Number 1 or number 2, or maybe 3 or 4

It was an “I need a writing prompt” kind of day.

9780552772549I told myself to walk into my office, go to the second shelf of my bookcase and choose the second book from the left, page 142. The prompt brought me to The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson’s memoir of childhood.

On page 142 he writes about school experiences, specifically teachers’ monitoring of bathroom requests:

“They [teachers] insisted on knowing strange things, which I found bewildering. If you wanted to go to the restroom, they wanted to know whether you intended to do Number 1 or Number 2, a curiosity that didn’t strike me as entirely healthy. Besides, these were not terms used in our house. In our house, you either went toity or had a BM (for bowel movement), but mostly you just ‘went to the bathroom’ and made no public declaration with regard to intent. So I hadn’t the faintest idea, the first time I requested permission to go, what the teacher meant when she asked me if I was going to do number one or number two.

‘Well, I don’t know,’ I replied frankly and in a clear voice. ‘I need to do a big BM. It could be as much as a three or a four.’

I got sent to the cloakroom for that.”

This story reminded me of bathroom episodes from my own childhood school years. I remember one girl who requested permission to go to the bathroom but was denied. A short time later, a trickle of urine spilled over the rim of her red plastic chair and dribbled into a pool around her sneakers; an unfortunate incident certain to create a traumatic childhood memory. Another boy had an even more, shall we say, explosive incident while waiting for permission to do what nature calls us to do.

My own first day of school involved a bathroom incident. I was a shy child, and before I started school people wondered how I would fare away from home and my family. I didn’t start school until Grade 1—there was no kindergarten in my area at the time—so I was old enough to remember all the talk and the first day well. I remember telling myself that I was going to be just fine, thank you very much. I would show them all.

Only one problem. It was a different time and place. I had no pre-school or kindergarten, so when I started school, I didn’t know how to read. At an inevitable point in the long day, I had to go to the bathroom. I bravely asked permission and went and stood in the hall and looked at two doors. Did I mention that it was a different time and place? There were no pictures on the two doors. Signs placed there clearly read “Girls” and “Boys,” but I couldn’t read! 

I stood there for some time debating what to do. I really needed to go, but what if I walked into the wrong one? I would have been mortified. Eventually I decided to try to wait it out. I returned to my classroom and sat down.

Some time later, my need became overwhelming, and tears began to roll down my face. At that exact moment, someone my family knew well walked down the hall and peeked in the classroom window. Word spread to all who knew me that I cried on my first day of school.

For want of a picture of a little girl on a bathroom door, I cried on my first day of school.

How many of us have similar childhood school bathroom memories? I’m guessing, a huge number.

I want the record to show that, other than my unfortunate overfull bladder, I was fine on my first day of school, thank you very much.




2 thoughts on “Number 1 or number 2, or maybe 3 or 4

  1. anne boswall

    Arlene I love how your blog often takes me to a long ago forgotten memory and lands it right in front of me!
    I too started to school at grade one but it was a one room rural PEI school with grades one to grade ten. It was about a mile from our house and I was very keen to talk there rather than have my Dad drive me. The neighbours were in grades eight and ten so I was very happy to run off with them walking to school (I had to run to keep up!)
    I was seated behind the grade eighter and when I was too shy to put up my hand to ask to go to the outhouse I whispered to her…and she blurted my request out loud with a laugh! I was not impressed but resolved to never mind with her the next time!
    I did cry before I got home as I fell on the walk back and skinned my knee quite badly. the only other day I remember crying in school was when I cracked heads with someone and got a bloody nose and black eye!

    1. Arlene Somerton Smith Post author

      Well, I guess I can count myself lucky that I didn’t have to ask to go to an outhouse 🙂
      I missed going to a one-room schoolhouse by one year. Both of my older brothers went there.
      It was a different time and place . . .


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