Ms. Powaga - Fifth Grade, an Oasis in the Desert
A Place of Refreshment is discovered.
The summer between fourth and fifth grade seemed to pass with blinding speed. It is a little known fact that buried deep within Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity is Corollary Rule Twenty Seven which states that as a human being ages the season of summer passes more quickly in a direct one to one correspondence to the square of his age. Taken to its logical conclusion, the corollary would mean that if a person lived long enough he or she would experience endless winters. That is why so many people retire to warmer climates and we choose death once we have lived over a hundred years or so, because we are always cold, which is proof positive of Corollary Rule 27 in action.
Once again I entered the halls of SJSA ready to tackle another year. This year I told myself would be different, this year I would work harder and get better grades. For once in my primary school years, I accomplished this heady goal. It was not because I had gotten any smarter; it was because I fell in love with the teacher, Ms. Powaga. Ms. Powaga was everything that Mrs. R. Reid was not. She was young and beautiful, and she had a ready genuine smile and made each kid feel special. The nuns and Mrs. Reid had the credentials for teaching just as Ms. Powaga did but she had something that none of the black and white suited nuns or any of the other lay teachers had, she had talent for the job. Did she have her pets? Yes, I think that teachers accumulated pets out of simple self preservation. Being a Blackboard Erasing or Paper Passing pet was one thing, but I think that any child that agreed to be a Name Taking Blackboard Writing Snitch pet was a disgrace to be scorned by all children everywhere for all times! But as to the respectable pets let’s remember that back then there were no teacher’s aides, at least not at SJSA, so a teacher just had to appoint someone to do the menial labor, similar to the system in a well run jail where a trustee does the menial labor that a guard does not want to do. It follows that you would recruit the best talent for the job, a dummy might eat the chalk or give a paper back to the wrong student or fail to follow the Snitches Code of Ethics by allowing people to talk while teacher was out of the room and yet failing to write the criminal’s name on the blackboard. So yes, Ms. Powaga had her pets, but with her it was different. First of all she did not employ any snitches; she put us on our honor. Was this naiveté in the extreme? Was she mad? No, it actually worked. While it would have been asking too much for kids to remain absolutely silent in her absence, we did remain orderly and spoke quietly. Secondly, just because you were not an official pet, you might receive a mark of her favor anyway, there were many such marks of favor that could be bestowed on a student such as; as being asked to take a note to the office, or to be a fire drill warden, whose job it was to close the door after all of the kids silently left as the fire drill horn was sounding, or even to escort a fellow classmate to the bathroom, we moved in pairs to the restroom to insure that the trip to the toilet would not become an all day expedition. Teachers knew who were friends with who and never assigned a friend as an escort as that would certainly cause the trip to be longer. In her way of treating kids there was a great difference when compared to the other teachers I had at SJSA and I think that it helped some of the downtrodden kids, the awkward ones, including me, feel a little bit better about where we fit in. In fifth grade there was much less teasing and bullying. There was some teasing and bullying because those are some of the tools kids carry around with them. Those that tease usually grow out of it. Those kids that were bullies normally grow up to be bankers or politicians. Some of the kids that did the teasing and bullying actually became friends with their former victims. My theory is that kids (at least back in the 60’s) took their cues on how to treat another kid from the signals received from the most influential adults around them which would include the teacher. In fourth grade, Mrs. R. Reid clearly marked the weak, the awkward and those considered by her to be dumb and these children were bullied and teased all of the time because Mrs. Reid and her subtle discrimination made these unfortunates legitimate targets. She let the herd know which ones of us were the weakest and therefore the bullies, who could be compared to coyotes, jackals, or sharks, would thus know which ones to cull from the herd. When the scent of blood is in the water, the sharks will attack and in the dark world of Mrs. R. Reid attack they did. I have to tell you that it hurt and hurt a lot to be segregated from the others because of this. For myself, I could not understand what was happening. I felt that I was a good kid and I didn’t know why I was treated so poorly by my peers. Inside I was a mass of wounds and it was in fourth grade that I started to build walls; “a fortress deep and mighty” as Simon and Garfunkel describe them.
In fifth grade under Ms. Powaga, all of us were treated better, more equally, because she revealed the truth showed that all of us were good people, that we had talents and feelings. She also made sure that she was fair. Everyone got a chance to participate in class, and if you got an answer wrong, you were not held up for scorn, but you were helped to find the right answer, you were not spoon fed the answer but led to it. I loved Ms. Powaga for that and I mean that in a deeply emotional sense. I found out that she took the Archer Avenue bus and walked to school from Archer and California. Some mornings I would leave early, thus surprising my mother, for very often she had to shove me out the door to get me moving to school, and I would wait for Ms. Powaga’s bus to arrive and would walk to school with her. I tried to do everything she told me, paid better attention in class, did more of the homework and I even tried to anticipate her needs. My grades that year were much better, except in math, I continued to experience a problem with it and the F on my report card shows that while a nice teacher, she was certainly fair. I never really understood math until first year in college when my buddy Jim (not to be confused with Big Jim) patiently helped me to understand it.
