(This is another special posting by Suzy. I hope you enjoy it.)
As I looked out onto the sea of faces, I felt a hand on my right shoulder push me forward.
“Class, today we have a new girl. She came from California, a state in the west.”
Did these kids really not know where California was? April of my fifth grade and this was my seventh school. I knew it would take a few days for the faces to take on features. I would talk to most of them this first week as they tried to figure out who I was, then hardly any of them for a while as they settled back to their daily routines. That would give me time to catch up on whatever subject they had gotten further in than I had. It wouldn’t be geography with this group.
I was given a desk, books, and cool calculating glances. Typical.
We were staying with my grandparents while waiting for housing to become available at the next duty station. It meant that this was just a stop over and I didn’t know why I had to go to school until the move was complete. We were to go to Cuba where there was a limited amount of on base housing. We needed to stay with our grandparents until our name came to the top of the waiting list. As it turned out, this move would take more than a year and we would never get to the next duty station because of an auto accident my father would suffer after he had gone ahead. Today, we still had a week before he would leave so he had taken me to enroll in the same school he had attended for grade school. He had walked me in the front door, which was apparently only for use when you were with a parent. As we had walked down the hall he read all the plaques and studied all the photos, then he chuckled and we walked into the office. We walked up to a tall, dark wooden counter where Daddy announced the reason for our being there. The woman who was to register me was very stern looking with a small narrow face, dark hair sprinkled with a little white, and glasses. When Daddy handed her my papers and report card from the school in San Diego she just frowned. As she opened my report card, she flatly stated, “It is our policy to put children coming from a California school one year below their grade of record. Our curriculum progresses much more rapidly than theirs and we don’t want to set a child up for failure.” Suddenly Daddy was wearing the white line that showed over his upper lip when he was angry. Speaking very softly and slowly, another bad sign, he asked, “When you opened her report card, did you read it? Did you see the part at the beginning explaining what the grades mean? She has straight ‘E’s which stands for ‘excellent’ not ‘conditional failure’.” They glared at each other. Then Daddy asked, in a conversational tone, which was the fifth grade teacher, assuming I would be registered in the grade where he knew I should be. After some mumbling about my placement being conditional upon my performance the paperwork was completed and I said goodbye to Daddy. The stern, unhappy looking lady walked me to the fifth grade room and introduced me to the woman who would be my teacher. The teacher walked me to her desk, did her paperwork and then stood to introduce me to the class. As with all first days there would be a lot of fumbling as I learned a new routine.
At recess, we went to a “Cloak Room” to get our jackets. In this old East Coast city building, it was a hallway on the side of the room with coat hooks on facing walls where kids could poke and snipe at each other. The first question I got was “Hey, Schlechter, where do you keep your six-shooter?” This was 1958, not 1858. San Diego was a major city. How crude to call me by my last name. Were these kids really that stupid and rude or was this one an exception?
We were lined up, boys in a line across the front of the room, girls along the windowless side. We were then marched down three flights of stairs and allowed onto the playground. First day, walk around and look to see what these kids do for fun. I was pretty good at foursquare, but no one was playing that. No team ball either. A group of smaller kids over there were playing a game of tag, some hopscotch, and double-dutch jump rope. Moma had explained jumping double-dutch, but we had only used a single rope in my last school. Mostly, kids, especially the girls, were just walking in pairs or small groups around the playground. When the bell rang they all just froze, several in really strange poses. What sort of game was this that took in all the kids in the yard? Then another bell and the kids began walking slowly to the area by the back door we had come out of. It was there I noticed dark yellow lines with numbers at the door end readable from the back of the playground. That’s where we were to line up, boys on one side of our room number’s line, girls on the other. The teacher came and stood at the front of the lines, and after the lower numbered rooms had gone in, she led us up the three flights of stairs. Everyone had to be silent the entire way and file quietly into our seats. Now the hard part of a first day — where was I supposed to be sitting. I usually left a pencil or piece of paper on top of the desk so I could remember, but we had had to put everything inside our desks before we had been allowed out. These were old-fashioned desks with a hinged top that lifted to stow books, papers and stuff. The seat was a fold down bench attached to the desk behind. These were so old that they still had holes for the inkbottles and lots of initials scratched all over them. It also meant that you couldn’t get any space between you and the kid in front or behind you.
Lunch dismissal followed the same procedure for exiting as we had done at recess. Here almost everyone went home for lunch. As I passed the small room that served as the cafeteria for those who had to stay I was very glad to be going. There was an odd smell that didn’t seem at all appealing. It was good to be in the fresh air at the end of the hall. Grandmom had told me I should run home from school because there wouldn’t be much time to eat and walk both ways as her house was at the edge of this school building’s draw area. Seemed to me that the kids in the house across the street had less distance to walk to their school, but what did I know.
Everything about this place felt just a bit off. Then, this was only another first day.
The last word:
She had a lot of first days, once three in one school year. I’m not sure she ever enjoyed it, but she certainly got proficient at it. It taught her to blend in, and makes her a very good traveler when we go to new countries and cultures.
Keep your sense of humor.