Cat Joanie

Several years ago, a friend that I’ve known since the first grade sent me a story she wrote about our kindergarden teacher. She wrote it for a class in her graduate creative writing program, and sent it to me to share.

We were not in the same class, which is why we didn’t meet till the first grade—I was in A.M. kindergarden, and she was in P.M. And while this put us worlds apart (the afternoon kids were weird—they couldn’t go home from school and watch Care Bears, and therefore how were their lives worth living?), we still had similar experiences with our teacher.

See, Mrs. Adamson was crazy.

Not your garden variety crazy kindergarden teacher who had wiped just a few too many noses and was a little loopy crazy.

No, I mean the kind of crazy that lasts. When you wear all one color each day, and threaten to put kindergardeners in the shark tank you purportedly have in your home when they don’t do their work, and, 20-odd years later, address them by their kindergarden nickname you made up for them when they’re bartending (to my sister: “Katy-katy-coco-puff, I’m lit, time to go home”), that’s the kind of crazy I mean. 

Charlie Sheen crazy.

So when I read my friend’s story about her particular can’t-tell-your-parents-cause-they-just-won’t-believe-you nightmare, I remembered one of my own.

Mrs. Adamson told my mother the day of registration for school that she should keep me at home another year…

wait for it…

because I was short. And the other kids would make fun of me.

As if waiting another year was somehow magically going to change my genetic structure, and make me grow to be a “normal” height for a 5-year-old.

I have to give props to my mom for putting her foot down—I mean, I could read at this point. I was driving her crazy. I needed to be in school where I could continue to learn things.

Mrs. Adamson harrumphed at my being able to read. This simply had to be a ruse from a parent to get their child out of the house, and not that my parents were extremely dedicated, and spent the time with my older sister and I to teach us basic things like letters and words before we entered school. Or that they’d sent me to private pre-school, where it wasn’t all games and story time, but WORKSHEETS FULL OF LETTERS. My parents weren’t QUALIFIED to educate their children, not having education degrees. Besides, KINDERGARDEN is where you are supposed to learn such things.

Or so it would seem.

My first day of kindergarden. I rock the Dorothy Hamill  haircut almost as well as the construction paper which would be used to identify me in a terrible accident, or, to pay the lunch ladies for my milk at snack time. Whichever came first.

My first week of kindergarden, I picked up on a few subtle differences between this place and home.

For instance, the presence of other children.

Now, both of my sisters existed at this point. But only one of them could talk. So school opened up a new world of conversation. None of it terribly stimulating, as no one seemed to have similar tastes in literature…or any at all, from what I gathered. Understand that when I say literature, I of course mean the Bernstein Bears series.

Having an older sister meant that there were books, scads of books, mountains of books! Add to that, another kid who liked LOVED to read to her little sister. And wanted to help mommy and daddy teacher her how to read, so we could read together and play SCHOOL, which, as I soon realized, was not a game the other kids played at home.

And the rules were different.

For example, as the teacher showed how the numbers were to be written, and that we were to write up to fifty on our grids, I had already written my numbers up to twenty-two.

The girl next to me, ever the tattler, raised her hand, shrieking for Mrs. Adamson to come over because I was “messing my paper up.”

I tried to erase, to hide my working ahead and not following directions, but alas.

Mrs. Adamson made me put my head down.

Then she came back, and, noticing the numbers, asked how high I could write.

100, I mumbled as I bit back tears.

“Ok, then. Write the numbers to 100.”

This would be the last time that Mrs. Adamson didn’t mock me when I made a mistake.

The most memorable occurred some months later when our class got a computer for the first time ever. It was the late 80s, and it was large, and the screen had two colors: black and green.

Now, we had a computer at home, so I knew how to use computers. Or so I thought. We had an Apple IIe. It had more than just black and green—it was in grayscale. And had typing games and a slot machine game that my sister and I loved to fight over playing at the same time.

Our first task on Mrs. Adamson’s computer was to type every word we knew in a list.

