat down more quickly than usual.
"Mr. Mancrief has already been to three rooms and he has another one to visit after yours, class, and he has to leave by twelve thirty, so when his time is up please don't bug him to stay." Sister Rosie said.
Then she was off. She told Mr. Mancrief where to go after our room and shut the door.
"I am here to make you childlike," he said. "I am here to save you from growing up." His voice was deep and wheezy, and his frown was fixed. "You see, grownups aren't sensitive. They get covered over with a kind of crest. They don't feel. It is only through constant effort that I am able to maintain the wonder, the joy, the capacity for feeling that I had as a child." He stopped blinking, but then he scratched himself under his suitcoat. "Do you understand what I am saying?"
We weren't sure what to do. Should we nod? Or should we ignore him? I just wanted to do what Miss Mcgee said we should do. She nodded, so I did too. I looked around and most of the class was nodding too.
"Good. Now here's a poem of mine called 'What I Envied.' It's an example of what I'm saying.
He started to chant, sort of like my friends and I do when we're pretending to call up the spirits on a ouija board.
"I envied as a child
the clean manikins in store windows because their underwear fit
their toes were buried in thick carpet
their happy smiles immutable,
until my father driving us home
past midnight after a day in the country
passed a window full of manikins
and then I knew
the trouble it must be
to smile all night!"
Then he opened his eyes. I guess that meant the end of the poem. I couldn't help thinking back to the poem "Trees" Miss McGee had recited for us. It was different. I didn't think you were supposed to say "underwear" in a poem. Miss McGee nodded, so the rest of us nodded too.
Then Mr. Mancrief took off his suitcoat and put it on Miss McGee's desk. I hope it doesn't get her desk dirty, I thought. I noticed that he'd knotted a rope around his waist to hold up his pants. It was dirty. I thought it was gross.
"Good. You remember how heroic those manikins used to seem when you were small and they were larger than life. You would see one in a store window and it was enough to make you salute. The pity is that you gradually lose your sense of wonder for things like that. Take toilets, for example. My poem 'So Tall' is about a toilet." Then he started to recite another poem.
"How tall I seem to be these days
and how much I am missing,
things at ground level escape my notice
wall plugs wastebaskets heat registers,
what do I care for them now I am so tall?
I was once acquainted with a toilet
when it and I were eye to eye,
it would roar and swallow and scare me half to death.
What do I care for that toilet now,
now I am so tall?"
I couldn't help it. I started to giggle, but I had to stop it fast. I could tell miss McGee didn't like the poem very much. She didn't laugh at all. Then Mr. Mancrief started to talk to Miss McGee.
"You are surprised I got a toilet into a poem? But poetry takes all of life for her domain. The beautiful and the un-beautiful. Roses and toilets. Today's poet seeks to represent the proportions of life. You don't very often pick a rose, but you go to the bathroom several times a day." I wasn't sure I could argue with him. Maybe, if Miss McGee was in a good mood later, I'd ask her what she thought. I didn't have much time to think about it though because then Mr. Mancrief started to recite his next poem. He said it was called "In My End Of Town."
"In my end of town
like a cathedral against the sky
stands the city sewage plant,
the direction of the wind
is important to us,
in my end of town
Then Miss McGee got up out of her desk. She walked the way she walks when she's going to punish one of us by sending us out into the hall. She stood beside Mr. Mancrief. "Students, you will thank Mr. Mancrief," she said.
"Thank you Mr. Mancrief," we said in unison. She handed his coat to him, but didn't touch him. She pointed him to the door then to room 102 which was his next room. But he didn't like that.
Actually," he said, blinking as he backed into the corridor, "I hadn't finished."
"I regret we can spare you no more time. We recite the Angelus at twelve." He just looked surprised. He opened Sister Judy's door, then Miss McGee said something we couldn't hear. Neither Sister Judy, nor Mr. Mancrief looked too happy. Miss McGee shut the door.
"Entirely undistinguished, class. You will rise now for the Angelus." We all stood up.
After we'd recited the Angeles, Miss McGee dismissed us to go out for recess.
On the playground, we all stood around talking. A few students kicked a ball around, but the rest of us just talked.
"I can't believe he said underwear, toilet and all that stuff in front of Miss McGee! Didn't Sister Rosie warn him?" My best friend Nicole Silvers opened her mouth in mock shock.
"He had most of it coming to him. I liked the poem about trees better anyway. I think it's pretty."
"Jenny, you're always taking Miss McGee's side," Nicole playfully punched my arm. We both laughed. We can't fight about anything, one of us always laughs right when everyone else would say "I'm not your friend anymore." The circle broke up and we headed for the monkey bars.
When we went into the lunch room, I saw Mr. Mancrief in the back where all the teachers sit. Miss McGee didn't look happy to see him. The rest of us didn't care. We discussed the football game; it was against the Owlbrook Owls. Most of us were going except for the ones whose parents were taking them camping.
"I bet they won't win," John said.
"Yeah, you're probably right, but if nothing else, we can eat popcorn," I retorted.
The afternoon went by slowly. We took a spelling test in which I missed the words "hygiene" and "together".
Then Miss McGee had us start working on equal lateral triangles. Those aren't too confusing, but I didn't want to do work. I wanted to go outside and play some more.
Miss McGee opened the door and we could hear the kids in Sister Judy's class talking and laughing. I wondered what they were talking about.
Miss McGee left the room. Then, the fire alarm went off. Miss McGee rushed back into the room and made us line up. Then she rushed us outside.
"Ooh! I wonder what's on fire in school," John whispered to me. I wasn't sure I liked him anymore. He was so sarcastic all of the time. I'd try not to dream about him anymore.
