First Grade Flunkee… Growing Up in a Graveyard

Today, I am starting Section 2 of my book, “It’s 4 AM and a Bear Is Standing on Top of Me.” This section is titled, “Growing Up in a Graveyard,” which reflects that my first wilderness came with tombstones and ghosts. In Section 1, I took you along on the first backpacking trek I ever led. I quickly learned that leading 61 people aged 11-70 on a 100-mile trip across the Sierra Nevada Range came with challenges, to say the least. I spent a lot of time asking myself what in the world led me to do it. I begin to answer those questions in this section by taking you back further in time to the events in my childhood that led me to my love of the outdoors. Admittedly, the 1940s and 50s were a while ago. I’ve picked out the stories that are clearest in my mind and most relevant. Some, I’ve thrown in just for fun.

The question here is why should such an innocent looking child be kicked out of the first grade for a year…

I can still hear the clanking treads and feel the bite of the blade as my D-8 dug into the side of the steep hill. Dirt and rocks tumbled into the canyon below. I was working alone, cutting a logging road across mountainous terrain. The hot September summer sun was beating down; my body was drenched in sweat and covered in dirt. And then it happened. A portion of the cliff gave away— and the bulldozer went tumbling off the edge. 

“Oh, fuck!” I had yelled. 

It was a wonderful word, one that I had learned from my seven-year old brother. I didn’t have a clue what it meant, but it was deliciously bad. At five years of age, I was too young to be operating a bulldozer by myself in our backyard, even if it was only four-inches long, and the road I was cutting was along the edge of our compost pit. But my mother wasn’t the hovering type; she drank a lot. Empty wine bottles had a way of mysteriously appearing under her bed and in the clothes’ hamper that hid out in the closet. Being outside was better than being inside. My mother’s alcoholism was my introduction to being alone with nature.

I wasn’t totally alone. Coaly, our black Cocker Spaniel, was assigned babysitting duty.  At “fuck!” she wagged her tail and barked into our compost pit where the toy had fallen. 

“Go get the bulldozer, girl,” I urged. She gave me a ‘go get it yourself’ look. She wasn’t the ideal faithful-dog. The gray hair around her nose and aching joints spoke to her advanced years.  She had little tolerance for my youthful pranks. Healing scars on my foot reflected how little. My first-ever job was to feed the pets. I’d open a can of Bonnie dog food on both ends, push it out with one of the lids, and then use the lid to divide it up. The earthy horse-meat smell still lingers in my brain. Coaly got half, and each of our cats— the black Demon and the white MC— got a quarter. She’d wolf down her food down and then go after the cats’ portion. 

That summer I had discovered that Coaly growled ferociously if I messed with her share. I fed the animals outside on paper towel plates, the finest of china.  I always went barefoot in the summer and it was easy to reach over with my big toe and slide their food away. I quickly learned to leave the cats with their lightning fast claws alone. But Coaly was all growls and no bite. At least she was until she sunk her teeth into my foot. I ended up in the ER with a tetanus shot, stitches and zero sympathy. Coaly ended up gobbling her dinners and hassling the cats in peace.

At the time of the bulldozer incident, I had been granted a reprieve from school, or, to put it bluntly, I had been kicked out of the first grade— for a year. My mother was not happy. She had good reason to drink.

As her last child to enter school, she had been eager to get me out of the house. Make that desperate. The evidence is irrefutable. California had a rule then that five-year olds could go to the first grade if they turned six on or before March 1 of the following year. There was no such thing as kindergarten, at least in Diamond Springs in 1948. Since my birthday was on March 3, I missed the deadline by two days. Darn. Mother’s reaction was more colorful. She made a command decision. Forty-eight hours were not going to stand in the way of her little boy’s education, or her freedom. So, she changed my birth certificate.  March 3 was carefully erased and March 1 entered. I was bathed, dressed and shipped out, not the least bit aware that I had matured by two days. I think I recall hearing music and dancing as my sister took me off to school, a block away.

Things weren’t so rosy at school. The other kids were all older, bigger, and more coordinated. For example, Alan Green could draw a great horse. It came with four legs, a tail, a head and a flowing mane. Mine came with unrecognizable squiggles. It was hard to tell whether my objective was to draw a tarantula or a snake with legs, but the world’s wildest imagination on the world’s most potent drug wouldn’t have classified the picture as a horse. It was not refrigerator art. The whole exercise created big-time trauma. 

This negative experience was compounded by the exercise of learning to print within lines. Forget that. If my letter came anywhere close to resembling a letter, any letter, I was happy. The teacher was more critical. 

“Curtis, I asked you to make Bs, and here you are printing Zs.”

“So what’s your point?” was not an acceptable response. Mrs. Young was suspicious and that suspicion increased each day I was in school. She was a tough old gal who had been teaching first grade for decades. She knew first graders and I wasn’t one. As for the birth certificate, Mother’s forgery was in no danger of winning a blue ribbon at the county fair. I still have the original for proof. After a few weeks, Mrs. Young sent off to Oregon for a copy. I remember her calling me up to her desk on the day it arrived.

“Curtis” she explained, “you have a choice. You can either go home now or you can go home after school. But either way, you are going home and can’t come back until next year.” 

