“Why did you come back to school when I told you to stay home?” demanded Miss Wolfe, my first-grade teacher.
That may not be exactly what she said, but it’s what my 6 year-old brain heard. I felt fine and couldn’t understand why she thought I should have stayed home. I loved school and I didn’t want to go back home. Besides, Mom hadn’t said anything to make me think I wasn’t able to return to my beloved schoolroom.
You may need some background to better understand what happened that spring day in May, 1940. I was 6 years old and in my favorite place—school. That may be hard for following generations to comprehend, as liking school seems to be an unpopular idea in the 21st century. I had walked to school as usual, leaving my mother and my 4 year-old and 19 month-old brothers at home. I don’t recall walking with anybody, but in those times children walked safely to their neighborhood elementary school.
Morning classes had ended. Just as I was preparing to walk out for lunch at home, Miss Wolfe took me aside and said, “Nancy, you have the measles and should not be in school until you’re better. You need to stay home after lunch."
Ordinarily not a rebellious child, especially with authority figures, that day I uncharacteristically rebelled! I did not want to miss school, so unless something intervened I was going back to school after lunch. No “Miss Goody Two Shoes” that day!
When I walked into the house for lunch, I really expected my mother to notice my “spots” and insist I stay home. All during lunch, Mom didn’t say anything about me having measles. Maybe Miss Wolfe was wrong! I wasn’t sick. I could return to school. Not a word from Mom as I bade her goodbye on my way out the door. I decided Miss Wolfe was wrong—I did not have the measles. After all, Mom didn’t say I had measles.
I walked into the classroom before the late bell rang. Miss Wolfe immediately descended on me.
“Nancy, I told you to stay home because you have the measles. You should not be in school. You will give measles to all the other children. You MUST go home and have your mother call the doctor.”
Once I left school, I was in a hurry to get home to tell Mom what had happened. She didn’t seem particularly upset when I came home. Taking a closer look at me, she determined I did have the measles. She put me to bed and instructed me to stay in my bedroom where I spent the next ten days. I don’t know whether she called the doctor. I presume she did because we had a QUARANTINE sign on the front door.
Between the fever and the discomfort of the rash, I recall very little of the first few days. However, once I started feeling better, being confined to my bedroom became more difficult. The blinds were drawn to darken the room, and I was not allowed to read. This was common practice as it was believed to protect the vision. Not being permitted to read was difficult for me. Even at that young age, I was already a confirmed bibliophile. Hearing my brothers playing outside drew me to my window where I lifted the shade and looked down on them playing on the front sidewalk. By that time I was feeling well enough to want to join them. Other than bathing and using the bathroom I was not permitted out of my room.
Permission to have some light and be allowed to read must have been granted by the doctor toward the end of my confinement. One afternoon Mom came into my room with a surprise gift for me. It was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Hearing or reading The Land of Counterpane always reminds me of when I had the measles and of my first-grade teacher Miss Wolfe.
To this day I still think of Miss Wolfe as the only mean teacher I ever had. I’m sure my memory of her is colored by the experience of being sent home from school because I had the measles. She was probably frustrated by my inability to understand the seriousness of the situation. All I knew is that mean Miss Wolfe didn’t want me in school. That is the most vivid memory of my entire first-grade experience.