G is for Goat

At Chatterton Elementary in 1969, I was that girl. The one who laughed at the teacher’s jokes.   Seated in the front of the class, pencil at the ready, eagerly awaiting the inspiring flow of knowledge that I would record in my marbled composition notebook.  It was the first grade after all and I had much to learn.  Who better to teach me than Miss Ashley, young and pretty with blonde hair and delicate features.  Previous teachers in my NY public school had been boisterously autocratic;  Miss Ashley ruled her classroom with soft-spoken authority.   

We were practicing spelling and penmanship, so each morning after securing your coat and lunch in your cubby, you took a ditto from the pile on the teacher’s desk and sat down to work. I would pick a paper careful not to smear the freshly mimeographed ink and, with sharpened pencil, painstakingly write out the letter and word of the day.  

On this day, it was G.  I grabbed my paper, smiled at Miss Ashley and got to work.  Today’s letter: G.  GGG.  G is for goat.  Goat goat goat.  Hmm.  No, I thought.  Not good enough.  I erased the goats and tried again.  Goat. Goat.  Ugh.  Why are G’s so hard?  I erased the goats again, but this time, the eraser smudged and tore the paper.  Frustrated, I crumpled it up, threw it in the bin, and went to take another ditto.

“What are you doing?”  I heard from the desk.  Miss Ashley peered up at  me from over her grading.  I made a mistake, I explained, and need a new paper.  “Let me see it.”  she responded.  What? You want me to into the trash for my paper?  I wasn’t squeamish, but I didn’t want to have to show such terrible work to my Miss Ashley. I was not however so bold as to disobey an order. 

“It’s dirty,” I complained. “Let me see it”  she responded.  I had no choice.  I reached in and plucked the regrettably clean but crumpled worksheet from the trash.  “Smooth it out and complete the work.  On that ditto.”  She made sharp eye contact with me, then returned to her own work.  

I walked back to my seat convinced the entire class had witnessed my humiliation.  Hot little tears fell to the page as I wrote my jagged g’s and slid the finished paper under the others.  When the project was ended with the Z is for zebra page,  we were each presented with our ABC booklet.  I tore mine up on the way home, stuffing the remnants into trash cans as I walked.  The intervening weeks had not doused the fury ignited by my public frustration.  

Worst of all was the idea that I was forever tarnished in Miss Ashely’s eyes, an imperfect and worse pettish child.  I had shown my true colors and we could never return to her prior affection for me.  All that was left was to wait out the term and start fresh with a new teacher.  

So I bided my time, doing the best work I could, knowing it would never balance out my mistakes.  In fact, no matter how hard I tried, I could never manage to avoid mistakes.  A few years later, my fifth grade teacher, who was no Miss Ashley, handed back a math paper with a cutting “always a 99 and never a 100, eh Margaret.”  

She knew.  They all knew.  I was irredeemably imperfect.   Well, I knew my course.

Thus began an obsession with perfectionism that persists to this day.  More to the point however, is the obsession with the flaw.  Of all those letters, all 26 of them, 25 were perfectly good.  Only one was flawed.  Only the G, but over five decades later, it is the only one I remember in absolute detail.