First Day of School

“You know, it’s funny what a young man recollects. ‘Cause I don’t remember being born. I don’t recall what I got for my first Christmas, and I don’t know when I went on my first outdoor picnic. But I do remember the first time I heard the sweetest voice in the wide world.” – Young Forrest Gump

Do you remember your first day of school? For you younger folks, which includes my daughter, that might mean the first day you were put in daycare at the tender age of three months. However, back when I was a little girl, the first day of school meant kindergarten. In my world, mothers didn’t work or, at the very least, they didn’t work full time. Mom was there when you got up in the morning, ready to hand you that brown paper bag filled with the lunch she made while you were getting ready for school. However, in our house you were permitted to buy lunch from the cafeteria once a week, which for me was usually hamburger day on Fridays. Mom was also there when you got home from school, all ears and seemingly willing to hear about your experiences and question whatever homework was due the next day. No latchkey kid here. I actually hadn’t even thought about my first day of school for decades until Regina sent me this photo:

First Day

I vaguely remember my first day of kindergarten, little snippets of memory breaking through here and there over the years. My best friend, Kassie Moore, and I walked the four blocks to John Y. Dater School, our mothers in tow and Kassie’s baby sister Meredith in a stroller

First Day of Kindergarten 1970

As we approached the building we noted separate entrances, one for boys and one for girls, and questioned whether or not it was necessary to abide. Fortunately, my classroom was the first door on the left, accessed through the lower middle doors not marked by any gender requirements. I remember Susan P. sitting at the end of the table, sucking her thumb with an incurable case of the hiccups while several other kids cried for their mommies, not quite ready for the inevitable beginning of separation that would occur for the rest of their lives until launching properly as young adults from their parents’ household years later…hopefully. I recollect the teacher asking if we knew how to read, write and/or count, which I, being the youngest of six children, knew for at least two years.

My teacher was Mrs. Schoenlank, the best kindergarten teacher a kid could have. She was also probably the most sensitive teacher I’ve ever had in my entire life. She was made for kindergarten. She played piano for us every day, sometimes teaching us a new song to sing along with her accompaniment or leading us in a tremendous marching band circling the room, miniature drums and handheld cymbals, tambourines, triangles, wooden blocks, jingle bells, maracas and kazoos in mastered rows. Aside from the ever-present music, we occupied ourselves with sand and water tables, finger painting, board games and other toys always readily available. Mrs. Schoenlank also knew a local chicken farmer who provided our class with fertilized eggs kept inside an incubator for us to monitor until adorable little yellow chicks emerged, ultimately returning them to Farmer Fred. We also bred mealy worms…not sure why…perhaps to feed the chicks? Needless to say, I don’t remember doing any schoolwork whatsoever. It was just downright fun. I loved going to kindergarten every day…until the mid-year switcharoo…

Although some school districts still follow this pattern, back in the day kindergarten was only half day. For three months you went to morning session and for six months you attended the afternoon session or vice versa. How I got stuck doing afternoon longer than morning annoys me to this day. In the mornings you woke up, got dressed, brushed your teeth, ate breakfast, grabbed your paper-bag lunch and ran out the door. By the afternoon your day was almost over…and there were way too many distractions…like Bozo the Clown…

I was obsessed. After morning sessions, I would arrive home just in time for Bozo the Clown, who waited patiently for me in the television set every day at 12:00 noon sharp. But during the afternoon sessions I was expected to leave the house by noon in order to get to school on time. I often attempted to “hide” from my mother’s watchful eye by sitting in front of the t.v., quietly praying she would forget I existed and/or believed I had responsibly found my way out the door like a dutiful child. Not so lucky…The only other memory I have is of Dawn C., the girl who would become my best friend for many years after and who, thanks to the marvels of social media, I would find once again decades later.

Each new school year I looked forward to the first day of school, carefully planning what I would wear and anxiously wondering who would be in my class. But it never lasted beyond the first week. On the first day of first grade I was transferred to Mrs. Gebhardt, a brand, new baby teacher who was a total bitch and yelled at poor Jimmy G. who cried because he just wasn’t ready to leave kindergarten. In second grade I ended up in the hospital with some strange stomach virus, although Miss Marble made sure letters were written by my fellow students, claiming to miss me and wishing better health. Third grade was an exception, Mrs. Layton being one of my all-time favorite teachers who lived on a farm and invited students to her home on a regular basis to witness farming firsthand. For years after, Dawn C. and I would ride our bicycles to Mrs. Layton’s home where we would spend hours helping out and playing with her kids. Although I loved my fourth-grade homeroom teacher, Miss Hamilton, a lounge singer at night, she was the only teacher that year who didn’t treat me like an idiot. And my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Walker, was going through a divorce – need I say more? Middle school was horrendous. And don’t even get me started on high school. G-d bless Mrs. Schoenlank for her efforts. It all started out so nice. If anything, she was the motivating catapult that pushed my love of music and encouraged my learning how to play piano – an instrument that got me through many a challenge in life.

In the end, by the time I was in high school mom went back to work full time, and I became that latchkey kid, oftentimes forgetting my key and having to climb into the downstairs bathroom window and rummaging through the fridge for food after spending my lunch money on cigarettes. Kassie Moore moved the summer before first grade, and we never saw one another again. Steven R. , the kid known as “the retard,” now works for Merrill Lynch. When we were in middle school, Susan K.’s mother died from lung cancer after sucking the carcinogens of her father’s cigarette smoke for years, her father later becoming an ex-smoker, born-again Christian who married another Christian and moved the family away before high school. Susan G. and Kim W. now live happily in Florida, a place we all aspire to retire. Laura F. died from cancer a few years back. Lisa G. would be caught with cigarettes by her father, who would challenge her to chew an entire packet of tobacco thus allowing her to smoke openly. Susan P. stopped sucking her thumb and went on to be a head cheerleader in high school. Matthew C. is in software. Larry R., my secret crush, would ultimately move away, get married to his perfect match (not me) and raise two beautiful children (not mine).  Jimmy G. would be left back in first grade to kindergarten. I later befriended him in high school, but I don’t think he ever graduated. Dawn C. would move away before middle school, marry her high school sweetheart, divorce and lose a long-time love to cancer last year. Marc M. would later squeeze my boobs in the second grade and find himself deep in the throws of addiction and come out clean for years after. John Y. Dater School got a complete makeover a couple of years ago and looks nothing like when we were in attendance, and the granddaughter of John Y. Dater was killed on Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie Scotland on December 21, 1988 thanks to a terrorist bomb planted on the plane in Germany. As for the rest of my class – Rosemary, the two Andrew W.’s and the other Andrew, Laurie S., Eileen O. and the other Eileen, Melody and Clifford B. – I pray that your lives have given you fulfillment. Accepted into the gifted program in first grade, I was smart but refused to excel – too much work and not enough fun – a decision I regret to this day. Discovering that Mrs. Schoenlank died from cancer years ago, I wept as if I’d lost my best friend and, at this writing tonight, I learned that Bozo the Clown (a.k.a Frank Avruch) died this year on March 22nd. And I suddenly wondered what happened to those cute, fuzzy little yellow chicks…

How was your first day of school?

I still prefer mornings over afternoons..

 It started out with butterflies
On a velvet afternoon
With flashing eyes and promises
Caught and held too soon

It Started Out So Nice – Rodriguez

“I had run for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.” – Forrest Gump

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