Third Grade

On the last afternoon before Christmas vacation, Mr. Ketner, the principal, knocked timidly on our classroom door and entered. He stood beside Mrs. Ware’s desk, which was brightly festooned with presents our parents had made us bring. After receiving a curt nod from Mrs. Ware, he turned to us and spoke.

“This morning Mrs. Ware informed me that, after forty-seven years at Cliffside Elementary, she is retiring. Her sister has broken a hip and Mrs. Ware is moving to Raleigh to be with her. I know you will miss her and I also understand that you might be worried about having a new teacher, but I want to assure you that her replacement, Mrs. Mabry, is a fine teacher. She taught here a few years ago and is looking forward to rejoining us.” 

Mr. Ketner paused.      

“Do you have any questions, students?”

Of course, what we wanted to do was not ask questions but shout hallelujahs, but Mrs. Ware, eyes bulging behind thick-lensed glasses, gave us her don’t-even-breathe-out-loud look. Nevertheless, Janie Murray, who had more gumption than the rest of us, raised her hand.

“How old is Mrs. Mabry?”

“Well,” Mr. Ketner answered. “It wouldn’t be polite to say her age, but I can tell mine, forty. Let’s just say she is younger than I am. Are there any other questions?” 

No one else raised a hand, so Mr. Ketner wished us happy holidays and left.

“We still have fifteen minutes,” Mrs. Ware announced, “and that is enough time for us to resume going over the parts of speech.”

“Are you going to open your presents?” Robbie Conrad asked.

“No,” Mrs. Ware snapped. “After teaching forty-seven years I know what’s in them, and I can assure all of you that I have enough bath powder and linen handkerchiefs to last a lifetime.”

 We were being grilled on adjectives when the bell rang. We left Mrs. Ware frowning amid her unopened gifts. 

“Mrs. Mabry can’t be worser than Wicked Ware,” my neighbor and best friend Mike said as we walked home.“Yea,” I agreed. “What did you give her for Christmas?”

“My mom bought her some Avon bath powder,” Mike said. 

“Mine too,” I said. “I told Mom we ought to give her a new broomstick to fly around on.”

“I bet she didn’t like you saying that.”

“No, but Dad grinned.”

We left the road and took a secret shortcut through the woods. Secret because we weren’t supposed to leave the sidewalk or road. As Mike and I followed the narrow path, neither of us spoke. The trees blotted out most of the light and their high branches made whispery sounds. In the woods we always walked a bit faster.

“Maybe that’s how Wicked Ware’s sister broke her hip,” Mike said as we rejoined the road, our houses already in sight. “She had a rough landing. Anyway, her leaving is the best Christmas present ever.”

“This new teacher could be mean too,” I said.

“No way as mean as Mrs. Ware,” Mike said. “I bet there’s nobody that mean even in Russia.”

When Mrs. Ware blessed out a student, her upper denture slipped forward like fangs preparing to bite. Click To Tweet

When we returned to school in January, the classroom had been transformed. The walls, which had been bare except for a head lice flyer, were now covered with bright pictures of different countries. Tacked to the back wall was a poster-board rocket with BLAST OFF TO A GREAT NEW YEAR at the top and our names below. After the dreariness of Mrs. Ware’s room, it was like being surrounded by the swirling colors at the county fair. Kate Beckworth, who sat in front of me, told Janie the room looked happy. 

All that was missing was our teacher. But a few moments after the bell rang a woman entered with Mr. Ketner. 

“This is Mrs. Mabry, your new teacher,” our principal said. 

She was almost as tall as Mr. Ketner, and wore her hair in a ponytail, just like Miss Sorrels, the school’s P.E. teacher. Mrs. Mabry’s brown eyes matched her hair and the checks on the dress she wore. Unlike most of our teachers, she wore no earrings or pearls, just a gold wedding band and a wristwatch. Her black dress shoes were scuffed, which I took as a further sign that she wouldn’t be fussy about us drinking milk without a straw or untucking our shirttails at recess. Best of all was her smile, wide and welcoming but also revealing even rows of real teeth, not ones made of wire and plastic. When Mrs. Ware blessed out a student, her upper denture slipped forward like fangs preparing to bite.

