First Grade, With Birth Defects

I remember entering 1st grade with very fond memories. Of all my years in school, 1st grade remains my favorite. I was extremely ready to go to school. I wanted to learn, and I especially wanted to learn to read. Books already played a prominent part in my life. I loved looking at picture books, I loved being read to, and I was ready to learn to do it myself. The second reason for such fond memories was that I was not teased or bullied at all during my 1st grade year. In subsequent grades the teasing and bullying would escalate, but in 1st grade all was well.

Initially, because I had just turned 6 years old the summer before school started, there was some concern on the part of the school that I was too young and should wait a year before entering 1st grade. I am thankful that my mother persisted in saying I was more than ready. Already, at just 6, I was clearly more mature than the average 6-year-old, and my intellectual curiosity was already evident to the adults in my life.

My parents enrolled me in Seattle Junior Academy (SJA), a 12 grade Christian school on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. There was no school bus service, and my mom did not drive, so I took the #5 bus from the top of my street. It was just a short 3.5 mile ride each way. Today it doesn’t seem safe to send a child of 6 alone on a city bus to and from school, but this was not uncommon in the 1960s, and I never experienced an incident where I was in any danger. I walked the half block to the top of the hill where we lived, crossed Greenwood Avenue, and caught the bus every morning, and then got off at the first stop after the bus crossed the Aurora Bridge. SJA was just block from the bus stop.

stairs to SJA_corrected
The stairs I had to climb every day from the bus stop to the school.

My 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Cooley, remains my favorite teacher to this day. She was already of grandmotherly age when I started school and she ran a very tight classroom. One thing I will be forever grateful for, is that she allowed absolutely no teasing or bullying. My hands were noticeably different with my amniotic band syndrome (ABS), but she treated me just like any other child, and she required the other children to treat me as normal too.

Mrs Cooley SJA_corrected
My 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Cooley.

I loved school. We started each morning with the Pledge of Allegiance and had morning worship, which included singing a few songs from a Christian, children’s songbook. I remember that a lot of the learning involved filling out worksheets. I was almost always done with my work well ahead of the other kids. Mrs. Cooley had several activities kids could do if they finished their work early, but the one I loved best was using the classroom binoculars. Our classroom was on the north side of the school and overlooked the Lake Washington Ship Canal, with Fremont visible on the other side. I remember spending many minutes most days scanning the cityscape to the north and occasionally watching the mast of a taller ship as it made its way through the canal to Lake Washington.

1st grade me SJA_corrected
My picture from the SJA annual. Notice the misspelling of my first name. More commonly it gets misspelled as “Brian.” Seems to have been my bane over the years.

As a part of our class’ music education, Mrs. Cooley provided recorders and taught the students to play them. This was one of the first times that I remember a need for making accommodations for my handicap. Due to the odd shapes of my fingers, I was unable to cover the holes on a recorder properly. As soon as Mrs. Cooley discovered this, she supplied me with a triangle to play. What could have been a disappointment, became a source of pride. I was the only child in the class to play something different than all the others. This also was the inspiration for later playing percussion in middle school and high school band. Incidentally, I now can play the recorder. I discovered that German recorders lack the grooves associated with holes on the common children’s recorders, like those used in my classroom. Without the grooves, I am able to cover the holes with my fingers and I learned to play recorder in college.

One other reminder of my handicap at that time was my inability to tie my own shoes. This was an important skill in the days before Velcro, as most children’s shoes had laces, and slip on shoes would not fit my feet. I still remember my mom telling me that I would learn to do it just fine, I just needed to practice. She never let my handicap be an excuse for not being able to tie them, and I did eventually learn to tie them. Even so, my shoes still were a reminder of my birth defects, as I had to wear two different sizes of shoe. The amniotic band that had been around my left ankle caused my left leg and foot to be stunted, resulting in almost a 2-size difference between my feet.

My sister and I looking at our encyclopedias. We spent hours with these, and both of us became avid readers.

Mrs. Cooley routinely made school fun. I remember one day, when we arrived, she said we would be going on a scavenger hunt. She had hidden notes in various places with clues as to where to find the next note. The final note was supposed to lead us to a surprise treasure. Just after finishing lunch we set out. We found all the notes, and we even found the treasure, a package of cookies buried in one of the playground sandboxes. Unfortunately, before we found the treasure, a dog had dug it up and ripped the package open. I remember being disappointed, but not too much, because at least we had solved the riddles and found the treasure.

