Lessons for Life In the Fifth Grade

As I remember it, we were a squirrely bunch of fifth graders at the start of school in the fall of 1966. Although no one would ever admit it, we were looking forward to the first day of school because it was a fresh start with all new people.

Our comfortable little class of students at Woodland School had been “tracked” into two classrooms for the first time that year.  It was a new educational – and as it turned out social – experiment of the era.  Taking a single group of students, augmenting them with transfer students from other grade schools close by, and creating two separate classes; ours was the accelerated class and the other was not. 

I don’t remember being given any tests to determine who should be in the accelerated class, although my friend Julia does.  I always thought it was all based on the observation of prior year teachers – a rather horrifying concept, looking back on how our grade school teachers picked favorites and preferred the well-behaved, who remained appropriately deferential in their interactions with authority.

Our names had been carefully placed on the desks in the classroom, and although we had immediately found our places and dumped our notebooks, we were setting up alliances among the familiar Woodland School classmates against the new kids who were joining our realigned classes.  It was shades of the rigid ranking that would take place in full force a few years later during that cruel joke on humanity called Junior High School. 

I’m sure there were major insecurities emerging. After all, if we were supposed to be the smart kids, who amongst us was the smartest of all?  Suddenly we were no longer The 5th Grade Class at Woodland, we were the class of the accelerated students, and it had already occurred to some of us that we might not be up to that type of acceleration.  It was big pressure for a group of 10 and 11 year olds. 

But back to that first day of fifth grade – we had heard that Mrs. Lashey was a good teacher – strict but good.  As a kid who always tried to perform well – seeking approval from a wide array of teachers, coaches, and those who conducted our youth orchestras, I’m sure I was positioning to be noticed on that first morning.

I’d learned by then that it was much better to be recognized as one of the well-behaved kids.  My mom called it “starting off on the right foot”, and as a former teacher herself, she had distinct memories of how much she preferred the docile children.

That first morning Mrs. Lashey came in the door and watched us scramble to sit at our pre-assigned desks. She cleared her throat, and that was enough to get us to quiet down and attentively watch her in the front of the room. 

That’s when she performed the ritual that became part of powerful lore for all of us in the 1966-67 fifth grade class.  She purposefully picked up a piece of white chalk, and walked to the far right corner of the blackboard.  There, in her careful cursive writing, she wrote the word “self” then a hyphen and the word “discipline”.  Then she underlined the words, put down the chalk, and turned to greet our class. 

Every morning, whatever the focus of our studies, Mrs. Lashey began the day by walking to the far right corner to write those words - self-discipline.

I only remember one time when a classmate shot up a hand and asked why she wrote those words every morning. She told us with a small smile that it was one of the most important lessons we would ever learn – that self-discipline came before all learning.

The year was a turning point for many of us, and certainly for the kids who were bussed to our school.  Those kids came from neighborhoods throughout the district and few of them were as economically privileged as those of us who walked to Woodland School.  It dawned on some of us that year that we were incredibly lucky to have the parents and families we did.

For the first time, we had classmates that were different than we were. Some had parents too overwhelmed to ensure regular bathing and hair washing took place.  Some had only hand-me-down clothes that were well worn by the time they made it to Woodland School. And that fact based on accident of birth taught resilience and a certain toughness to the new kids in our midst. Later on, it taught compassion to the rest of us.

It was Mrs. Lashey however, who gave us the lesson of a lifetime that year. She taught us about perseverance, about focused integrity, and about deep and abiding patience.

All year long, in addition to math, English, composition, and science classes, she put us to work making a quilt. We cut fabric, sewed it together, learned to add the padding, backing, and then take the careful stitches needed to bind it all together. We all learned the importance of small, linear hand stitching. We learned to pull through the knots so they weren’t visible on the backside of the quilt. And we learned that many hands made a beautiful object possible with greater ease.

But it was the final lesson of the school year that stayed with each of us. Within a month after the end of school, Mrs. Lashey died. We learned from our parents and her daughters that all year long, Mrs. Lashey had come to school to teach our class despite awful headaches and pain at the base of her back. A tumor the size of a grapefruit had been pressing on her spine the entire year, and as the pain worsened, she continued teaching. 

She came in each morning, wrote “self-discipline” at the top of the chalkboard, and then turned to greet our classroom of squirrelly kids, and by doing so, left us with a profound life lesson.  We knew then that the words were her own personal mantra – that through self-discipline, she could move past the pain and do what she loved most – teach.

I honestly don’t know if medicine in 1966 had the tools and knowledge to have saved Mrs. Lashey if she had chosen to pursue treatment rather than teaching us. But I do know that her commitment to our class – to launching us into the new world of competitive education – has stayed with each of us as a powerful memory of a grown up making a purposeful choice.