Obviously, this would be a competition. One that I was sure I would win. Even then, my fiercely competitive nature shined—I did have two siblings, after all, and my desperate and constant need for attention and praise had has yet to abate.

We were to sit, waiting for our turn before typing. When my turn came, the little tattle-tale who sat next to me in class watched me, waiting for her turn.

I began to type my first word: C. A. T.

Like all children born after 1980, I was incapable of understanding the existence of a lesser technology that came before the first thing I learned to use.

With an Apple IIe, the word processer was Apple Works, a precursor to the modern word processing programs we enjoy today, in its ease of use and ability to complete many projects, including, but not limited to, a SIMPLE [EXPLETIVE DELETED] LIST.

Even at five, I knew a list consisted of consecutive words, each one listed after the other.

For example:

Simple. Created by typing the word, pressing enter, and moving on to the next word.

Not so on Mrs. Adamson’s computer. One could not access a program like Apple Works because it ran on a DOS system.

Mrs. Adamson, unversed in how to use DOS, expected the children to type a word, press the space bar, and move on to the next word, which is more of a sequence. LISTS ARE VERTICAL. After she had counted the words, she would press the delete key to bring it back to that blinking, green cursor that indicated endless one possibility at a time.

After I typed CAT, I planned to move on to the next obvious word for a kindergardener, antidisestablishmentarianism. Or dog. Potato, potahto.

And I pressed enter.

And the entire screen froze, unresponsive to even the all-encompassing “Esc” button. Apparently, this computer did not recognize “Cat” as a command.

And the tattler began her siren call for the teacher.


Explaining was no use. I didn’t even know until I learned to use DOS in library to run Oregon Trail and other child-appropriate programs what had really happened that day with the screen freezing: that the presence of the computer in the classroom was, to Mrs. Adamson, as unwelcome as a child who was more advanced than the rest of the children, and could not progress at exactly the same pace.

She was part of the generation for whom technology in the classroom was a distant dream to be achieved only in the comfort of her retirement. So, naturally, it’s appearance there, mere weeks after Ronald Regan left office, and her world came to an end (“it’s a true shame,” she said, wiping tears away with a tissue as Bush I was sworn in) was a sign of the end of days.

And it could not possibly be her fault (in front of the kindergardners, anyway), so blame had to be assigned. Immediately. And PUBLICLY.

She walked to the computer in long, fast strides, and was over my shoulder, breath stinking of stale teacher’s lounge coffee, and she peered at the word on the screen. She pushed buttons, squinting. She pursed her lips, and decided to restart the computer.

But my turn was over.

“Well, class, Joanie can’t follow instructions. Joanie only knows one word. CAT. We should call her CAT JOANIE.”

And with that, my kindergarden class called me CAT JOANIE for the next few minutes, chanting it until Mrs. Adamson felt I’d experienced enough shame.

I was called CAT JOANIE for about a week after by my classmates. That nickname, unlike some of Mrs. Adamson’s other “cute” nicknames, like Joanie Balogna, or Joanie Macaroni, thankfully did not stick.

The rest of that week, I refused to play with the computer at home. Or pet the cat.

What I’ve learned all these years later is that Mrs. Adamson only expected the other children to bully me for my height because she was, herself, a bully. She used it to garner good behavior from terrified children and to maintain constant control of what could be a loud and unruly classroom.

In the process, we learned that bullying was the means through which you could get what you wanted. And that not only was the behavior completely acceptable, but encouraged by adults.

I have spent most of my life in mortal terror of failure, in part because I fear a recurrence of the chant of “Cat Joanie, Cat Joanie, Cat Joanie” when I don’t succeed.

I also still make it a point to learn new words on a daily basis, and to expand my vocabulary not only with English, but with foreign languages as well.

What I really learned from Mrs. Adamson, whether she knew it or not, and whether she cared or not, was that I was fully capable of learning on my own, without her help, and most certainly without her approval.

 Oh, yeah, and not to run with scissors.