Life Begins in First Grade – 3 Times a First Grader


Not many people can take pride in spending three years in first grade. Then again, why would they? I know I would not, and truth be known, it really is nothing to brag about. Yet it was those three years in first grade that led to my success in life. I am sitting here at my HP computer, thinking; life has been good. I retired from teaching after 40 years, 20 years in special education and 20 years in regular education. I hold an Education Specialist degree in reading. I am married for 40 years to the most over understanding woman I could ever wish for, and am the proud father of a very successful daughter. Oh yes I have 3 grandchildren. Yet my path to that success did not come easy, as I had many struggles and setbacks.

There are no good reasons for spending three years in first grade, but there are some very interesting ones. For me, it was a struggle for me to fit in. The year was 1954. I started school in the first grade. As far as I know out of eight children, six of us went through kindergarten, two did not, I was one of the two that did not. My first two years of first grade can be summed up in a word, outsider. My mother sent me to Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic school, because we were Catholics and she wanted me (as she did my brother’s and sister’s) to have a Catholic education. Only by the second day I knew I did not fit in. I felt like an outcast.  I looked different, talked differently and  dressed differently. Even though we always wore blue pants with a white shirt and a red tie, my pants were hand me downs and my shirt looked dingy because of the hard well water we had.  I fought with anybody who said anything I took as an offense. I even felt like the Nuns were against me. One nun kept trying to get me to write with my right hand. I resisted she hit the back of my hand with a ruler. I was considered incorrigible and was sent to the back of the room or to the office.  So I played hooky.

My older brothers may have had something to do with it as they did not like school any more than I did. We walked to school, so that gave us the opportunity to hide out in the woods. Every day, my mother made sure we had a brown bag lunch, and every morning we would start out as though we were going to school only to stop in the woods and lull the day away. We made little camp fires to keep warm during cool days and my oldest brother even became proficient using the sun dial method to tell time. It worked flawlessly until one day my mother received a telephone call from the principal. We all bowed down to the old hickory switch my father cut from the old hickory tree. The licking hurt but it was not enough to keep us from skipping school. We missed so many days they sent a truant officer out to the house. One time when one of us saw the truant officer driving up the road, my mother had us jump into bed. When the truant officer left she’s yelled at us for being in school.  My mother, who I think at times felt like the old lady who lived in a shoe, often felt so befuddled she did not know what to do. I missed over 80 days my first year, and my second year was no better. My mother, father, and older brothers all attempted to help me with my school work.  My parents even tried to send me to summer school, but I fought that too. With no other choice they enrolled me in a public school and while I felt anxious I soon felt accepted.

It was the fall of 1956; my mother enrolled me into Middlebelt Elementary school. The first few weeks you might say I established my territory. You see some boys decided to pick on me because my clothes were a little ragged, my hair was a little long, and my speech was a little slurred. But more than anything I felt embarrassed because I was so much older than my classmates. So when these boys felt the urge to pick on me, they felt the wrath of my temper. It did not take long for the teasing to stop. Some of classmates thought it was cool that I could beat up a second and third grader. They did not know I should have been one of them.

I attended Middlebelt Elementary School for six years and all my teachers, save one had great influence on me. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Walton did something that made me feel at ease. While sitting at my desk she asked me to pick up my pencil and printing my name. She said, “I see you are left handed, let me show you how to hold your pencil and place your paper. I used her technique whenever I had the opportunity to help a beginning writer. My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs. Newman saw that I was a good reader, that I read with expression and he would have me read to first grade students. My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Clifford saw that I knew my multiplication table well and made me the student to challenge. Yes it felt good. My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Hood was young and I remember being in love with her. She encouraged me to write. She saw the humor in some of my writings. Now my 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Briggs was older, but she was the kindest and most thoughtful teacher I ever had. She taught me more about myself than any other teacher until I met my high school counselor. The one teacher I clashed with was my 6th grade teacher.