 Mrs. Mabry sat down and opened her attendance book, but Mr. Ketner didn’t leave. 

“You’re okay, June?” he asked.

“I am,” Mrs. Mabry answered.

“I’m just down the hall if you need me,” he said. 

When she nodded Mr. Ketner went out, though he left the door cracked. She studied the roll, then raised her eyes. 

“Well,” she said, looking a bit nervous but still smiling. “I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas. Now I’ll match your names to your faces. If I say your name wrong raise your hand and let me know.”

After checking attendance, Mrs. Mabry nodded at an empty desk in the back corner.

“Is someone missing?” 

“No ma’am,” Brenda said. “That’s where Mrs. Ware put us if we talked.”

 Mrs. Mabry nodded and closed her roll book. She stood and turned toward the American flag on her right, placed a hand over her heart, and led us in the pledge of allegiance. That done, she asked us to get out our math books.

Janie raised her hand.

“What about the bomb drill?” 

“What bomb drill? Mrs. Mabry asked.

“For when the atomic bomb goes off,” Janie answered. “Mrs. Ware made us get under our desks and close our eyes so they wouldn’t melt.”

“Melt?” 

“Mrs. Ware said if we looked up and saw it our eyeballs would melt.”

Mrs. Mabry frowned.

“Do you like doing the drill?” 

We shook our heads.

“It’s scary,” Jake Norris said.

“Then we won’t do it,” Mrs. Mabry announced. 

The morning passed quickly. Spelling, science and math, then our short recess. At lunch Mrs. Mabry watched as we pushed the slimy prunes around our plate, an old ploy that rarely worked with Mrs. Ware, who made us eat at least two when they were served.

“I see that you don’t enjoy stewed prunes,” Mrs. Mabry said.

“Do we still have to eat them?” Tim Waters asked.

“No, it’s good to try everything on your plate,” our new teacher answered, “but there are some foods no human should have to eat, and stewed prunes is certainly one of them.”

“Wow,” Mike said as we walked back from lunch. “I’ve never heard a teacher tell you not to clean your plate.”

But the biggest surprise was at afternoon recess. Since it was warm enough, we went outside and chose sides for a softball game. Mrs. Mabry opened a gym bag and took out a pair of Converses and a broken-in ball glove.

“I’ll play too,” she said, “one inning with each team.”

She put on the glove and smacked the leather twice with her fist.

“I can play first base since I’m tall, unless someone else wants to.”

Mrs. Mabry did not get to bat until the third inning. By then she’d already caught a pop-up and scooped up two low throws. She took a few practice swings and stepped to the plate. The first pitch was inside but the next came right down the middle. She swung and the ball sailed over the left fielder’s head, took one bounce, and disappeared into the woods. As she circled the bases, taking short strides because of her dress, I looked over at Mike and shook my head. We’d traded in a witch for Mickey Mantle.

“So how do like your new teacher?” my mother asked that night at supper.

“She’s great, the best ever,” I said, “and she can hit a softball a mile.”

“You want to go to school?” my father asked. “I haven’t heard that before.” Click To Tweet

My father smiled.

“I’m not surprised. June was a real good athlete in high school.”

“You were in school with Mrs. Mabry?” I asked.

“She was a grade below me,” my father answered. “I went to school with Mr. Mabry too.”

“The Mr. Mabry that works at the bank?” 

“Yes,” my father answered

My mother hesitated, then spoke.

“And Mrs. Mabry seems glad to be back teaching?” 

I think so,” I answered. “She doesn’t act like she’s mad at us all the time, like Wicked Ware.”

“Mrs. Ware,” my mother said, her voice softening as she turned to my father. “That’s good, her wanting to teach again.”

On the following Monday, Mrs. Mabry asked if we’d like to use the bomb-drill time for something very special and just for our class, something we couldn’t let anyone else know about. If you are okay with that, raise your hand, she said, and everyone did.  She dragged the empty desk over and placed it behind mine on the back row.