The fire trucks pulled up to the building. I hadn't smelled any smoke, but the fire chief went into the school. I guess he was looking around. When he came out, he yelled that it was a false alarm. Miss McGee told us to line up and led us into the school. The fire chief asked Miss McGee something, and she answered, but I couldn't hear anything. When we passed the alarm, outside our classroom, I noticed that the glass was broken.
When the bell finally rang and Miss McGee said we could leave, I walked slowly out of the building, but as soon as I could, I ran. I wanted to get home and change out of my uniform into play clothes.
After I changed, I took my bike for a ride around the block. I kept thinking about the poems. I wondered why we never learned to say "Trees," and why Mr. Mancrief didn't write something so pretty.
His poems weren't that nice. I didn't think a toilet belonged in a poem. I was daydreaming about the poems so hard, I didn't see the bump in the road. I went sailing off my bike in front of the handlebars. My knee was scraped. I walked back to the house, limping a little bit.
When I got home, Mom was fixing supper. "Are you alright Jenny?"
"Yeah, Mom, I just fell off my bike."
"It wasn't a car I hope."
"No, I was just daydreaming."
"That's nice dear. What kinds of poems?"
"Trees. And then the poems by Hershel Mancrief." Just then my father came in the door, letting it slam behind him.
"Who's Hershel Mancrief? A new student at school?" Dad cocked his head when he asked this.
"No, he's a poet who came to our class."
"Oh, how divine! Your grandmother was in Miss McGee's class in first grade. Did Miss McGee tell you how Joyce Kilmer visited their class?"
"Yes. She was telling us about the poem 'Trees'."
"Ah, yes, the poem we all memorize in first grade."
"I didn't. Neither did anyone in my class. Miss McGee recited it for us. I thought it was pretty."
"So what does that have to do with Hershel Mancrief?" I rolled my eyes behind Mom's back.
"He's the poet who visited our class. His poems were different. They talked about manikins, underwear, toilets and the smell of sewers. I'm not sure what to think about them. I was thinking about that and that's why I fell off my bike." We all looked down at my knee which was still bleeding.
"Oh Jenny! Go to the bathroom and wash that out with water. I'll be there in a minute." Mom looked at me sadly. I always used to love the way she took care of scrapes when I was little. Now, though, I didn't see why she made such a fuss over them.
"I'm sure it's fine Mom. I'll go wash it off with water." Mom got so busy with making dinner she forgot about cleaning out my knee and I didn't remind her. Soon, it was time for dinner. We ate quickly so we could make it to the football game in time.
Just as we were about to leave the house, someone knocked on the door. "See who that is Jenny," Mom said.
I opened the door and saw a shadowy woman there." "Bones?" She asked.
"Mom, do we have any bones?"
"No, not tonight."
"Sorry, not tonight." I closed the door and ran to the kitchen. "I wish I hadn't had to answer that. That lady creeps me out!"
"Just think of it as practice for Halloween tomorrow."
"Oh, Robert, leave her alone. I'm sorry you're scared by her, Jenny. To be honest, I feel sorry for that daughter of hers… Beverly is it? Imagine having a mother like that and having your father convicted of some crime or another." Mom shook her head. "There's no use talking about it now. Let's go to the game."
At the game, Mom gave me five dollars for snacks. "You've earned it," she smiled.
I sat with my friends from school. They were still talking about the fire alarm, the poems and whether Hershel Mancrief was any good or not. Jane said she wouldn't go out with him.
"He's so dirty!!"
"What does that matter?" John looked pretty dirty himself. I wondered if he'd enjoyed Hershel Mancrief.
"I don't know. I don't want to grow up. It's kind of like he said." Mike always said stuff like that. This time, I wasn't sure whether I agreed or not. There were so many unknowns. By this time next year, we'd all be in seventh grade at the junior high.
"Hey, guys, let's go get popcorn and soda," I said. We all jumped up eagerly.
"Perfect timing!" Jane said. The band struck up "El Capitan" to signify half-time.
When we got to the concessions stand we had to wait in line. Mr. Pruitt, who taught senior English at the high school, stood in front of us. When it was his turn, I listened to his conversation with the girl at the stand. I think her name was Roxie. She'd been traveling a lot and whenever Mom heard one of her stories, she told me to leave the room. Usually, she's not wearing very much material if you know what I mean. Tonight must have been too cold because she was wearing makeup instead.
Mr. Pruitt gave her a dollar and said, "Keep the change for the class treasury."
Roxie moved her hips and shoulders and gave him half a smile and said, "Don't be funny, Mr. Pruitt. It's a dollar forty."
He took back the one and gave her a five. "Can I still keep the change?" She winked.
"Don't be funny," said Mr. Pruitt. I tried not to laugh.
"Can I have some popcorn and a Coke?" Roxie handed me the food and I gave her Mom's money. She gave me the change and I went back to our seats. There wasn't anymore room so I ended up sitting near Mr. Pruitt and Ms. Kite the librarian. She was talking about some kind of money stuff which I didn't understand at all.
I noticed that Mr. Fremling who writes the newspaper was sprawled by the field. I wasn't sure, but I thought he was drunk. I knew from Mom's chats with Dad that this wasn't absurd for him.
The rest of the game was pretty boring until fourth quarter. The Stags needed one more touch down. We didn't get it though because Lee Fremling's butt blocked the ball. He couldn't help it though; the other team shoved him.
I gathered up my stuff. As I was looking for my Mom, I heard the superintendent's wife Viola Stevenson invite Mr. Pruet and Ms. Kite to their house.
I found Mom and we walked home. I was tired, so I went to bed early.
I did eliminate a few names just from the title page to protect people on the net, but obviously, all of the rest is fiction.