When I turned seven I was informed by adults of all sorts that I was now the Age of Reason. Supposedly, I could discern right from wrong. I took this very seriously and thought through the morality involved in everything. Rules became complicated, reasons for decisions became layered, black and white became gray.
My parents were patient and talked important things through with me, the reasons why we needed clean rooms, why green beans were more important than jelly beans, why David’s bed time was nine o’clock and mine was seven-thirty. Generally, I found peace with all of these decisions. But there was one reason that I could not come to terms with: the reason why Mrs. Docken was employed as the second grade teacher at school.
The night before second grade began, I lined up my extensive collection of holy statues and prayer cards on my bed side table in the shape of a cross. I laid in bed with my glow-in-the-dark rosary and prayed as hard as I could that I would be placed in 2-A the next morning. I longed to be among the chosen who would spend their year with Miss Faith Daley. Not only was her name a fitting Catholic teacher name, she was perfect. And lovely. And soft-spoken.
In the weak morning light, I donned my plaid jumper, smoothed my blonde hair into place with matching blue plastic barrettes, and climbed into our white station wagon with my three older brothers and traveled the short distance to school in a mild panic. David, Timmy and Todd all joked about my upcoming incarceration to 2-B. They had all traveled through the land of Mrs. Docken, why shouldn’t I? I had heard the stories ad nauseam over the years, how she made Todd sit in the waste can one afternoon, how Timmy had to stand with his nose to the black board. How she would ask her students to tattle on older boys who had bullied them at lunchtime and then send for them to be yelled out in front of the room. But surely, my brothers hadn’t bothered to pray so fervently in their rooms the night before the school year began.
We arrived at Immaculate Conception Elementary and my brothers dispersed in a burst of jagged laughter. I took my mother’s hand and walked, with my new book bag, past first grade to the end of the hall where the two second grade classrooms sat on either side. The class lists were typed on crisp white paper taped to each door.
A happy gaggle of smiling faces stood in a straight line outside of 2-A. Surely I would be among them. We walked over and scanned the list. I took my chubby index finger and pointed to each name listed in alphabetical order… Anderson, Billings, Carson… and so on until I got to the H’s. What?? No H’s??? I looked into my mother’s horrified face and then together we looked across the hallway to a quivering pack of students with glazed eyes and knocking knees.
The bell rang as I took my place at the end of the line outside of 2-B. The door swung open and there she stood, a mighty block of woman in black orthopedic shoes and a patterned dress the mottled colors of a bruise.
“Straighten that line!” she bellowed. “You’re in second grade now. Act like it.”
I glanced over my shoulder at my mother’s grimace and returned her final wave. Off we shuffled in absolute silence to The Land of Docken.