Report from Home: School Days
When I was four, my parents sent me to kindergarten. I had wanted to go to school for as long as I could remember. The boy next door started school the year before I did, and I was terribly jealous. He went to Saint Mary’s school, to morning kindergarten, and came home at around noon. We played together in the afternoon, and he would tell me what he had done in school that day. It all sounded so wonderful, and I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t go to school yet. What had I done in school that day, he asked me. So I lied. I told him that I went to the public school kindergarten and described my morning, which was remarkably like his, but he never seemed to notice that. I soon found out that living a lie was a tedious business. When Danny Knight left for school in the morning, I would sit down in a corner of the living room and pretend to be at school myself. I drew pictures, sang songs, looked at books, and tried to reproduce the other activities Danny had described. No matter how often my mother tried to send me out into the yard to play, I wouldn’t let myself be seen outside until after the noon whistle blew. Fortunately, I didn’t have to keep this up for long. Danny’s mother told him I was too young to go to school, and so the pretense was over.
Then, however, it really was time for me to go to school. I went to kindergarten in an old wooden building on South Fourth Street in Fulton. The residents of the city called it the chicken coop. I was anxious to go to school and had great expectations. Kindergarten, however, was a terrible disappointment. The teacher was large and forbidding and had a very powerful voice. Her name was Miss Freeman. Her first name was Gertrude, but the other kindergarten teacher, a Mrs. Hamer, called her “Gert” when they talked together. In my mind, I called her Gert. It fit her so well; it rhymed with dirt. It was abrupt and ugly and expressed everything I felt about her.
I think Miss Freeman’s mission in life was to set limits and make me follow the rules. I didn’t mind doing what she wanted—at least most of the time I didn’t mind—but I did have a habit of asking questions that didn’t please her at all. And I wanted to do all the wrong things. I wanted to get right into the sand pit and play with the dump trucks the way Danny and I did at home. She didn’t approve of that. I would get too dirty. I should play with the dolls and take turns wheeling the baby carriage. I never gave in without an argument, but Miss Freeman got her revenge. When it was time to play with the rhythm band, I never got to play the triangle or the tambourine. She always gave me the wooden blocks. I hated her, and the feeling was mutual. At report card time, my parents read that I was stubborn and would not follow directions. They didn’t seem too worried about that. Or too surprised either, for that matter.
But the worst thing about kindergarten, worse than any of my struggles with Miss Freeman, was that I missed every school party during the whole year. I never imagined there were as many kinds of chicken pox and measles as I suffered from during my first year of school. While everyone wore costumes and ate cookies and drank punch, I stayed home and tried not to scratch my sores. My older sister said that if I scratched them I would be scarred for life, so I only scratched them a little bit, when no one was looking.
I never had good luck in school. That continued from my first day in kindergarten to the day I got my diploma from high school. Teachers didn’t like me, for some reason. Of course, it might have been because I had a big mouth, but I prefer to regard it as prejudice. God knows, I gave enough teachers heart attacks in my time, like the day Mrs. Colitre, an elderly high school English teacher, confiscated my notebook during a study hall and discovered my first attempt to write a pornographic novel for public consumption (meaning my neighbors in study hall). It wasn’t all that great, but it made her blue hair stand on end, and I got a free trip to the principal’s office out of it. He laughed at my porno novel, which hurt a lot more than being caught in the act by Mrs. Colitre.
But once, only once, I felt that I came off best in an encounter with a teacher. I was in the fifth grade, and I came to gym class one day to find that the class was learning to play soccer. I had missed the class before, when the fundamentals had been explained, so I was a little at sea. As fate would have it, the gym teacher, a Mrs. Tully, who wore stockings with socks and sneakers, picked on me for a review of what had been learned the class before. “Here,” she said, the black and white ball on the gym floor between us, “Show the class how to tackle me.” Tackle her? I hesitated. I really didn’t know what she wanted, but who wants to remind the teacher that she was absent for the previous class? So I just stood there. “Come on, “ she said, growing impatient, “tackle me.” I couldn’t do it. I just stood there. Mrs. Tully’s patience was at an end. “Tackle me, stupid!” she hissed. Stupid? I gritted my teeth and measured her through narrowed eyes. And then I tackled her, just as I had learned playing football with the boys on the playground. I took her down at the knees so hard that she nearly bounced on the gym floor. Needless to say, I got a trip to the principal’s office that day, too. But it was worth it. That time it was worth it. Not too long ago I saw Mrs. Tully at the assisted living residence where my father was living. She looked tiny and frail, and she didn’t recognize me. But I smiled inwardly when I remembered what happened when she insisted that I tackle her. Stupid, huh?