“Good,” Mrs. Mabry said. “Here’s the plan. We’re going to have a new student in the class. He’ll be invisible but we’ll still know everything about him. We will call him Edwin, and he has brown eyes. That’s a start, but now all of you have to tell me something about him?”

She looked at Brenda, who sat on the front row.

“We’ll start with you, Brenda.”

“He wears glasses, like me,” Brenda said, and Mrs. Mabry wrote glasses on the chalkboard.

“And he gets to wear blue jeans,” Jake said, “even to church.”

And so it went, the board filling rapidly. By the time we’d all had a turn, we knew that Edwin also had brown hair, freckles, four stitches in his right leg and a missing front tooth. He wore a blue shirt, black Ked tennis shoes, and white socks. His pockets held a billfold, Barlow knife, rabbit’s foot, lunch money, a dime for a Nutty-Buddy, two pieces of Bazooka bubble gum, and a green cat-eye marble.

“Well,” Mrs. Mabry said as we all looked at the board. “I think we’ve certainly found out a lot about Edwin’s appearance. I’ll keep this on the chalkboard the rest of today. Tomorrow we’ll find out what his favorite things are, so be thinking about what he likes.”

So it was that each morning after the pledge of allegiance, one row would tell what Edwin had done the day before. Then, hands on our hearts, we pledged not to tell anyone. 

Soon our class knew more about Edwin than we did about each other. We’d listed his favorite holidays, foods, television shows, school subjects, seasons, animals, baseball players, and soft drinks. We knew his dislikes as well, which included stewed prunes. By week’s end we were leaving an empty seat for him beside Mrs. Mabry at lunch and a place in the outfield between left and center. If it was too cold or rainy to go outside, he sat on the gym’s front bleacher. The rest of the time Edwin was supposedly sitting behind me. Sometimes it felt like he really was. Once I turned and thought, just for an instant, that I actually saw him. I didn’t know if anyone else felt this way, but one day in early February I decided to find out.

“Do you ever get the feeling sometimes that Edwin, um, that he might be…”

“Might be what?” Mike asked.

“Real.”

I waited for him to tell me I was losing my marbles.

“Yea, I do,” Mike said after a few moments. “It’s kind of spooky.”

“But it’s not like he’s scary,” I said. “I kind of wish he was real.”

For the first few weeks, Mr. Ketner had stopped by our classroom every day. He seldom spoke, just lingered in the doorway a few moments, giving Mrs. Mabry a smile before disappearing. But after a month he rarely did so. Similarly, my parents asked fewer questions about my day with Mrs. Mabry.  In mid-February snow forced us to miss school three straight days.  Below our house was a slanting pasture perfect for sledding. Later, after lunch and hot chocolate, enough kids had gathered that we built snowmen and had snowball fights. But on the third evening when the radio announced that school would resume, I was glad.

“You want to go to school?” my father asked. “I haven’t heard that before.”

“It’s not like it was with Mrs. Ware,” I answered. 

“Well, you’d better go on to bed,” my mother said. “No sleeping in tomorrow.”

As I was undressing, I overheard my parents speaking quietly about Mrs. Mabry. I went out in the hall in my sock feet and listened.

 “All the parents I know say their children love having her,” my mother said. 

“Bill told me last fall that he had about decided they’d have to move away, too many memories here,” my father replied,” but it seems June’s enjoying school as much as the kids, so maybe things will be okay.”

“I hope so,” my mother said, “I truly hope so.”

When we returned to school on Thursday, Mrs. Mabry seemed especially happy. 

“After three days of snow, I think we’ll need all five rows to catch up on Edwin,” she said, “don’t you?”

So that’s what we did. Edwin had snowball fights, built snowmen, sledded, made snow angels, played Monopoly, and stayed up until eleven o’clock every night. When he was inside he played with army men and an electric football set. He ate pancakes, waffles, snow cream, tomato soup, and cornbread. He drank hot chocolate and grape Kool-Aid. 