The thing I remember most about Mr. McGrath was how he sized me up. One day some other students and I were looking up words in the dictionary, he came by and noticed some words were related to female body parts.  He did not ask what we were doing, he told us he knew what we were doing, and gave us a choice to read the words and definition or endure what he called Russian punishment. I accepted the Russian punishment.

“You will hold up your arms parallel to the floor, palms up. I am going to put a penny in each palm.” 15 minutes later he told me I could my arms down. I think, no, I know I proved myself beyond his expectations. But what I remember most about Mr. McGrath is how he went through every student and predicted how each of us would turn out, predicting some to be engineers, others to be doctors. He predicted one boy would struggle through school and if he graduated would work as a laborer. When he came to me he said, Mike, you will work as a gas station attendant. For those who do not know what a gas station attendant is, it is a person who puts the gas in your car. He said you will see little success, and have few friends.

Whenever I felt like a failure, I remembered those words. He was right, I did work as a gas station attendant, and I did have few friends. However, for the most part I enjoyed my years in elementary school. I made good friends who I still keep in contact today.  I fought a lot in elementary school, and being a few years older and a little stronger, I usually won. The thing about most of my fights, they were not about me. I became the protector of those students who were being teased, taunted or humiliated (like I was in my early grades) by another student who liked bullying others. That reputation followed me through school.

I always wondered how my teachers knew about my living conditions, I just sensed they knew. Allow me here to mention a few things about my home life that will shed some light on my social and academic life in school. Throughout my school years I can count on ten fingers the number of friends who ever saw the inside of my house. I am not sure if was shame, humility, or embarrassment, but I never felt comfortable inviting anyone into my house while growing up. If you ever read the story of the Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes; that would be a good description of the house I grew up in. It was a two story, shingle sided house that was never completely finished. My father started building the house years before I was born and I was born in 1948. When I moved out in 1968 it still was not finished. It was condemned by the city, and torn down by one of my brothers around 1974.  Electrical wiring was visible and where ceiling lights were supposed to be was bare wire. Stairs going from the first floor to the second floor had treads that were only partially nailed down and some were missing part of the treads.  Walls were made of plaster and lath board with some rooms having only the brown coat finish. Some walls were primed but never had the final coat.  Not even the kitchen was finished. Oh we had a sink, and even a garbage disposal, but the walls were never finished. My father built the cupboards and installed the counter tops made out of soybean. My father laid linoleum down and within a year it looked like it was 50 years old. The refrigerator always set in the hallway blocking a backdoor going to the outside.  We did have a separate eating area you might even call it a dining room that was nearly finished, but my father decided to take the plaster off down to the studs and he never got around to finishing that either. In some rooms you could see down to the basement where the heat register was supposed to be. The only room that was nearly finished was the room where my parents slept. It was a room off the living room. The walls were painted, but the floor was never finished, and there were no doors for privacy. We had wood floors throughout the house none had a finished coat.

There were eight of us, four us graduated from high school, four of did not, although eventually the four that did not did get a high school equivalency certificate or GED. There was a lot of alcohol in my house, my oldest brother was an alcoholic, my mother drank beer and smoked, and my father when he was home, held poker parties where cases of beer and hard liquor were drank through the wee hours of the morning. It was a normal part of our lives, and I thought it was a normal part of everyone’s lives until I went over to my friend’s houses.

To say we lived like hicks would not be far from the truth. To say we were a wild bunch would put it mildly. My brother’s fought constantly, and as I grew I fought with them. As a result of these fights many holes were put in the walls, and they were never repaired. We gained a reputation from literally miles around as a tough, uncivilized, backward family. While the house I grew up in was in disrepair, and quite the eyesore; all the homes around ours were well built, well maintained and pleasing to the eyes. I mention this because while in grade school the only people to ever come into my house were my friends who lived in the homes in the immediate neighborhood and where my friends since before I started school. This would change when I started junior high school.

