The right first teacher

Ronda Rich

When I arrived to begin first grade, I had already formed an independent nature that was far older than my actual years.

The morning of my first ever school day – there had been no preschool or kindergarten – I happily pulled on a store-bought dress. This was a treat because Mama made most of my clothes, and often they were sewed from scraps of fabrics she had left from other projects.

In my new dress, I paraded into the kitchen where Mama asked what I wanted for breakfast. Like most country-raised people, she cooked a big hot breakfast every morning – buttermilk biscuits, ham, red eye or cream gravy, eggs and grits.

“I’ll just have coffee,” I replied. I was 6. I had been drinking coffee since I was a toddler when Mama would put a tablespoon into my sippy cup because I was always begging for her cup of coffee.

It was cloudy and overcast but it was the sunniest day of my life. I was going to school. I insisted to Mama that I would ride the school bus on that first day. For two years, I had watched as that lumbering, choking yellow bus passed our house daily. On that bus were kids headed for great adventure and lots of books to read. I loved books.

Mama called the school bus driver and asked him to pick me up. That morning, she handed me the new dark green book satchel and sent me out the door with a “Be sweet.” She did not hover. She probably watched from the window but she encouraged my independence. Perhaps she smiled when the bus stopped and the tiny girl that I was studied for a moment before attempting to take that first, very high step. But, though it was challenging, I took it and never looked back.

When Miss Independence arrived at the two-story brick elementary school, I walked determinedly through the doors, found a classroom and settled in. When Mama arrived to register me, she had to do a bit of searching before she found me situated comfortably in the third grade.

I was promptly retrieved and taken to Mrs. Chambers’ first-grade class where the kids sat at little tables with tiny chairs instead of the slide-in desks in the third grade where I had abided briefly.

Mrs. Chambers had her work cut out for her. I had spent my first years with adults and only, on occasion, did I have children to play with. Mostly, I read books, created grand stories for my Barbie doll (she was a career woman in the form of a fashion designer) and play pretended to go to New York City on “book business.”

It fell to Mrs. Chambers to introduce me to structure, discipline and the art of socializing with kids my age. I learned quickly. So fast, in fact, that my first report card from Mrs. Chambers carried a note that read, “Talks too much.”

For the rest of my first-grade time, each report card would have that same note. But it did mean that I had adapted quite well to interacting with children.

Mrs. Chambers was stern. My hand was unexpectedly rapped a couple of times for, of course, talking too much, and one day in the lunch room, I learned that I should not pick up my soup bowl and drink the last bit of vegetable soup. This was news to me.

For the majority of my school years, I would often be among the teachers’ favorites because I loved learning. This was not true with Mrs. Chambers, but she was the perfect first-grade teacher for me. Her unyielding discipline prepared me for a tough world that has included a newspaper in Washington, D.C., publishing in New York and television in Los Angeles. For that, I am grateful.

But I still talk too much.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]