Mrs. Young was a tough old gal who had been teaching the first grade for decades. The kids, BTW, are Clifford Drake and Bob Bray. Bob is still a close friend today. You will hear more about him in these tales.

Just like that, I was a reject, a first grade flunkee. 

Mrs. Young couldn’t have made it any clearer; Mother was going to get her little boomerang back. This was okay by me, if not by her. Playing out in the backyard was infinitely more fun than competing in ‘Scribble the Horse.’ I did decide to stay for the day. Mrs. Young was reading about Goldilocks to us after lunch and I wanted to learn if the bears ate her.

It would have been interesting to listen in on the conversation that took place between Mother and Mrs. Young, or even more so between my mother and father, or Pop, as he was known to us. I’ve often wondered if he participated in the forgery or even knew about the March 1 rule. I doubt it. He was not the parent frantic to get me out of the house during the day.  (Had it been in the evening, the jury might still be out, as my father reported to me later.) But I wasn’t privy to those high-level discussions. My job, which I took quite seriously, was to enjoy the reprieve. I was about to begin my wandering ways. The Graveyard was waiting.


Blog-A-Book Wednesday… “The Bush Devil Ate Sam”: I move from being hit by a baseball bat and put in the hospital because of my Republican leanings as a fourth grader to developing a more liberal perspective in community college that would lay the groundwork for my joining the Peace Corps.

Travel Blog Friday… It’s off to the coast again with a Covid-19 escape to Harris Beach State Park just outside of Brookings, Oregon.

30 thoughts on “First Grade Flunkee… Growing Up in a Graveyard

  1. Curt your stories are always so compelling and nail biting. I can see how you mom was driven to drink with the 2 of you.. lol. Seriously, however were you even driving that that bulldozer!!! Makes me shudder to think. It’s amazing how much your remember so vividly and how compelling and well woven your stories are. You couldn’t make these stories up. I so remember using a can opener and throwing the food from the window to our dog and then throwing the can over the neighbors yard. Haven’t thought of that in a 100 years. Your mom was balsy or desparate and maybe a bit of both to change your birth certificate. Too funny. Wow we are either 1 or 2 3 or 3 days apart depending on the year of our birthdays but for sure pieces. You seriously are an amazing writer Curt and have such a gift! 👏👏👏👏

    • The bull dozer was strictly play in my backyard, but it was one of my favorite toys, Cindy. Love your feeding the dog story. Both throwing the food out the window and the can over the neighbor’s fence are hilarious. Thanks for the positive feed back on writing. Much appreciated. 🙂 –Curt

      • Well, I should have guessed as much you jokester!!!
        yeah, thanks for the memory. it was too damn cold in daly city to go outside. I must have been busted I expect.. lol but no memory there.
        It’s soooo true and you’re so welcome!! 💖💖💖

      • Busted only if you were caught! I doubt you informed your mom about your covenant way of feeding the animals and getting. Certainly the animals weren’t going to talk. But your neighbor may have wondered where the dog food can came from. 🙂

  2. I agree with everyone else commenting today Curt, you’re a very engaging writer. Your stories are so compelling and your writing style is easy and interesting, which is anything but easy to pull off successfully, and you do it. I love reading about your childhood. Thank you for sharing these great stories, please keep them coming! 🙂

    • Writing is fun for me, Sylvia, and one of my hopes always, is that I can met it fun, interesting, or thought provoking for my readers. When I can achieve all three, all the better. 🙂 Thanks much for your comment. Encouraging words are always important. –Curt

  3. Tale of a First-Grade Flunkee — that’s your other title, right? Unbelievable is what I think. We should be helping kids, not kicking them out. And your age was just a technicality. What an interesting chapter in your life and your book.

  4. What a fun read – the writing was so vivid I could picture all of it in my head! Interestingly, my niece had a similar situation as you with starting kindergarten, but nobody changed her birth certificate 🙂 They just let her take a test to determine if she could get in and she did well on it. What an entertaining read!

    • Appreciated, MB! Thanks. 🙂 Might be different, now. And there would be a kindergarten available. Glad to hear your niece got in okay and nobody had to change her birth certificate. Grin. –Curt

  5. The call of the wild LOL Mrs Young knew something, for sure, to let yourself grow before getting into the school stuff. She would have been very proud to read your memoirs.

  6. I can hardly believe the coincidence, but my first grade teacher was also Mrs. Young. Mine was definitely 20 years older (probably more) than your Mrs. Young, so I wonder if yours moved to Glide, Oregon after she taught you? I thought it was hilarious that the Worlds Oldest Human Being was called Mrs. Young. She had story time and sometimes read interesting news articles. Once she read us a comedy piece from a newspaper that said by 1985, all American homes would have a television. Boy was that a funny story!! We laughed long and hard about that one.

    In any case, I’m sure she knew what she was doing, and sounds like she was doing you a favor anyway, sending you out to mature another year under Coaly’s dubious tutelage.

    • Laughing. Mrs. Young considered it her solemn duty to civilize her young charges. Not an easy task. Especially for the wilder ones like me. Fun that you had your own Mrs. Young. It sounds like she had a better sense of humor.
      I agree on the importance of the extra year. Few things have impacted my life more.
      As for the dog, she had her rules! Disoberying them had serious consequences. 🙂 –Curt

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