The First Day

Taking you back again to my little boy days in the Nineteen-fifties when I was living with mom and dad in the apartment on South Ingleside Avenue, in Chicago.  I guess you could say I was one of those rough and ready kids with plenty energy, and maybe kind of spoiled because I had lots of toys and got to go to all kinds of fun places.  My parents weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but we had what we needed, and most times what we wanted. I was a perfectly contented child who played by himself most of the time.  Life was ghetto good and I was happy.

But one day in early September, when I was five years old, things changed for me – big time.  I’d known for a while the change was coming, heard talk about it, but I didn’t know what to do about it.  Then one day it happened.

“You’ll like school,” my mother told me that Monday morning while she saw to it that I put on my clothes and shoes.

“I don’t want to go to school,” I said.  And really I felt terrified about the whole thing because I knew I was supposed to be away from home in the company of strangers for several hours, five days per week.

“You’ll like kindergarten, son,” Mom assured me in her sweetest tone.  “You’ll meet other kids and make new friends.”

That was when I cried because I knew the moment of reckoning was close at hand.  Mom picked up her purse and took that final look in the mirror at her hair. She was a pretty woman, not very tall; brown skinned with what were to me heavenly eyes.  

“Don’t cry,” she said.  “Everyone goes to school.  You don’t want to grow up to be stupid, do you?”

“No, Ma.  But I don’t want to go to that place.  I want to stay here with you.”

Smiling, she took me by the hand.  “Come on now, son. There’s a big world out there.  Don’t you want to know something more about it?”

At first I pulled back, but then she fired THE LOOK at me and I knew I’d better straighten up and fly right.

It was a warm morning when we finally headed out along the avenue.  A sultry breeze jostled the trees and swung the limbs, and the birds were singing joyously.  We walked to Forty-seventh Street, the main drag, and proceeded east, past the corner bar-b-que shack, the five and dime store, and Grady’s drugstore where my mom and her neighborhood girlfriends sometimes hung out, sitting at the counter drinking Green River and chocolate malts.  Trucks, automobiles and streetcars passed us as we trekked the two blocks to Greenwood Avenue. We crossed Forty-seventh under the protection of the crossing guard, dressed in her police-like uniform, directing traffic and halting it so that kids going to the school wouldn’t get hit by cars.   And there loomed the redbrick school building in the next block. And that was when I really got scared as we were about to walk that final distance.

“Momma, I don’t want to go there,” I wailed, trying to pull away from her.

“It’s going to be fine, son,” she told me, holding my hand tighter.

“No, I don’t want to go!!”  And I tried to slump down to the pavement.

“Stop that clowning here, boy.”  Mom gave me a forceful pull and I stumbled along.  “I don’t want to have to give your father a bad report about you on your first day of school.”

And so we finally entered through the big doors to Shakespeare Elementary School.  Eight years later I would graduate from Bret Harte Elementary school. Someone pointed out to me somewhere along the line that I’d begun my grammar school education at an institution named for a famous writer, and concluded it at another.  We climbed a short bank of steps to the first floor. Boys and girls of all ages were walking the school house halls, up and down the stairs, going in and out of classrooms. We stopped in an office where Mom spoke with a little bird-faced woman standing behind a counter stamping papers and making marks on them with an ink pen.  She handed Mom an envelope, said a few words, then looked down at me and gave me a cold smile.

Everything inside the school looked big to me.  The ceilings were high, tile floors shiny with wax.  My kindergarten room was on the first floor, not far from the stairwell and the office.  I felt my heart drop down into my stomach when we first set foot in the classroom. Kids were sitting on the floor and crawling around.  A little golden haired girl kept up some noise, banging a book against a cabinet. A middle-aged woman wearing a blue skirt waddled over to greet us at the door, introducing herself as Ms. Alice.  She came on as being very pleasant, shaking mom’s hand and taking the envelope. The backs of her pale legs showed strands of blue veins under the skin. They talked for a few minutes while I stood there, still holding my mother’s hand, feeling like I was in total shock, beleaguered by my surroundings.

Presently, Mom let go of my hand and turned to leave me.  I felt like I was going to cry, but I only sniffled. She reached down and squeezed my shoulder and nodded to me.

“Go there and sit on the rug with the other children,” the teacher told me in a very kindly voice.

I went on and took a seat next to a skinny little fellow with two missing front teeth.  He looked scared, too. Ms. Alice welcomed a couple more kids and their parents before she finally sat down at a spinet piano and led the class in singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.  I didn’t sing at all.  I just stood there staring at the floor, frightened of this new world I had been dropped into.  Next came the row your boat song and the teacher got up from the piano and mingled with the kids, coaxing the shy ones to loosen up and join in.  A teenage girl, her hair in pigtails, came in to the room to help Ms. Alice with the kids. She wore eyeglasses and moved with a spring in her step.  I sang softly, barely opening my mouth, scanning the room with my frightened eyes, noting the bookshelves and painting easels, the toys and games. I looked around at the other kids, none of whom I knew.  And then I felt totally terrified. I had to get out of there, and get back home where I was supposed to be.

