I went to E.S. Elementary school in Oakland from Kindergarten to the third grade. Before Kindergarten, my mother did school lessons with us at home. I wasn’t too excited about it, but she explained it was important that I went in there with some knowledge. My kindergarten teacher’s name was Ms. Bee. She was a full-figured African American woman who was intimidating when she meant business. My classroom was home to two teachers. The other was a slim woman with an aura of kindness. There must have been an earlier and a later class. I got the impression that the other teacher was much nicer and more soft-spoken. I secretly wanted to be in her class. In my class, we sang songs, danced, and recited the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, and recited the meaning of the red, black, and green colors of the Afro-American flag.
I had a friend named Dante who sat at my table. We talked often and were competitive with each other. We would try and finish writing assignments first and run our completed task up to Ms. Bee. One day when we were racing to finish first, we both ran up to her and she told us that we needed to slow down and do the assignment correctly because our writing was sloppy. I was slightly embarrassed, but she was right and we both calmed down and took our time.
Recess was always fun. There was a special shed in the corner of the playground with a plethora of toys to choose from like balls and jump ropes. We didn’t always get to play with them, but when we did, it was a treat. Sometimes, if the class was loud and not behaving, we would have to put our heads down before recess, and our free time would tick away. I hated those moments. Back then, the teachers sometimes hit the students for being disruptive, using a ruler or a wooden stick used for pointing. I don’t remember which particular student it was, but a young boy was hit in front of the class. It was uncomfortable to watch, but many of us had experienced the same kind of discipline at home, or worse. Once, one of the boy’s mothers was called to the school due to his disruptive behavior, she took him into the bathroom which was inside of our classroom and whooped him. It was loud, his cries rang out, and we all felt bad for him.
In the first grade, I had a teacher named Mr. J. He was one of the three white teachers at the school. He was very kind, creative, and fun. He read us stories, we sang songs, and during play time there were a lot of toys and even a dress up chest. In this class I had two romances. One with a Mexican boy named Salvador, and another with my friend Neecy. She always wore box braids and was shorter than me. There was a bit of a love triangle between us three. I think both Neecy and I had a crush on Salvador, and he liked both of us as well. I became jealous one day during play time watching them both dress up as husband and wife, holding hands, swinging around in circles.
There was one particular boy that I considered to be “bad” as he was constantly getting into trouble. He was aggressive and rude. He sat across from me one day when we were doing a math assignment and I asked him if he believed in god. He said no. I was shocked and disturbed. I tried to reason with him and tell him that he should because of x, y, and z. He didn’t care and I grew frustrated and confused. This was my first time talking to someone who didn’t believe in god and I didn’t know how to handle it. I believed it was wrong.
My mother transferred me out of Mr. J’s class. She said it was too easy. It was easy, but I had a lot of fun in there. It was almost a different world than the other classes. He didn’t breathe down our necks like some of the other teachers and the energy was light and free. So, next, I ended up in Ms. Robins class which was a hybrid of 1st and 2nd grade. Ms. Robins was intense. She was passionate about civil rights, African American history, and consistently taught us about racism and Dr. Martin Luther King. It was in this class that I saw the cartoon Our Friend Martin. This was a film about two middle school students who traveled through time and met Dr. King at different points in his life. We also watched another movie called Freedom Song about the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi in the 1960s. It follows a group of high school students fighting for the right of African Americans to vote. The students struggle against opposition from the white community as well as their own parents who want to protect them from violence. Though I’m pretty sure all of this was not a part of the curriculum, I am grateful for the exposure to my true history. It would be a very long time until I learned the specifics of African American history in school, and even then, it was limited.
In the second grade, I encountered one of my favorite teachers, Mr. D. He was middle-aged with a round belly. I attributed his belly to his extreme love of food. It was no secret. One day when I was trying to convince him to let me have one of the fish in the large aquarium in the back of the classroom, he asked if my mother would make him some BBQ ribs. I wanted the fish so I agreed. Understandably, I don’t think my mother followed through. The fish died anyway. It couldn’t hack it with the other fish we had. I was disappointed. Though we had fish for years, and multiple fish funerals occurred, there was something really creepy and gross about a sick fish in distress.
Mr. D was my favorite because he was into animals, gardening, and science. All of these things were so exciting to me. The whole left side of the classroom was glass windows that displayed the school garden and other vegetation. In the back left corner was the two-story fish tank complete with a waterfall and a frog. But the best class pets were the king snake and the corn snake. They were medium-sized and friendly. When we didn’t have anything to do and were behaving well, he would put the tanks in the middle of the room, and drop a white mouse in each of them. We would all be leaning forward, practically crawling on top of our desks, which were set up in a semi-circle, to watch the snakes strike the mice, strangle their bodies, and devour them whole. I had the privilege of being able to hold the snakes. I even got to carry a portable cage with one of the snakes around the campus and show them off to other classes, educating them about the snake. As can be expected, the students would get really excited and crowd around me trying to touch the snake when I took it out. I yelled at the students to back up and calm down because they were scaring the snake. I could sense the snake’s discomfort as little fingers reached out to stroke it and did my best to protect it. One day, Mr. D. showed us an egg, quite a sizable one, suspended in liquid in a jar. He said it belonged to a salamander, an amphibian with a lizard-like appearance. I wanted to see it hatch, but we never got the pleasure. Then there were the bunnies. Mr. D came in one day with a litter of baby white bunnies. I had to have one, so I made a plan.
I decided to write a heartfelt letter to my mother explaining how badly I wanted a bunny and to please let me have one. I even included an illustration of the box with holes in it that I wanted to carry the bunny home in. After the letter was complete, I put in my mother’s room and hid outside within earshot waiting for her to read it. I soon heard her loudly say the word “ridiculous!” and my heart sank. So much for that plan. I talked to her about it, and having a bunny was not an option.
When a male student misbehaved to the point where Mr. D. got angry, he would walk up to them, get close to their face, and yell at the top of his lungs. It reminded me of the military. That’s exactly what it looked like. A few other teachers yelled as well. The loudest, whom you could hear in the hallways, was Ms. Wats. Her classroom was cool as she had a little reading nook, but I was glad I never got yelled at by her. She taught the third grade. The third grade girls were boy crazy. Their classroom connected right to the playground, and it was quite entertaining watching the door burst open by two cute boys sprinting out onto the asphalt, closely tailed by a group of girls. They did this a lot.
My third grade teacher was Ms. Max and she was a slim, sweet, white woman. She told us that her father was a famous NFL football, player but I didn’t believe her. We had a special bond. I did very well in her class, and she would often let me run errands for her. This was the last class I attended at the school before my family moved to Sacramento. There was a going away party and everything. I remember her asking me if I wanted to keep a photo of my classmate Kevin. I had a huge crush on him but I tried to play it off saying “Why would I want that?” She knew I liked him. It was probably obvious, but I thought it was a well kept secret. Seconds later I had wished that I accepted the picture from her so that I could remember how he looked when I left.