I’m so old that there was no kindergarten when I was 5 years old. I started first grade in Kansas, and when I met my teacher I told her, “I will endeavor to be a good pupil.” She looked at me like I was a hurricane, then burst out laughing and hugged me.

We must have learned lots of things, but I only remember two. One was how to draw a person by starting with the shape of a large kidney bean and then adding arms, legs and the head. I thought it an odd way to draw a human being, since all the ones drawn this way appeared to be running sideways.

The second thing I remember was a song the music teacher taught us. I remember all the words (and the tune): “Oh, it’s hard to be polite if you’re a cat; very hard to be polite if you’re a cat. When there’s meat upon the plate, you’re expected just to wait. Oh, it’s hard to be polite if you’re a cat.” I had never heard it before, and I have never heard it since, hallelujah.

After several weeks of school, I informed my mother when I got home that I did not see the need to attend any longer. She informed me that attendance was “de rigeur,” which was an even greater disappointment than the bean people and cat etiquette song.

Then we moved to Portsmouth, Va., and I attended James L. Hurst Elementary School in Cradock and learned quite a few more interesting things from my new teacher, Mrs. Bailey. “Kuh-AT” spells “cat,” for example.

One day she asked me to take a test and later on, when school was out, they told me I would be going to the third grade when school started again in September.

Oh, that’s another thing: School started in September back then, not August, and never before Labor Day.

Everyone made quite a fuss over my skipping second grade, which reassured me that perhaps my awkward beginning of elementary school back in Kansas wasn’t a terrible failure after all.

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  • Diane Harvey May 7, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I have a friend who sang that as a child also and she can’t remember the words. Since you do would you please send us the lyrics of “It’s hard to be polite if you’re a cat”
    Thank you

  • Laura Sillerman September 10, 2009 at 8:32 am

    And it’s clear that you’ve been a good pupil in life’s classroom ever since, Billie. This is a charming portrait of the simpler time before children began getting their education from television crime shows and computer games.