I was held back in the third grade for twenty-seven years. I don't test well. The final exam was the same every year, and every year I answered a particular question in the same way.
Question: What's the capitol of Mississippi?
My answer: Dubuque.
I know Dubuque is not in Mississippi. But that's not my problem.
What's it like being held back for twenty-seven years? It's kind of like being in prison, with the walls closing in on me. Only in this case, it's the desks and play area that kept getting smaller and smaller. After I outgrew the coloring books and arithmetic worksheets they handed out to all the other third-graders, I just decided to make a `man cave' in the back of the room where I could study Aeschylus and Sophocles and European history and wouldn't have to listen to the teacher's incessant logorrhea.
Finally, the third grade teacher, (I dubbed her Ms. State Capitol for insisting that I learn them all as a condition for graduation. I never did.) retired. At that point I had been held back for eight years. I was the only third grader who shaved. The school authorities asked me to come out of my cave and teach the third grade myself, because I had heard each lesson so many times. I tried to tell them, that no, I had been holed up in my `man cave' reading classical Greek and actually had never actually learned long division or what color uniform the Confederates wore in the Civil War. But, the principal would have none of it. So, I would just sit in front of the class, reading out each day's lesson plan in a bored monotone. The kids mostly slept. Sometimes I would give one of them money to go out and buy us a pizza and a movie to watch. It went on for a long time that way.
One day the principal came in while I was teaching them how to tie different Boy Scout knots. He shouted that that was not in the curriculum. I was responded that I wasn't even on the payroll, I was still officially a third-grader, so what difference did it make?
I was sent back to my man cave, where I studied post-Impressionism, while the school district hired another recently graduated dunce to teach the kids useful things like cursive writing.
After I had been held back for ten years, I finally got company. A girl was held back because she refused to learn the multiplication table. "I have a calculator!" she screamed when the teacher asked her why she refused to do the in-class computation by hand.
"There are no calculators on desert islands," the teacher rejoined wittily. I winced at the triteness.
The first day of the New Year, she was in tears that she alone was held back with the younger kids while all of her friends were now in the fourth grade.
"Don't worry, kid," I said, "I've been held back, too, and look at me now!"
"You live in a cardboard box in the back of the classroom," she said.
"You know," I rejoined, "You're right, I'm probably not the best role model. But I can teach you the Classics!"
So Susan neglected her third-grade curriculum, as I had, and for several years sat with me at the back of the class studying the Iliad, the Aeneid and the Mahabharata, all in the original source languages. I was sad when she left to accept a full professorship in Attic Greek at Harvard. But I was happy I had made a difference in someone's life.
In my twenty-seventh year in the third-grade, the `new' teacher quit to accept a job elsewhere. And, as the school budget was limited, they asked me if I would kindly resume my teaching duties, for half the salary that a real teacher would get. I said, sure, as long as I could do anything I want. I never got a reply on that point, but I did get a letter informing me that I been `selected' to teach the third grade kids again.
We spent all of our days pursuing my hobbies: learning the violin, bird watching at the local forest preserve, and foraging for wild mushrooms. Not all of the kids were musically gifted or were interested in birds and foraged fungi, but still they all told me that third grade was a lot more fun than they had expected. One day, while we were having a giant toadstool contest in the school playground, the principal came up to me with a pink slip.
"I'm sorry, Mahiruha, but the school system has decided to save money by simply abolishing the third grade altogether. You can go home now."
I turned to him, an idiot in a suit, and said, "You know, that makes a lot of sense. Can I have my diploma?"
"No," he said, "But how about the zany new high five slash secret handshake I learned from the fifth graders today?"
"Coolness," I said.
Before we could begin the secret handshake, the fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Crow, came up to us.
"These kids have spent a year doing nothing but playing the violin and picking mushrooms. They'll be unteachable! That's why we're eliminating your position, Mr. Klein!"
"Ooh, I'm "Mister Klein" now even though I'm still officially in the third grade!" I replied. "Well, anyway, I've done my job."
And I took up my well-practiced violin, and my bird watching and field-mushroom guides and walked off, to finally begin my life.
PS The capitol of Mississippi is Boca Raton.