In 1957, I entered the first grade at Sippican Elementary School. It was about a mile away from the home my parents owned, a small, shingled cottage near the intersection of Route 6 and Spring Street.
Excitement had been building all summer as my mother ordered my school clothes from the Sears and Roebuck catalog that we had poured over together for days. I would be wearing the latest in fall and winter fashion for the middle-class youngster, plaid, pleated dresses with giant sashes tied in a bow in the back.
I was leaving home for the first time.
I had never been separated from my mother except for that week when she was in the hospital that resulted in her bringing home a giant baby doll that cried a lot. I wasn’t worried or scared though. I was thrilled. New things to do and see. New kids to meet. I would learn how to read! I was ready.
When the day finally arrived, my mother dressed herself in her best cotton housedress, while Dad brought the car to the door. I was instructed to try and not crush the large bow bouncing on my back and to tuck my dress under before sitting down so my backside would not touch the seat.
There were plenty of rules for comporting oneself like a little lady, such as no thumb sucking and not putting my fingers in my nose. But I wasn’t thinking about any of that, I was thinking about being on my own and proving I could take care of myself.
As we approached the school, a line of mothers and their children were milling around greeting one another, and the children were squirmy but behaved for the most part. My mother was gripping my hand tightly as though at any moment I’d vanish, never to be seen again. She found the room I was assigned to and said hello to the teacher, pushed me forward, and pointed to her cheek for a goodbye kiss. I gave her a quick peck and looked straight ahead and into my future.
The things that I recall the most of that special day was the dress I wore; that bow was like a backpack I couldn’t take off but had to endure, even if the teacher told me to sit back in my seat. I could not crush that bow.
Then there was the first of a forest’s worth of copy paper I would be given that school year to practice writing the alphabet in strict conformance to the standards set out by scribes of old. That big, unwieldy pencil had a mind of its own, but I tamed it in one afternoon by filling lines with the capital and lowercase printed letter A. A is for apple. I learned to read that word on the very first day. Genius, I know.
There were mimeographed papers bearing large squirrels gathering nuts that we colored using oversized crayons that made staying in the lines impossible. At home, my new box of Crayola was waiting for my return.
We sang songs, stayed in our seats, and did not talk to one another. This was school after all, and order must be maintained.
Lunchtime came with the sounding of a very loud bell on the wall just outside my classroom door. I had a paper-bag lunch that I don’t recall, but rest assured the sandwich inside would have had the crust cut off.
When leaving from or returning to our class, we lined up with all the girls first and then all the boys. We were in alphabetical order. There was no talking, no touching, no eye contact. Then came recess.
Children burst onto the playground with all the pent-up energy a tiny, first-grade body could summon. Girls squealed and played hopscotch. Boys clamored to the top of the jungle gym, declaring themselves “king” until the teacher came by and stated democracy would prevail. “Take turns at the top boys!”
That recess break was likely no more than 20 minutes, but that’s really all a first grader needed on the first day of school. The bell rang and back into our lines in our assigned positions we trotted, once again silent but now a bit dusty and crumpled and tired. My crisp white socks had disappeared into the toes of my shoes. My bow was coming unfurled and hung down on one side past the hem of my dress.
When the bell rang next, signaling the end of the school day, I found the bus I was to take back home.
Yes, I really could take care of myself and learn to read.
The ride down Spring Street seemed to take forever, but eventually it stopped in front of my house where my mother was waiting on the front stoop. She fussed over the condition of my clothing and my hair that was no longer looking its best. But that memory is blurry, unclear and could be any day when I got home from school – nothing special.
What was special was what she said once we got inside the house. Turning towards me, looking down at me, she said and I quote, “Why didn’t you cry when I left you today? All the other children were crying and begging their mommies not to leave. You just pecked my cheek and went into the classroom.”
I was seven years old. I couldn’t answer that question then. I can now. I’d tell her if it were possible that she had done her job by giving me wings and roots, and for that I am eternally grateful. And I’d tell her I’ve been taking pretty good care of myself so far.
This Mattapoisett Life
By Marilou Newell