My First Day of School
Actually, I’m not sure which first day of school I’m thinking about, though I have some idea. It could be the first day of pre-kindergarten, something called nursery school, which I don’t remember, though I do recall crying a lot during those few weeks that seemed endless. I was picked up and held a lot by the teachers, who all seemed so old but were probably nineteen years old and doing some sort of obligatory work-release thing for credits. Who can say? One of them told another girl that I was four years old, and I corrected her and said “four and a quarter,” which places this story in March of 1960. I was always struck by the fact that there were children in the class who seemed so much more calm and better-adjusted than I did; I think it was because they had older brothers and sisters who briefed them. I was the oldest of four, and therefore clueless.
Kindergarten itself took place in one of those red-brick public school buildings that are strewn all over Brooklyn. I don’t remember the first day at all, but I do remember that Mrs. Darby, our teacher, was nice and wore a pencil skirt. Mom walked me two and a half long blocks (while Interstate 278 was rammed through our neighborhood by Robert Moses) to bucolic Sixth Avenue, where all the row houses were only two stories tall and once in a while you could still spot an old wooden farmhouse left over from when Bay Ridge was a country retreat for crowded Manhattanites.
One day in Kindergarten we had a substitute teacher, for reasons unknown. In those days it was nobody’s business why a teacher suddenly disappeared. We were left to speculate and wonder, and any voiced questions were answered with either “none of your business”or “she went to visit her sister upstate.” The buses were filled with wandering instructors at that time. While Mrs. Darby wandered north, our substitute teacher told us she was a princess, and she produced a magic wand with a star on the end of it to prove it. We were truly enchanted with her glittery self and sat in a circle of little wooden chairs while she told us about her castle. When it came time to get up and do circle dancing, she said that we were stuck to our chairs by magic and would only be able to stand up when she touched us on the forehead with her wand. When it was my turn, I didn’t get up, because I didn’t feel magicked; she tapped me a few times until finally leaning in close and telling me with crinkly lipsticked lips to “get up NOW,” which I did. You don’t want to mess with someone who has friends who live in trees.
There had to have been a first day of first grade at the Catholic school, but I don’t remember it. What I do remember is going in early many mornings with my father, who received instructions from Sister Mary Magdalene – her real nun name – about what I was supposed to do for homework: continue with the alphabet and reading, because I had started the first grade knowing so much already. “He’s smart,” the relatives used to say about me because I didn’t like sports. “Rest your brain,” my grandmother would tell me when I’d ask her hard questions. Dad would take me to the library on Saturdays, where I would head for the adult section and its books about dinosaurs; he had to get me a special dispensation to be allowed to go and look at books in that rarefied atmosphere.
This went on for eight years, with those nuns. They never terrified me. Aside from two encounters (one for all of second grade, one for a substitute day in 6th. grade), the nuns were grand ladies to me. I even cozied up to the principal when I was in first grade (1961-1962) – Sister Mary John Francis, her real nun name – by sending her a get well card imploring her to not be afraid of the needle when she went into the hospital. Notice the difference in public school and Catholic school regarding the absence of an instructor: we Catholics weren’t afraid of illness or death, so it was sometimes okay to tell why Sister So-and-So was out that day.
I do remember the first day of high school, sometime in September of 1969. Everybody around me was different as just a few of us from St. Ephrem’s had gone on to Xaverian. We sat in the auditorium and were told, as young Catholic men, what was expected of us. There was a lot, and none of it had to do with what we actually wanted to do. There was a detailed discussion about gym class; we were told that we could or could not take showers after sweating for an hour; it was entirely up to us as individuals. I relaxed, because that was something I had been worrying about all through the summer of 1969. While ten percent of me welcomed the very idea of showering with my classmates, at least in my thoughts, the other ninety percent set up dire warnings and roadblocks against what might happen if I enjoyed it all too much. So I stayed sweaty (particularly notable when gym was first period.)
And within the first minute of the first high school religion class, the instructor – a Xaverian brother – said “first of all, forget anything any nun ever told you about religion.” What did he mean? You know – those stories about young boys not swallowing the wafer at Communion and sneaking it to McKinley Park and burying it in the dirt, only to see a bloody mess erupt from the soil. Things like that. Our high school religion classes were progressive in that we spent each hour discussing the merits of believing in the Holy Roman Catholic Church as opposed to NOT. One day Kevin Riley said “Ï think most of you talking about going to Mass or not are probably just too lazy to want to get up on Sunday morning.” Silence.
I do remember the first day of college, vividly. I had to take three buses to get to Brooklyn College from Bay Ridge (two if I walked the first leg) in Midwood, the Flatbush neighborhood where the school was located. I had to report to somewhere called SUBO, which – when a friend’s sister, who I gratefully encountered, explained – was the Student Union Building. Once there, I was told to report to a classroom on the far side of the campus – I think – to sit with, it turned out, a roomful of collegians for whom English was not their first language. After five minutes or so I got up and requested a chat with the instructor. “I don’t think I belong here,” I said, and she – or he – said “I agree,” and sent me on my way after crossing my name off a list. Maybe my last name, larded over as it is with vowels, alerted the authorities that I was in need of proper instruction regarding the use of the present imperfect subjunctive. Who can say?
There were many other first days of school at Brooklyn College, because you had to register each semester for your next set of classes; nobody who matriculated under Open Admission would argue that they were anything other than time-consuming, to say the least. We had to stand in multiple lines to register – required electives as well as those that counted toward your major, which most of us had no idea of. The lines were interminable, and snaked their way down hallways, up stairwells, through creaky swinging doors, and down escalators. One late evening at seven I was heading UP an escalator while Frank Siracusa headed DOWN in the opposite direction, and he called out “what are you taking this semester?” and I hollered back “Valium!”
While waiting on these lines, committees were formed to go to Kosher Kountry (this was a Jewish neighborhood) for coffee and snacks. Eventually you would reach a (laughable today) computer terminal with a person behind it; you would be told that the required English 1.1 Comp was filled to capacity already, yet they would be relieved when you produced your Regents scholarship waiver saying that you didn’t have to bother with that mandatory course; that you could go on to English 1.2 Lit, which covered The Canterbury Tales and Bede. I had decided I was an Art major in those days – “He reads a lot, and he’s good at art-“ and so, after the required courses, I filled four years with applied art classes (clay, oils) and art history lectures. Because this was the mid-seventies, you could smoke and drink coffee and eat in class, and I can truly say that every art slide I saw in those years was seen through a cloud of Newport smoke. I fell in love with the Duc De Berry and his Book of Hours, and played with the idea of joining a monastery so I could sit in candlelight and copy those books for all eternity. The vivid blues and reds and the challenging script written in an English foreign to me intrigued me and, maybe, pointed to a future bereft of first days. There I’d be at my carrel, studying and copying as the day waned outside the monastery window until the candle sputtered into nothingness and it was time to go to bed.
I did not go to graduate school; and there have been no first days of school since.