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A smile to hide the nervousness

I looked forward to my very first day of school with mixed emotions. It was 1957, summer was over, and days of aimless fun were coming to an end. On the other hand, there was excitement about that big complex of brick buildings four crosswalks from our house, Hillview Crest Elementary School. Finally, there was the trepidation that every youngster feels about leaving the parental nest and facing up to the responsibilities of being an American student.

I don’t think I slept a wink that Sunday night. What would my teacher be like, my classmates? I’d only known family playmates, like my own cousins, or kids that lived on my own block. On Monday morning I’d be thrown in with the children of society at large, and the institution of compulsory education. I had no idea what to expect.

In California back then, kindergarten wasn’t part of the education system (it is now, but still not mandatory). You just dove right in to the 1st Grade. Preschool was a private enterprise, and usually involved a mom paying an hourly rate to drop her children off at a “providers” house for three hours of structured arts-and-crafty playtime. The concept of professional daycare was in its infancy, and aftercare was decades from even being invented.

Overwhelmingly, dads worked, and moms stayed home, and the morning of my first day of school I awoke to a familiar scene: my father had left for his job at the supermarket, and my mother was preparing breakfast. The difference this morning was I would come down for breakfast in my new school clothes, which were unlike anything I’d worn before. My mother had taken advantage of back-to-school sales at JC Penny’s and Sears, outfitting me in creased slacks, a collared shirt, a nice cloth coat, and some spiffy brown oxfords.

To ease the transition from home to school and provide me with a confidence-building talisman, she also purchased a metal Superman lunch box that depicted in flashy colors the Man of Steel flying to the rescue of humanity.

Although I would soon be walking the twenty minutes to and from Hillview Crest for the balance of six elementary years, that first morning my mother herded me and my three younger siblings into the family car and drove me to school. The parking lot was jammed with moms dropping off kids, and when my turn came to get out, I turned wistfully at the last minute, knowing there was no going back. Mom had two toddlers at the time, and couldn’t accompany me to my classroom. I watched our ‘55 Buick disappear down the block and knew I was on my own.

While I looked around at more kids than I had seen in my lifetime, a nice lady came up and asked my name. She pinned a paper with a name on it to my new shirt—Mrs. Blaylock—and pointed to a door at the end of a long row of classroom doors. Once inside, I stowed my lunchbox on a table at the back of the room, and I saw that each desk had a nametag. I found mine, center aisle, about midway from the front row. Once seated, I lifted the desk lid and sniffed at the compartment that would soon fill with books, binders, pencils, white paste, and construction paper.

The morning instruction went well, although Mrs. Blaylock seemed like a serious, no-nonsense kind of teacher. She introduced herself, wrote things on a large blackboard, and did a good job of telling us what we could expect. I can’t say that I liked her right off the bat, but I was darn sure I was going to toe the line.

My first recess ever was an acclimating experience. While other kids ran for the monkey bars as if it were any day at the playground, I wandered around looking at the buildings, taking a tentative drink from the water fountain, the reality of where I was going to be spending a significant portion of my life sinking in. I saw two boys teasing a girl to the point of distress, and realized that being out in general society carried social risks, and could necessitate defensive behaviors.

At lunch I saw that Mom had put a bologna sandwich with mustard, some carrot sticks, and three Fig Newtons in my lunchbox, and filled the Superman thermos with milk. When the bell for dismissal rang, I knew the way home, and walked it alone, with two textbooks, an assignment for some addition problems, and a multiple-choice grammar worksheet under my arm.

I hadn’t made any friends, or even talked to anyone, but that was OK. I’d made it through the first day of school, and wasn’t worried about the second. It is hard to know for sure, because all this happened almost sixty years ago, but I’ll bet I slept pretty soundly that night.

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