Reading opened the world for me, and as soon as I was able to read it became difficult to find me without a book in my hands. By the summer following my 1st grade year, I became a voracious reader. There was a branch of the Seattle Public Library a few blocks from our house, and some days I would go there, check out a foot-tall stack of chapter books, and return them the same day, and get another stack. Reading later became a valuable escape from the teasing and bullying in school.

Looking at the Sears Christmas catalog with my sister. Oh the wishes we made.

On my way home from school one day, a few months after starting 1st grade, I accidentally got on the wrong bus, the #6 instead of the #5. It soon became apparent to me it was not taking the normal route, so I started to cry. A teacher from another school was on the bus and asked me what was wrong, and I told her the bus wasn’t going the right way, so I didn’t know how I was going to get home. Once it was discovered I was on the wrong bus, the bus driver helped me transfer to another bus that would get me home.

A typical City of Seattle bus like the one I took to school every day.

When I got home, my mom was worried, since I was later than usual. When I explained what happened, she concluded that maybe my eyes were near-sighted, and I had simply misread the #6 as a #5. She made an appointment for me to see an optometrist, and sure enough, I was significantly near-sighted. I still remember the day I got my glasses. The optometrist’s office was in downtown Seattle. As we left his office, I remember looking up at the tall buildings and realizing for the first time that there were windows in them all the way up their sides.

My 1st grade year and the following summer I also continued to make friends in the neighborhood. And again, these earliest friends seemed to not give me any trouble over my fingers. We built forts in the line of trees in my backyard. We pretended to drive in one of my dad’s old cars that no longer worked. I even remember my first foray into experimental biology. I had heard that cats, no matter how far they are dropped, always land on their feet. One of my friends that lived behind our house, on the other side of the block, had a second story balcony on their house. To test the cat theory, I remember taking their cat to this balcony and dropping it over the side, upside-down. Fortunately, the cat landed on its feet just fine, albeit a bit ruffled from the experience.

Playing in the snow with my sister in our backyard. I remember that when my hands got real cold, they would hurt excruciatingly as they warmed up. The scars on my fingers from my surgeries seem to be the main cause of the ache.

My 1st grade year provided a strong grounding which, I believe, was instrumental in helping me weather the more difficult years in subsequent grades. In a Christian school with Christian teachers I learned that God is someone who can be depended on for comfort. Our family also went to church each week and the teachers in my Sabbath School class further strengthened my spiritual connections with God. In fact, later, as teasing and bullying did begin to happen, these adults became anchor points for me. The church we attended attracted many well-educated people. One of my teachers there was a chemist, and I remember other adults there who were physicists, doctors and dentists. With my strong academic bent, this opened up a lot of avenues of learning.

4 thoughts on “First Grade, With Birth Defects

  1. This blog brings back so many memories for me also…I still have the recorder we used at SJA. I too took a bus from Ballard to Phinnney Street and transferred buses…getting off the bus on the first stop after the Aurora bridge….I am still amazed at how young I was doing this by myself….later during my 7th grade we moved onto my Dads commercial fishing boat at the Fishermans Wharf…I walked up and down those long stairs each school day to catch a bus…some times if I missed the bus I would walk the three miles trying to beat the next bus! I too had Mrs. Cooley as a teacher and loved her…what a fine example of a Christian! Your story is a blessing and teaches us to be more aware of others and their special needs…


    1. Wow, I didn’t know, at the time, of any other students who took the city bus to school. I am sure there were a number that did. It is amazing how much more freedom young kids had back then than today. Crime rates are actually lower today, but no one would allow a 6-year-old today to take a city bus every day to school.

      As for mrs. Cooley, I totally agree. I hope she had some sense of the impact she had on some of us. I think there is a reason 1st grade teachers are often people’s favorite teacher. It is our first impression of the outside world we become immersed in at that age. All the more reason we need to pick the best to teach our young children and to give them as much support as we can. They shape the kind of people we become, and in a Christian setting, help shape us into the kind of Christians we become.


  2. My goodness I can’t believe reading this- my mother!! I want to talk to you!! Send me an email with your number and I will text and call. I am so excited and inspired about this. I am wanting to write a book about Mom, and what a find!! My brother Lee Cooley and I were in the 9th grade there.


    1. Ruth, you can email me at and we can go from there. I am still recovering from a bout with the flu at the moment, so talking on the phone might be better next week some time. I remember going to school with some of the other members of your family at Auburn, and my mom, Nancy (Anderson) Ness, went to school with Lee Cooley. I can’t say a lot of things more than in my blog, as memories clear back to when I was 6 are only so good, but I can say your mother was a very positive influence on me. I was especially impressed at how well she enabled the kids in class to get along, and prevent bullying and teasing. I wish more teachers had her skills.


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