Every year there would be minor health screenings held at the school. I always found it a welcome break because we would be out of class for at least an hour while we all had our vision checked. We would line up and be taken down to the gym and there we would find several eye testing stations. The sophisticated test consisted of each student sitting in a chair and using their hand to tell the technician which way a letter E was facing. If it was facing the right way you would hold your hand up, if the E was facing right, you would point to the right with your hand, left to the left. It would start with a large E and move to progressively smaller letters. At the end you would be given either a blue or pink form. A blue form would indicate you upheld the integrity of SJSA and passed the eye test while the pink would indicate that you failed your friends, family country and your school by failing the test. That year I sat down to take my test and was very surprised that I could not really see which the direction the E was facing, it was a soft blur. I did not want look foolish and to fail the test so I did the only logical thing; I guessed. I guess that I guessed wrong because at the conclusion of the test I was presented with the dreaded pink paper, I had failed! What had happened was that my eyesight had gotten slowly but progressively worse a little bit each year as a result of having too much oxygen pumped into the incubator that I inhabited during my first couple of months of life outside the womb. Some children went blind because of this medical mistake. What should I do? My old tried and true strategy came to mind, why not use what worked during the reign of Emerita in my life and just throw the form away? I knew in my heart of hearts that I could not just throw this paper away and that I would have to present it to my parents. Besides, my sisters, again proving their superiority to their brother, would be bringing home their beautiful blue papers anointing them as proudly having sound eyesight and my parents were bound to ask where my form was. After all this was not some note penned by a black and white suited nun with nothing better to do; it was a form and more than that it was an official document issued by the Archdiocese of Chicago. I remember thinking that you could be sent to jail if you destroyed this kind of official notice. My heart was heavy as I saw myself with thick coke bottle lenses making me look like some sort of idiot. With glasses I certainly would be in the minority and this it would give the bullies more reason to tease me, “Old Four Eyes” for there were only three other pairs of glasses in the whole class. Fred Schultz wore them but I think he started school with them and you could not envision him without them. Albert Winkler had them but he was one of the bad ass kids and no one would make fun of his glasses and there was George Charniss who looked like a geek anyway so for him it did not matter. I decided that I was too young to acquire a prison record by discarding the form so I decided that I just had to bring the indictment home and I hoped that my parents would not be too mad at me. I brought it home and gave it to my mother and surprisingly she did not faint dead away or rend her garments in deep sorrow as she read the pink death warrant, she just said that she would make an appointment for me to see the eye doctor.
Our eye doctor was in the neighborhood, she was Lithuanian and her name was unpronounceable and since writing what I think her name was will only add red error marks to the page as I type this in MS Word and it since her name does not add anything to the story, I think I will skip typing it. My mother made an appointment and after school on the appointed day we walked past Lucky’s tavern, smelling the odor of stale beer and we walked past Midland Savings and Loan and made our way to the doctor’s second floor office. She welcomed us with a slight Lithuanian accent and told me to get into this chair. She told me to cover one eye and read the second line of the chart projected on the wall. Strain as much as I could, the letters remained a soft blur. She repeated the test on the other eye with the same result. She said those dreaded words, “He needs glasses.” (Duh, do you think so?) She pulled this device in front of my eyes and twisted some dials that kind of made me dizzy for a moment and then she asked me to read that second line; “e,m,c,y,l,g.” I replied amazed that I could see them so clearly. I thought the exam was over, but no, she started going through the ritual of tweaking the prescription. “Is one better or two?” I would answer; “Two.” Then she would say, “Two or three?” To me this seemed to go on for hours. Sometimes I could see no difference between 1 or 2 or 2 and 3 or 1 or 4 and I told her so. This did not placate her; she insisted that I pick one. Eventually she was satisfied and I thought that I was done. Instead she pulled the device I had been looking through away and put some drops in my eyes. In a couple of minutes she turned out the lights and peered into my eyes with some sort of flashlight. After a few minutes of this curious behavior she declared my eyes healthy and wrote a prescription for my glasses. She suggested we go to a shop on Archer Avenue for the glasses because he gave discounts to neighborhood families. We left and the next day, Saturday, we brought the prescription over to Wein and Associates. You could not believe it when you walked into this store. Stacked from floor to ceiling were boxes of glass frames, black frames, brown frames, wire frames, boxes and boxes and still more boxes of them. He was not your ordinary run of the mill optometrist; he was a distributor and usually supplied other optometrists all over the city. But he believed in giving back to his neighbors I guess and he gave discounts to customers from the neighborhood. You had to pay for the discounts because the office was a storefront warehouse and lacked the amenities of the fancier places around where one could go to get glasses. There were no magazines to read while you waited and there was only one chair which of course was being used by my mother. He came out and said that the glasses would take a week to make. To make me feel better about having to wear glasses mom and dad allowed me to get the new kind of lens that would change color