I felt like a cadet at West Point that first week of fifth grade. Mrs. Stith was our sergeant, commanding us to “stand at attention,” “walk single file,” “keep heads up” and “speak only when spoken to.” We had only two rules to obey in her classroom: never talk while Mrs. Stith is talking, and do your homework! We did not dare break these rules, fearing an arduous obstacle course to climb as our consequence or a firing squad awaiting Mrs. Stith’s command to release an arsenal of bullets into our bodies.
My fifth-grade mind was not accustomed to such a demanding teacher. Coloring outside the lines, reading The Great Adventures of Encyclopedia Brown and building mobiles with construction paper had been the norm. My mouth gaped at the sight of endless reading packets and workbook pages. I was in boot camp now and Mrs. Stith was going to toughen up the troops. Mrs. Stith could see our agony, our pleading eyes hoping she would blow her whistle and let us take a break from the work. But she yelled at the class at any sign of softness. Twenty pages of reading every night kept our stamina up. I cried at the thought of learning how to spell “dictionary,” “miserable” and “criminal.” I sweated over decimals. How could I learn all this and still have time to watch Cosby? This wasn’t a youngster’s usual anxiety. I honestly thought I hated Mrs. Stith, or “Mrs. Stiff,” as we called her, snickering as we pictured our gray-haired tyrant being lowered into a tomb. Who did this old woman think she was anyway, always barking at the class? I had always been the teacher’s pet. “Is my work not good enough?” I wondered. How could she destroy my confidence so easily?
“Carrie, how could you get this question wrong?”
“I …I …don’t know,” I managed, lowering my head in shame, unable to look at Mrs. Stith’s disappointed face.
“Don’t you know what a preposition is?”
“Yes, Mrs. Stith,” I replied, knowing that this blunder meant K.P. duty. I would have to study my composition book a little extra tonight.
I can’t pinpoint exactly why, but sometime during those first few weeks I decided to study hard and make Mrs. Stith proud of me. Maybe I dreamed of following in my older brother’s prominent footsteps (some thought they were left by Bigfoot). I wanted to be as studious and intelligent as Christopher. I couldn’t destroy the name that my brother and I had established. Mediocrity wasn’t part of my vocabulary. I had always been the best in class, favored by my teachers and often chosen to read aloud or go to the chalkboard to do multiplication tables. The difference was that now it didn’t come so easily. I would have to work.
Two-page reports turned into detailed posters explaining the formation of igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks. Mrs. Stith noticed her students’ best efforts and rewarded us for hard work with smelly stickers. We loved those stickers and hung them on the wall. One could easily discern my long trail of grapes, strawberries and apples. Reading packets became enjoyable. I left the world of Ramona Quimby and discovered Miss Havisham’s mansion, the plummeting guillotine and Jacob Marley’s rattling chains. That year marked the beginning of my battle with the nerd syndrome.
Fifth grade helped establish my reputation as a brain. I would skip recess and stay after school just to talk with Mrs. Stith. I would spend hours every night studying beyond the assigned homework. I didn’t mind if other kids laughed at me for being studious; they just hadn’t met the real Mrs. Stith. I no longer saw her as a rigid drill sergeant but rather, a helpful platoon leader. For my part, I was no longer a raw recruit but well on my way to becoming a skilled soldier.
What, in the beginning, were tears of fright and frustration turned to tears of sorrow when I graduated from fifth grade. For graduation Mrs. Stith gave me a special gift—a copy of A Day No Pigs Would Die. She wrote on the back cover: “I loved this book. I hope you will too. You are an outstanding girl. Best of luck always. Love, Mrs. Stith.” Mrs. Stith retired that year and I never saw my friend again.
This essay grips the reader from the outset, as the writer employs a simile in the opening statement to make his point: “I felt like a cadet at West Point that first week of fifth grade.” The writer does a good job of using the metaphor throughout the essay, providing thematic coherence. The conflict posed is one of challenge: a tough teacher who expects more from her students than they have been used to. What is most effective is the language the writer uses, showing the reader exactly how he felt at that young age: “My mouth gaped at the sight of endless reading packets and workbook pages.”
The applicant can be categorized as an “overachiever” (“I had always been the teacher’s pet.”) who also feels he must push himself based upon his brother’s past scholastic successes. Mrs. Stith, however, challenges this overachiever to push himself even harder: “I wanted to be as studious and intelligent as Christopher.” The writer employs a skilled transition between Paragraphs 8 and 9 (“That year marked the beginning of my battle with the nerd syndrome. Fifth grade helped establish my reputation as a brain.”). The resolution is expected, with the student rising to his teacher’s challenge, but the success in this piece lies in the execution—not the originality of the topic.