All of a sudden the snaggletooth boy sitting next to me burst out crying.  The teacher’s aide came to see what the matter with him was. I noticed that his pants were wet, and there was a wet spot on the rug where he sat.  The girl took the crier by the hand and led him away through a door at the back of the room. I almost let out a scream. What was going to happen to him?  What were they going to do to him? I felt a chill that made me quiver. Hopefully, I could hold my pee if I had to. I couldn’t sit on a strange toilet, without my mom or dad being there with me.

Ms. Alice announced that the class would shortly partake of graham crackers and orange juice.

A little girl shouted out, “My momma is coming to get me.”

And for a moment I felt extremely upset.  Was my mother coming to get me? I wanted her to hurry and get there.

Then Ms. Alice said, “Now, class I want everyone to quiet down, and starting with you, young man” – she pointed to a pudgy fellow sitting to her right – “we’ll go around the room and everyone will say their name and tell us how old you are.”  And so the ritual went from kid to kid, mumbling, shouting and stuttering their words. My voice was so low that the teacher had me to repeat myself. But my tone got no louder the second time. My mind was somewhere else, wrapped up in a world of terror.  And even though Ms. Alice projected nothing but caring and kindness in her manner and voice, I felt deathly afraid of her. She was a stranger, and my mother wasn’t on the scene to protect me.

A boy wearing a red shirt wheeled in a cart carrying bowls full of graham crackers, along with little cups of orange juice.  Most of the kids jumped right on the snacks, but a few, like me, hung back, something else on their minds.

The teacher’s aide returned to the room, bringing the snaggletooth boy back with her, his pants changed.  Had he been whipped? He wasn’t crying anymore. What had been done to him?

Mostly all the crackers got eaten and the juice definitely finished off.  I never went near any of it. I just kept on looking around, taking it all in: the dainty curtains hanging at the windows, the potted plants sitting on shelves and ledges, the fishbowl and the bookcases.  I had to get out of there. I didn’t want to be kept prisoner.

So I waited quietly, keeping my eyes on Ms. Alice and the teacher’s aide while they went about tending to the class, and at a moment when I figured neither of them was paying me any attention, I got up and headed to the door.  Didn’t look back. Turned the knob and was gone. Hit the stairs and made it to the front doors; took all my strength to get one of them open. I felt exhilarated when the warm outside air hit me. I was free. I was also scared.  I knew my way home, but I’d have to negotiate the streets and the traffic.

I made my way south along Greenwood, past the schoolyard and the neighboring apartment buildings.  The sidewalk was broken in places. A woman getting out of her parked car gave me a second glance, as I skipped past her.  I came to Forty-seventh and suddenly felt overwhelmed. Vehicles roared by continuously. How could I ever get to the other side?  The crossing guard wasn’t there. Avoiding the issue right then, I crossed Greenwood while there were no cars coming at all, and headed west on Forty-seventh, past the corner grocery store and some more apartment buildings.  Then I walked by the catholic school and the church and soon came to Ingleside, my street. The door to the corner tavern sat open, letting out the sounds of juke box jazz. My dad sometimes drank there, but he was at work then.  Now the moment of truth had come. I had to cross the big main avenue where the vehicles and trolley cars moved fast, hardly ever stopping. A cement mixer truck, huge like a monster, rumbled by, kicking up grit that got in my eyes.  How would I know when to make a run for it? What if I got hit by a car? I looked both ways on the street. Or maybe I should walk another couple of blocks to where there was a traffic light.

And that was when I felt the firm hand grab my arm.  I turned around and looked up. The teacher’s aide had tracked me down.  She wore a panicked and concerned expression on her tan face. “You little rascal,” she called me, taking me by the hand.  “You shouldn’t’ve left the building like that. It’s too dangerous for you out here by yourself. You could’ve gotten hurt, or kidnapped.  Now, come on, let’s get on back to school. They’re calling the police.”

“I don’t want to go back to that school.  I want to go home.”

She pulled me along for a little ways, until I started walking straight.  She talked to me and stressed how dangerous the streets were and how I could’ve gotten hit by a car.

When I got back to the classroom, Ms. Alice took me aside and gave me a good talking to, stressing again how perilous my flight had really been for me.  In conclusion, she told me that she was going to tell my mother about the stunt I’d pulled.

So, I got through my first day of kindergarten, after having made my break for freedom.  I finally joined in and sang a couple of songs with Ms. Alice and the class, and I scribbled in crayon on large white sheets of paper.  I looked at a couple of picture books. And I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I wet my pants about twenty minutes before it was time for Mom to pick me up and take me home.

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