Miss Elgin, my teacher in the fourth grade, was the strict teacher at Warm Springs Elementary School. As in, the strict teacher. She was not harsh or unkind, just very demanding as far as discipline and good behavior were concerned and very intolerant of infractions of the rules. Being in her class was a bit like a mild form of boot camp at times, but her students seemed to feel that they were tough enough to take it; Miss Elgin’s expectations were very clear and all were expected to meet them.
Miss Elgin was thin, a little taller than average, and wore her dark gray hair very close-cropped. She dressed plainly and wore sensible shoes. During recess time we always knew where she was, because she wore a whistle on a chain around her neck and used it freely.
The two subjects we studied in fourth grade that I remember very clearly were California state history and long division. I remember studying about Fr. Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portola and the establishment of the missions in California.
In our study of long division we probably benefited from the calm and focused atmosphere of Miss Elgin’s classroom. We were running just ahead of the New Math wave – that is, it would be another year or so before New Math was introduced.
Once, when Miss Elgin had a throat ailment and could not read aloud to us in the afternoons as she usually did (horrors!), she let me do it for a couple of weeks until her throat was better. It was then that I learned that reading aloud for a prolonged stretch without getting tired or losing your concentration was no small feat.
Another milestone I remember from the fourth grade – and, with the exception of a pair of very precocious girls, it seemed to hit all of us girls at the same time – was the realization that boys were not totally yucky, stupid, contemptible beings. This was first reflected in our mode of play at recess. Second grade and the first half of third grade for many of us girls had been dominated by “horsy” games (we pretended to be horses). Another popular pastime was playing “King of the Hill” on top of huge tires that had been installed as playground equipment. By fourth grade these gave way to cut-throat foursquare games and playing inside the tires. Well, not actually playing, but rather chatting and gossiping, two at a time, because two kids could fit inside a tire, one on each side. At first it was just girls, but then it became girls and boys. I had a friend who was a boy who would spend recesses with me talking inside the tire, but I didn’t think anything about it at first. Then on Valentine’s Day I received a “special” valentine from him. Oh. We both behaved awkwardly for a couple of days and then returned to our normal friendship.
The biggest event I remember from Miss Elgin’s class was the Big Class Spelling Challenge. It was not a spelling bee; instead, it was based on our weekly spelling tests. The object: the entire class had to make 100% on the spelling test. The prize: chocolate candy bars for everyone. We were psyched. Week after week, we came so close. We had a couple of classmates in particular who were struggling with schoolwork, but there were a number of weeks when one or both of them made 100% and someone else in the class fell short. It was nice because we were all rooting for one another. Finally the long-awaited Friday arrived: 100% on every test. We were on top of the world – we were the champs!
I wish I could say the story ended on this positive note. It did not. The next Monday, Miss Elgin brought in the chocolate bars and we lined up to claim them. When the last student had received his prize, Miss Elgin turned to us with a frown and an eyebrow raised in disapproval: “Not a single person said, ‘Thank you.’ I am so disappointed.” We hung our heads in shame and went from being all puffed up to deflated little balloons. Bad manners were a definite no-no in Miss Elgin’s class.