By Shirley Mays
Being a woman of a certain age, I grow nostalgic as I remember (what I can!) of my early days in school. I was born in Springfield, Ohio. My parents settled there when they left college after their sophomore year to get married. I am the second of three daughters, and my life as a middle child definitely had its ups and downs.
When I was born, we lived in a modified Levittown home. Our home was about 900 square feet, single story, 2 bedrooms, I bath, with an eat-in kitchen. Although my dad was a WWII vet, he was unable to obtain a VA loan. However, my parents borrowed the down payment of $2,800 from someone named Ruben Boswell and subsequently were able to purchase our new home.
The elementary school we attended was just a few blocks from our house so my sister, Sheila, and I walked to school every day. For reasons that I never knew or cannot recall, my classes were comprised of two grades being taught simultaneously: I was in kindergarten/first grade, first grade/second grade, and third grade/fourth grade. Back then, my kindergarten year was only a half-day and to my recollection it was spent learning to color inside the lines and learning to play well with others at recess. Although I didn’t excel at these tasks (I received a “satisfactory” rather than “excellent” on my report card), I did well enough to be promoted to the first grade.
My most vivid memory of first grade occurred during math. We were to solve a math problem similar to 20 – 11. Because of the dual classes, I had learned in kindergarten how to work through this type of problem by “carrying” a 1 from the 2 and making the 0 a 10. As I read this now, I know I had no sense of what I was doing or why I was doing it, but I just knew that was what needed to be done.
I was the first in my class to solve the problem and proudly raised my hand, “The answer is 9!” I beamed. Immediately thereafter, another student raised his hand, “You can’t do it,” he smugly stated, looking at me with disdain, “You can’t subtract 1 from 0.” “That’s right!” my teacher exclaimed. “We can’t do that yet because we haven’t learned how.”
I felt deflated and double-crossed. “We can too do it,” I mumbled to myself, “if we’re smart enough to figure it out.” Unfortunately, my mumbling was just loud enough for my teacher to hear me. “Shirley!” she said sharply, “Go to the office this minute!”
I’m still not certain what lesson I was to learn from this experience. Perhaps it was to be more humble; perhaps it was to stay in my lane. As an experienced law professor, I have learned over the years how to correct students without demoralizing them, and how to reward them for next-level thinking. As a grandparent raising my 14-year-old grandson, I have a good idea of the sensibilities of children, and know how easily they can be uplifted or devalued. Although I know I don’t get it right every time, when I recall that experience, I do know that it is in every person’s best interest for me to try.