My very own Ms. Frizzle
Adventures from the 4th grade by Jessica Jungton with illustrations by the amazing Chaz Hutton
I have strong memories of all of my elementary school years, but none as crystallized as the fourth grade. We were our own island, a small class in the school’s sole portable. No one came to check up on us, and our teacher may have taken advantage of that unique opportunity a little too much, but I believe we are all better for it.
She brought in a few containers of Oreos. She put three students aside and gave them 16 Oreos each. The rest of us were given 1/4 of one cookie. The Oreos were cut in half and then the two cookies were separated to create the quarters. Half of us didn’t even get frosting because it had clung to the other cookie. The children who ate 16 cookies weren’t allowed to share and we all sat quietly at our desks, watching them eat their cookies. The room was full of angry 4th graders. One of the girls who ate 16 Oreos went home sick.
She wanted to explain poverty to a group of 9-year-olds and impress upon us how most humans on our planet don’t have access to hot showers and full refrigerators.
No one was happy, but no one forgot.
There were days that we didn’t cover a lesson plan or take out our pencils. She would gather us all around the couch—which none of the other classrooms had — and read to us all day. I remember complete silence from the students as she read Holes. My friend even bought the book one night and stayed up all night reading it because she couldn’t wait to know how it ended.
We held a ceremony to officially swear the student to secrecy so she wouldn’t ruin the book for the rest of us.
We had a separate gym teacher and gym class twice a week in the main school, but she insisted that we all go running together anyway. Every morning, we would do laps around the school’s property. I was not an athletic child and tried to persuade my mom to go to the principal and get her to stop. My mom agreed with Ms. C that the extra physical activity was good for us. Instead of complaining, my mom said that when I got to ten laps, she would give me ten dollars. The prize of ten dollars was huge to nine-year-old me and it became my immediate and all-consuming goal.
The next day, I refused to come in from running until I had completed my ten laps. I was not a good runner and running the 3-5 km took a long time. When all of the other students went back in, I was still running. And when they all came out again for recess, I was still running. But I did it. And then she had me lay on the couch for the rest of the afternoon because I was very red.
Last week, I finished my first half-marathon.
Instead of explaining class and hierarchy of the middle ages, she had each of us select a career from medieval Europe. A few of the girls wanted to be a princess so she picked one of their names out of a hat. The girls weren’t as excited to be the queen because marriage was icky and queens weren’t as magical as princesses, but one girl eventually volunteered after not getting the princess gig. The boys didn’t want to be princes or kings but fought over being the knight or executioner. The rest of the roles were filled by the teacher reading out the title and one of us gingerly raising our hands, not really wanting the role but knowing we had to pick something.
Now, some teachers would use these roles for a project or an afternoon lesson. Not Ms. C. No, we lived in that imaginary world for three weeks. And our choices were final. Since she was our only teacher, every single part of our school lives for those weeks was dictated by our role in this created hierarchy. The King and Queen always got to sit on the couch, leave for recess early, and select their topics for projects first. At the end of the three weeks, she held a banquet and we all rearranged the portable to have the desks form a long table. She paid out of her pocket to have the event catered and a few local establishments donated food and juice. The jester entertained us and the peasants had to clean up afterward.
I was the architect, if anyone is curious. It was alright. I was given blocks and other materials to keep at my desk and was expected to build interesting structures for the royal family as they pleased. This could be in the middle of our math lesson, by the way, if they were bored.
Our romanticized perception of medieval Europe’s social roles was gone and we had a small glimpse at the reality of power and its consequences. Given another chance, everyone would have raised their hand to be king.
I don’t remember textbooks or tests, but I remember what I learned in the fourth grade. And I remember it as the beginning of when it was exciting to read, build, share, run and work together. She may not have covered the curriculum, but she taught me more than any of my other teachers did.
She taught me to love learning.