In September of 1962 I moved on to Farmington Junior High School. When I started junior high school, I met knew friends who wanted to come over to my house, but I made every excuse I could think of to avoid having anybody see my house. The one thing about Farmington Junior High was many of the students had similar living conditions as I had. I remember riding the bus and one of the stops was Kirk’s subdivision. We called it Kirk’s subdivision because the bus stopped at a party store named Kirk.  Many of the houses had plastic over the windows, torn screens on the doors, and junk cars in the driveways, just like my house. I felt embarrassed for them. But I do not think they felt embarrassed at all by their living conditions. Some of the friends I met lived in these homes and had no issues inviting me or anyone else into their homes. The following year the Farmington School District built East Junior High surrounded by an upscale neighborhood. I was among those students who lived in that boundary line, so I transferred my eighth grade year.

I felt even more out of place going to East Junior High. I remember two close friends, Mike and Kelly who had been since grade school one day came over to my house, stood outside and called me to come out. They said, “Why don’t you ever let us see the inside of your house?” I told them there was nothing to see. So they said, “We’re your friends invite us in. I can remember my stomach knotting up, but rather than lose my best friends, I let them come in. I showed them the downstairs, but not the upstairs.  When we came out, Mike looked up at the upstairs windows and asked. Which one was my bedroom? I pointed to the window and said I share it with my sister and her husband. Mike looked at me and said, “I can see why you keep friends from seeing your house, but I don’t care about your house. You realize if no one ever saw your house, they’d never guess your house looked like this. We remained good friends throughout high school and Mike was later in my wedding.

It was when I was in eighth grade I took my first job working on a sod farm where I earned a pay check, although most times I was paid in cash. I earning $1.75 an hour working just two or three days a week, but it soon turned into five a week during the summer months. The company was called Adrian Sod Farm.  I remember most about working for this family was their son, Danny, who was only a few years older than I was. I remember the first time I rode with him down to Ohio to deliver a load of sod. I think he just turned 18 and drove this 55 foot tractor trailer full of sod to Shaker Heights Ohio. We had to unload the sod ourselves, then drive all the way back the same night. I walked into my house sometime after one in the morning. I worked on that sod farm for a little over two years.

In 1964 I turned 16, took drivers education, past the test and got my license, and drove to school. I felt unique because I drove to school in 9th grade. Interesting enough though, I was not the only person, Earl a well-built farm boy also drove to school that year. I just loved going around picking up my friends and driving them to school in my 1960 Ford station wagon. But I knew I had to keep my grades up if I did not want to spend another year behind my class mates. While some classes, mostly math, were a struggle, I did well in others, like English and social studies. I made it through junior high and looked forward to high school.

During the summer of 1965 and 1966 I landed my second job working as carpenter’s helper, thanks to my father. My father hired these two carpenters to finish putting the roof on this house he had been working on for the past 10 years. He asked Earl, a master carpenter if I could work for him as carpenter’s helper. By the way, if you’re not sure what a carpenter’s helper is, it’s equivalent to a gopher. I carried the lumber to the workers, and cleared areas for workers to work in. When the rough construction was completed, I cleaned up the area for the next crew like the electricians and plumbers.  Earl encouraged me to become a carpenter and sponsored me in the carpenter apprenticeship program.

It was the summer of 1965 I was a sophomore at Farmington High School when I felt the pangs of my past. For the most part being two years behind my – would be – graduating class was not so bad. Yet while watching the senior class graduate when gave me reason to pause, I could have, I should have been in that class. Reality hit hardest when I reached my senior year.  You see, while in my junior year I ran track and wrestled, but in my senior year I was informed by my track coach I could not run in my senior year; my age made me ineligible. So while I worked part time since 7th grade, I took a job in a Shell gas station and worked full time my senior year.

I usually worked the afternoon shift, from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, but there were some days I worked the midnight shift. I could write a whole book on that chapter in my life. While working at that gas station I learned to repair brakes, tune up engines, and replace exhaust systems. However that was not my main duty. The owner, Earl, yes another Earl, wanted me trained as a wrecker driver. So, the main driver, Ted, took me out on a few runs and showed me the ropes. After I became a wrecker driver, driving wrecker became my main job at the gas station. We did nearly all the towing for the Farmington police.