After we’d finished, Mrs. Mabry told us we’d forgotten one thing Edwin had done at night while staying up late: He’d read his favorite book, Charlotte’s Web. 

“And you know what?” Mrs. Mabry added.  “Since it is his favorite book, I’m going to read it to you this afternoon.”

“I wish Edwin would have picked a better book,” Mike complained at morning recess. “It’s okay for first and second grade, but we’re too old for it now. He should of read something about astronauts  or baseball.”

“If I got to stay up that late,” I said. “I’d watch The Twilight Zone.”

“Yea, my cousin said it’s real scary,” Mike said. “What’s scary about a pig and spider talking to each other?”

“Nothing.” 

“Still,” Mike said, “Edwin has more fun than any kid I know. He never has to take a bath or clean his room, or put up with a big sister who picks on him.”

“You can get away with a lot if you aren’t real,” I said.

It was after lunch when Mrs. Mabry placed her chair directly in front of us and opened the book. 

“If you want to,” Mrs. Mabry said, “you can close your eyes. Sometimes it helps you imagine things better.”

 She began reading and it was as if the story were completely new.  Unlike our other teachers, she didn’t change her voice when Charlotte and Wilbur talked or stop to show us the pictures. Mrs. Mabry read soft and slow and as soon as I closed my eyes, it was like I wasn’t in the classroom but sitting on the shadowy straw of Farmer Zuckerman’s barn. When the story ended, I kept my head down as I blinked back tears. I heard sniffles around me. When I looked up. Mrs. Mabry was moving her chair back behind the desk.

“Well,” she said, her eyes glistening as she put the book back in the gym bag that held her tennis shoes and ball glove. “I think we see why that’s Edwin’s favorite story.”   

“But it’s so sad,” Kate sniffled.

“It is, Kate,” Mrs. Mabry answered, “but it’s not the worst kind of sad.” 

By March we were outside most days playing softball. Mrs. Mabry still hit some home runs, but now the outfield played so deep she usually stopped at second base. She’d raise her hand and say Edwin would be her pinch runner. We decided that he was fast, so on pop-ups and ground-outs, he advanced one base. On any hit he scored. He continued to play in the outfield but near the third-base line. A hedge bordered the foul line and if a ball wedged in it Edwin got credit for the catch. 

As the days got warmer, Mike and I no longer saw our breaths as we walked to school. Not long afterward coats and sweaters were put away. The dogwood in front of our house blossomed.

“Just two more months and we’ll be out of school,” Mike said as we walked home.

“Yea,” I said. “That’ll be great but still….”

“What?”

“Well, it’s just since Mrs. Mabry’s been our teacher, school’s not too bad.”

“But summer is the best,” Mike said. “We can go fishing or ride our bikes all day.”

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “But when we go to fourth grade, Mrs. Mabry won’t be our teacher.”

“We won’t have near as much fun,” Mike admitted, then sighed. “I guess it’s too late for us to fail third grade.”

“I think so, and, boy, our parents would raise a ruckus if we did.” 

“That’s for sure,” Mike said.

“What about Edwin though?” I asked. “Will he go to fourth grade with us or stay with Mrs. Mabry?”

“I guess he’ll have to stay with Mrs. Mabry,” Mike answered. “His desk is in her room.”

“I reckon so.”

Though the day was sunny and bright, we trudged on as if under the gloomiest sky.

“But hey,” Mike said, tapping my arm with his fist. “You know how summer is. It lasts forever.” 

 It was the week before Easter holidays, just after morning recess, when Mr. Ketner opened our classroom door.  

“A desk in Mr. Young’s classroom is damaged,” he told Mrs. Mabry. “May I take your extra one?”

“You can’t, Mr. Ketner,” Janie blurted out. “That’s Edwin’s desk.”

“Edwin?” Mr Ketner asked. “Who is Edwin?”

For a few moments no one spoke.

“It’s a class secret so we can’t tell you,” Janie said.

“Does Edwin sit in this desk?” Mr. Ketner asked. 