in the sun. I picked a conservative black frame style; some things never change, I wanted to blend in, not stand out, and we were told to come back in a week. The next Saturday my mother gave me a check in an envelope and told me to go pick up my glasses. I walked over to the store/warehouse and entered. The owner came out and smiled. He told me to come back with him behind some dingy red velvet curtains and into a side room. I remember thinking that the curtains were kind of what a gypsy would have in her fortune telling shop, it was kind of spooky. He sat me in an examination chair, much like the one the eye doctor had and told me to wait. Even in this room boxes of eyeglass frames stretched from floor to ceiling. He came in with my new glasses. He put them on me; they were very warm because he wanted to be able to bend the temples so that they would fit me properly. He put them on me, removed them once and bent the temples a bit and then satisfied with the fit he asked me to read the second line from the chart posted on the wall. I was able to do that without any problem. He had me cover first one eye and then the other and I was able to read the line without a problem. He told me that we were done and I gave him the check and left the office and went out into the world and on to Archer Avenue. The glasses made a world of difference. I could read signs clear across the street and I mean the small print on them. Still scared about what others would think, I pulled the glasses off, put them in the case and went home. When I got home my mother asked me where my glasses were and I told her in the case in my pocket. She said that they were not doing me any good there and she told me to put them on and to keep them on. Thus I was inducted into the Four Eyes Club of America. Okay, I might have to let my family see me in glasses, but not my friends. I went into my bedroom and decided that I was not accepting callers and stayed in the house, telling Dennis and Big Jim when they came and called me that I wasn’t feeling good and wanted to stay in. Since mom and dad really did not go to church, I was able to put the glasses in the case as I attended children’s mass with my classmates, so far no one was any the wiser.
Soon enough Monday came. Did you ever notice that when something dreadful is going to happen on Monday that the weekend seems to fly by? I considered faking being sick but then decided not to and I went off to school, mom made sure that the glass case stayed home so I would have to wear the glasses. While brushing my teeth that morning I looked in the mirror at the boy with the extra eyes and decided that these glasses did not look too bad, but I still was not looking forward to seeing my classmates. I did not get to the bus stop to meet Ms. Powaga that morning; as a matter of fact reminiscent of the old Mrs. R. Reid days my mother had to push me out of the door at the very last minute so I would not be late for school. I walked as slowly as not being late would let me. I arrived at the very last minute, just before the bell and morning prayers and a kid looked at me, laughed and said “Hi four eyes!” I figured, “Now it will start.” But Ms. Powaga came to me and said loud enough so that others could hear about how distinguished my new glasses made me look and congratulated me. Is it any wonder why I loved that woman? I think what made her such a good teacher was that she could think like a fifth grader and she knew just what to say to defuse a situation. Soon a couple of kids told me I looked good in the glasses and I wasn’t teased about them ever again. Ms. Powaga sure could make a difference.
I loved being with this “older woman” who was the love of my young life and stayed after school to help clean the erasers. Ms. Powaga would send me to a janitor’s closet with them and there was a vacuum machine there with a hole on the top. You turned the machine on and rubbed the erasers across this track and all of the chalk dust would be sucked out of them. Then I would walk her to the bus stop. Our walks to the bus stop bring back wonderful memories. I would talk and she would listen. I would tell her my fifth grader dreams, hopes, and fears without reservation and she would listen to my dreams, hopes, and fears and wonder of wonders, she would not belittle me for my fears. I needed a person like her in my life this at this time. I needed to be validated, to be shown that I was a good person and that I was likable just because I was me. She knew just what to say and even more important she knew when not to say anything. I loved my parents but there were things that I was afraid that they would not understand if I told them. My father kept me somewhat at arm’s length and until I became an adult I never really felt comfortable asking him for advice because with the advice would come a side dish of disdain. Although my mother was wise and I felt more comfortable speaking with her, she sometimes did not take the time to listen before she came up with a solution to your problem. You could share dreams with your peers but you would not want to share your fears with them which could be dangerous, boys were to be afraid of nothing. Ms. Powaga gave me her time. For an adult to take time to listen to a child is to give to the child the greatest possible gift. Fifth grade was a great time for me and it was Ms. Powaga that started me on the long road to discover who I was. Because of the kindness and the teaching talent of Ms. Powaga, I started to think that just maybe I was worth more than what the bullies, teasers, and even Mrs. Reid thought I was worth. Inside I started to take stock and fifth grade became the spring time of my life. True, there would be a lot of storms to come and days when I actually believed that I was different and unworthy but the seed was sown even if it was winter wheat. It took a long time for me to understand just who I was and where I fit into the universe, but by giving me my dignity and by sharing her time with me and especially because she treated me as if I mattered; Ms. Powaga got me to the starting gate and set me on my journey down that long and twisty road to adulthood. I am sure she did that for all of the children she taught and that is my story of fifth grade and the only real professional teacher I knew at St. Joseph and St. Anne School. God bless you Ms. Powaga!