When the gas station closed, I took the wrecker home between midnight and six a.m. and waited for the police to call. When I got a call my job was to go to the location and pick up the vehicle and take it back to the gas station where it was stored. I received calls to tow abandoned cars, when police arrested drunk drivers, I was called to tow the car, but most calls came in to pick up cars from accidents. I could count at least one run most nights, and sometimes two runs an evening.

As a result of my midnight runs as a wrecker driver, it was not unusual for me to fall asleep in classes. My bookkeeping teacher after class would nudge me say and, “Time for your next class.” I still have my first semester report card from my senior year that shows my grades with a message from counselor, Mrs. Smith, just saying “Graduate?”  I asked my boss if I could work less the second semester. I worked less studied more and managed to get my grades up enough to graduate.

After high school I worked in that Shell gas station for almost a year, when my dad suggested I get into the carpenter apprentice program. Earl, the carpenter, agreed to sponsor me. I spent 3 years in the apprenticeship program. The program was good for me and I learned a good skill. Now a little sidebar here, you will have to understand I grew up in an environment where foul language and swearing was the norm, yet I had my eyes opened even wider working with some journey men carpenters. One person did not fit the stereotypical carpenter, Earl. Earl never swore, never talked dirty, and had no qualms about being a church going man. He became another great influence on my life. He taught me to always strive for perfection; you could see it in his work, yet always accept who you are. He was a lot like Mrs. Briggs in that way.

The apprentice program was not without its struggles, many times I would be laid off and whenever I was, I went back to work at that shell gas station, and sometimes I would work in my brother’s Marathon gas station, but the work was never steady. One day I felt like the whole world was crushing in on me. The gas station was being sold, and I did not know if I had job. My future looked dim. I took a chance and decided to talk about my problems with my old high school counselor, the one person I felt I could trust.  So I went back to my old Farmington High and asked to see her, and she accepted my request almost as though she was expecting me. We talked for over 40 minutes in her office. She made a telephone call to her husband who worked in admissions at the University of Detroit. After a few minutes she said, “I can get you into the University of Detroit on the honor system, but you will have to promise me you will keep your grades up. At that time the honor system allowed student to attend college, take at least two courses and maintains a B or better average.  She gave me her home address and invited me to come and visit her. I did, several times. We always had tea, and we talked about school, work and other things. I will never forget that opportunity Mrs. Smith gave me.

During this time my living conditions were not the best. While working at the gas station, I lived out of my car for a while. I washed and shaved at the gas station while taking night classes at U of D.  I did this for about a couple of months, off and on staying overnight at a friend’s house. Until one of my friends, Mike, my old elementary school friend, now big 6 feet 5 inch barrow chested man asked me where I was living, knowing damn well I was living out of my car. He told me his sister had a room in her trailer and would I be interested in renting it from her. I did, and one of the conditions of renting the room was I would watch her daughter while she went out on dates.

I continued to work at the Shell gas station under the new owner and went to U of D for a year, but found the college too expensive, so I transferred to Oakland Community College at the suggestion of one of my friends. He suggested I take some writing courses. I did show some promise in writing in high school. I decided to take some journalism courses thinking I would like to write for newspapers. Then one day while on campus I ran into Cindy. Cindy graduated a year ahead of me, but we had mutual friends and often went to the same parties. When she saw me she had such a surprised look on her face I thought she might freeze with that expression. We had not seen each other in a couple of years.

Cindy knew my history, new my grades in high school, and new my family struggles. So when she saw me, she asked, “What are you doing here,” as though I was out of place. I told her I was taking a few courses in writing, and was working on a degree in journalism. She looked me in the eye, and said, “You know Mike; I think you should go into special education. I am going into special education and I think you would be good at it. You’re really good with kids. Cindy was right, but then most people thought I was good with kids. Even so I gave it some thought, and I made my decision to finish up my courses at the junior college and transfer to Eastern Michigan University into the special education program.

