R. Paul Martin in a First Grade class photo

R. Paul in the First Grade

Here I am in the 1A in St. Francis Xavier grammar school, age 6.

What a blank little face. My mouth is partly open because I wouldn't learn to properly breathe through my nose for another 20 years.

I was in the 1A from September 1953, to the end of January 1954. So the larger class photograph from which this image is cropped was taken in that time period.

That's not the desk I sat at in this class, at least it wasn't when the photograph was taken. Our teacher, Miss Donnelly, was very much of the opinion that learning was a zero sum endeavor. Some of us were doing well, and others of us were dreck. To this end she affected a sort of meritocracy caste system wherein your grades at any one time determined where you sat in class.

There were seven rows, with seven seats in each row. The “smartest” kid in the class sat in the first seat in the first row. The second “smartest” kid sat in back of him in the second seat in the first row, etc. The untouchables were in the 7th row, called “The Last Row.” These were “the dumb kids.” The lowest of the low was the last seat in the last row. You were something people would try to scrape off the bottoms of their shoes if you ended up in that worst of all seats.

Report cards came out twice a year, after the midterm exams and after the final exams. These really ranked you, and heavily determined seating, but our seats were even rearranged according to scores on small quizzes, so that you might change seats two or three times a week, sometimes more often.

The rankings were not always purely academic. If you did something to piss off Miss Donnelly she would banish even a smart boy to the last seat in the last row. A day or two later he would probably get reseated according to Miss Donnelly's academic criteria, however. Many little boys went crying to new seats at the low end of the academic pecking order.

One mother, having heard of this caste system ahead of time, came into class with her little darling on the first day of school and shoved him right into the first seat in the first row. Unfortunately for her, and more for him, he was a rotund boy, and he couldn't easily fit into the smaller than usual desks made for average 6 year olds. Later on he learned to line his body up next to the desk and then gently slide himself in. Still, his belly bulged over the desk top even when he leaned back in his seat. But on this first day of school, with the non-optimal approach pattern set up by his mother, and her shoving him in half way turned around, he just fell all over the desk while she repeatedly tried to “promote” him above everyone else. What she ended up doing was drawing attention to his weight and creating an embarrassing story for kids and parents to tell on him for the next 8 years of his attendance at the school.

I had no sympathy for that fat kid. He turned out to be a bully and he picked on me, since I was one of the smallest kids in class. He stopped after he made the mistake of actually assaulting me and I beat the hell out of him, by a 6 year old's standards.

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All photographs and text copyright © 1998, 1999, R. Paul Martin