“It’s just a kind of game we play,” Mrs. Mabry answered.

 “A game?” Mr. Ketner asked, approaching Mrs. Mabry.

“Yes, it’s only for a few minutes each morning.”

“And Edwin,” Mr. Ketner said softly, standing between us and Mrs. Mabry. “Edwin is part of the game?”

“It’s just a game,” she said.

Mr. Ketner checked the clock above the chalkboard. 

 “Mrs. Adams will take your students to lunch, June. You need to come with me.”

Mr. Ketner stepped closer and held out his hand, as if Mrs. Mabry needed help to get up.

Edwin’s chair was gone when we returned from lunch. Mrs. Adams told us to take our seats, and soon footsteps echoed up the hall. Mr. Ketner and Mr. Mabry stood at the door as Mrs. Mabry entered the classroom, a single Kleenex in her right hand. She had been crying but now she attempted a smile. 

“We won’t be talking about Edwin anymore,” Mrs. Mabry said.

“What if we want to?” Janie asked.

“We can’t, because he’s moved to another place, and it’s far away,” Mrs. Mabry said, glancing at the door. “Now let’s open our spelling books.”

 So the rest of the school year passed without Edwin being mentioned in class. Like my classmates, I still stepped around where his desk had been. At lunch there was always an empty seat beside Mrs. Mabry, and any ball caught by the hedge was an out. But each day Edwin seemed farther away. When Jake’s grandmother died in Mississippi, and we knew he’d be out for three days, Brenda asked if we could put Jake’s desk where Edwin’s had been. Mrs. Mabry just shook her head and told us to open our math books.    

Then it was June and our last day as third graders. After lunch and afternoon recess, Mrs. Mabry let us talk among ourselves as the minute hand dragged toward two-thirty. Five minutes before the bell rang, Mrs. Mabry told us we’d been a wonderful class and though she and her husband were moving to Atlanta she would never forget us. Mrs. Mabry paused, seeming to want to say more, but she didn’t. When the bell rang, it was Mrs. Mabry who got out of her seat first. She raised an upturned palm toward the door and told us it was time to leave. 

On our way down the hall Mike and I passed the fourth-grade classrooms where the desks were bigger, the books thicker.

“I’ve heard fourth grade is really hard,” Mike said as we walked down the school’s front steps. “They make you do multiplication into the thousands.”

“A lot more homework too,” I said, “and Mrs. Marshall and Miss Hughes are supposed to be strict.” 

We walked a while without speaking, our backpacks as light as they had been that first day of school nine months earlier. We were almost home before Mike tapped my side with an elbow.

“Hey, it’s summer vacation,” he said, and grinned.

And so it was. That night after supper, the grown-ups came out and sat on their front porches. Even as fireflies began to float and wink across the yards, no voices called us in. As the darkness deepened, our parents’ faces dimmed. Soon all we could see was the flare of a match, the orange glow of a last cigarette. As porch lights came on, we played more quietly, hoping they’d forget about us until their bedtimes, not ours.  Even as our names were called from the porches, we made plans. Tomorrow we’d awake to a whole day of bike rides and baseball and swimming. As we closed our eyes, we thought of all the summer days stretching out before us, seemingly forever.

Author / Ilustrator

  • Ron Rash is the author of the PEN/Faulkner finalist and New York Times bestselling novel Serena, in addition to the critically acclaimed novels The Risen, Above the Waterfall, The Cove, One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, and The World Made Straight; four collections of poems; and six collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Nothing Gold Can Stay, a New York Times bestseller, and Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award. Twice the recipient of the O. Henry Prize and winner of the 2019 Sidney Lanier Prize for Southern Literature, he is the Parris Distinguished Professor in Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University.

  • In the 1970s the Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, with the help of NASA Ames Research Center and Stanford University, held a series of space colony summer studies which explored the possibilities of humans living in giant orbiting spaceships. Colonies housing about 10,000 people were designed and a number of artistic renderings of the concepts were made. For more information see The Public Domain Review at https://publicdomainreview.org/collection/space-colony-art-from-the-1970s