I had to take a physical education course while attending that junior college, so I took a ski class. I’d never skied in my life before, but I thought what the heck.  And going back and forth from my ski class I stopped in this coffee shop where this cute brunette waitress would wait on me. That cute waitress became my wife.

My whole life I kept feeling like I am two years behind. Behind what, I do not know. Now that I retired I think I am no longer behind, and yet the feeling is still there. You see along the way to my successes I would somehow stumble onto somebody who would steer me in the right direction. Sure I had to make that right decision, but given the alternative, it wasn’t much of a choice. And yes I still think about what my 6th grade teacher said about me, and he was right, I do have few friends, but they are good friends. And who could ask for more.

Chronological order of school history

1st grade Our Lady of Sorrows 1954-1955 made noticed how different I look

1st grade repeat Our Lady of Sorrows 1955-1956 Nuns kept trying to get me to write right handed. Given opportunity to go to summer school. I resisted.

1st grade Middlebelt Elementary 1956, 1957 more fights, Mrs. Walton accepts me the way I am

2nd grade Middlebelt Elementary 1957-1958 Mrs. Newman saw me as a good reader

3rd grade Middlebelt Elementary 1958-1959 Mrs. Beeman saw some good math potential in me

4th grade Middlebelt Elementary 1959-1960 Mrs. Hood saw some good creative writing skills in me

5th grade Middlebelt Elementary 1960-1961 Mrs. Briggs helped me with social skills

6th grade Middlebelt Elementary 1961-1962 Mr. McGrath predicted my future, some came true,

7th grade Farmington Junior High 1962-1963 My English teacher saw some writing potential in me

8th grade East Junior High School 1963-1964 I found new friends who are still friends today

9th grade East Junior High School 1964-1965 Drove to school

10th grade Farmington High School 1965-1966 felt the pang of being two years behind

11th grade Farmington High School 1966-1967 learned I was ineligible for sports because of my age.

12th grade Farmington High School 1967-1968 Barely graduated and went to work Dated Linda

1968-1969 enrolled in the carpenter apprenticeship program Mother hit by a police car that was on its way to a domestic dispute. Lived in my car for a while, moved into my friend’s sister’s trailer.

1969-1970 Went to high school counselor for directions on my life Mrs. Smith managed to get me into the University of Detroit Met my future wife at Breen’s Coffee Shop Moved into my brother’s home in Detroit,

1970-1971 Transferred from U of D to Oakland Community College ran into Cindy who suggested I go into special education Quit the apprenticeship program went back to work at the shell station for a while. I rented a room from a man in Livonia.

1971-1972 Transfer to Eastern Michigan University winter semester, summer marry my wife and move into married housing Mark, Linda’s brother my best man.

1972-1973 work part time and attend classes on the National Defense College Loan Program.

1973-1974 Did my student teaching while working full time as a custodian at University of Michigan Custodian on the midnight shift. Graduate April of 1974 and get my first teaching job as a substitute teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, work as a long term sub during the 1974 Detroit teacher’s strike

1974-75 Get full time contracts working in a handicapped preschool program ran by St. Clair County Intermediate School District (now Regional Education School Association. Worked six years in program it is dissolved.



3 thoughts on “Life Begins in First Grade – 3 Times a First Grader

  1. Susan Whittaker

    Wow Mike, I did not know of your early struggles! I’m sure they didn’t end in first grade and am glad you managed to make it through without all the support systems we now have in place to help. You should be very proud that you overcame all those years to become the talented man you are.

    1. Thanks Susan, I’ve updated it, tell me if you like more or less.

  2. Mike,
    How inspiring to read your words of growing up in Farmington. My family lived in the subdivision across from Our Lady of Sorrows. My deepest fear was that, as i hid under my bed, the Nuns and Priests would find out I was Jewish and they would at the very least hurt me, but might also take me away.

    Ours, like yours, was not a happy home, and thankfully, no one ever wanted to come over. As bad as it was, our early beginnings pale in light of what you have shared. There are so many of us that grew up with similar feelings of being an outsider, not fitting in. I wish I had known you better in school. I am thrilled for you and your life successes.

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