WIND SLAMS into tree tops, pursues a squirrel shimmying down a trunk. Clouds swoop at the sun, their shadows blotch the playing field. "Okay, one lap around the track," the gym teacher yells at her junior high class. "No shirkers."
Lanky girls, with the 1930s uniform of gym classes -- bloomers -- sagging to their knees, crunch on the cinder track. Catcalls stream from a roadster cruising by, its rumble seat jammed with Valley Forge boys. The noise drifts through the windows of our sixth grade classroom.
Inside, Mrs. Fillmore lifts her pince-nez from the broad bosom of her navy dress and frowns at the list of May Day events. It's only March, but she's already worried that we will never get through the Studebaker arithmetic tests and will have to repeat the grade. None of us could survive another year together. Particularly if it should include my cousin Arthur. He is sitting three rows away with grass stains on his knickers and scabs on his elbows.
"There will be a Maypole," she tells us. I think how exciting it will be to twirl around with ribbons. "The fourth grade girls have the Maypole." Oh.
The tallest girls in our class are chosen to be Egyptian dancers. They start to practice, striding in a circle, their arms and legs held at stiff angles as in an Egyptian frieze.
Six boys become tumblers. Every day during recess we push aside our desks and lay down heavy mats. I learn to flip into a somersault. Mrs. Fillmore winces at the disruption.
"I can't coach long division in the midst of flying cartwheels," I hear her complain in the hall to Miss Coolidge, the principal. "Let alone watch for ink spilling from the desks." Our inkwells hold permanent ink, which may explain Mrs. Fillmore's perpetually navy blue dresses.
"Yes, I see the problem," Miss Coolidge answers. "I'm afraid you will have to work around it." She is half Mrs. Fillmore's size, with graying hair pulled into a bun, but her quiet words settle all questions. She never appears in the classroom.
The rest of us form the chorus. We will be responsible for the grand finale. Those like Arthur who can't sing at all become stage hands and boss everyone else.
Our stage manager Bill is ingenious with props, though the Egyptians turn down an offer of a live snake. He is devising a magnificent arbor that looks like a huge croquet hoop made with heavy wire he borrowed from his uncle's hardware store. The chorus will enter through the arbor, curtsy or bow to the audience, then line up to sing.
"Get the girls to make crepe paper flowers," Bill tells Arthur. "You can wire them to the arbor. We'll add a hundred balloons on May Day."
Arthur relishes telling us what to do.
"You have to save the wires that hold the tops on your lunch milk bottles and bring them to me," he states. "And I want all the flowers finished by Monday." I wish Aunt Ellen would send him to a military academy.
In the meantime we read about Mesopotamia and rice paddies in China and Arabian sheiks and practice capital Z's, the Palmer method, with our pens scraping the inkwells.
And we work individually on the Studebaker tests. When I finish a work card, I take it to Mrs. Fillmore to check. She is invariably surprised that I do them correctly and looks at me with suspicion over the top of her pince-nez. My sister had had difficulty with them three years before -- and with Mrs. Fillmore.
"Your sister used to cry, too." Her voice whips at me.
One day Miss Coolidge walks right into our room in the middle of spelling to have a mysterious talk with us. Her face is very serious.
"It has come to my attention," she says, "that some things are going on that shouldn't." I can't imagine what she's heard but instantly feel guilty.
"Things like this are much better left alone until you are older," she says firmly. "You must wait until high school at least." Two girls in the back start to giggle. She frowns at them.
"I don't know what all the fuss is about," Arthur comments under his breath. "Girls are for the birds. Like teachers." He starts to make his yo-yo dance.
"That's enough." Miss Coolidge shrivels him. "Now there will be no more note-passing in school. Is that clear?"
Bill's neck in front of me has turned bright red. I remain puzzled. What do notes have to do with being older?
The mystery dissolves for me one early spring day. Mr. Kent, the handsome high school music teacher, conducts the band in assembly. Suddenly the air is as thick as fog and I have fallen in love with him. I walk home in a daze wondering what has happened to me and sensing that nothing will ever be the same again.
Mr. Kent is recruited to lead the May Day chorus. For weeks I blush in his presence and agonize with guilt because someone says he is married. When he asks me to pass out the Mendelssohn music sheets, I bump into the music stand, dizzy from being so close.
It's a fact that half the girls free their hair from braids and tie it with ribbons before chorus.
May Day is close. We rehearse intensely, even one Saturday. And we relay urgent directives to our mothers. "I need a dirndl skirt and a white peasant blouse. For tomorrow."
A gross of old sheets is dyed and sewn into costumes. Shoes are polished. I save my dime allowance to buy oilcloth for my vest. The arbor is finished just in time. The school janitor helps Bill push the wire ends into the ground on May Day morning, then the balloons are added. They are as beautiful as the day.
Miss Coolidge opens the festival with a welcome to all the faithful parents. She presents perfect attendance awards with gold seals to a few hardy souls.
Then, trailing long pastel sashes, the little kindergarten and first grade girls skip and scatter paper rose petals in a big circle. The boys parade behind, stiff as Pinocchios. Everyone applauds.
The sun is warm, and a light breeze twists the crepe-paper garlands and Maypole ribbons. Everyone performs. Bill winds the Victrola for the fourth grade girls. A garden of flowers, they dance one way around the pole then, with some confusion, reverse and dance the other way. A weeping red tulip becomes tangled in the ribbons at the pole. Mr. Kent cuts her free. Lucky girl.
At last it's our turn. First the acrobats leap and tumble. Next our Egyptian dancers, Cleopatras all, stalk in a figure eight in time with a scratchy Victor oriental record.
Now the chorus lines up. One by one, we girls duck through the decorated arbor, bob and rush into position, but the boys bypass the arbor.
Except for Arthur. I see him leave his post near the mats and run to the arbor with a pin ready to break the ballons.
"Hey, you, don't," Bill yells.
But Arthur has tripped on the hoop and, amid shrieks from the girls, goes down with the arbor in a burst of ballons.
We are outraged. Trust Arthur to ruin everything. We plan a future revenge, maybe tar and feathers.
Mr. Kent raps with his baton to get our attention. First "America the Beautiful" and "Flow Gently, Sweet Afton." Then we present the grand finale. Swaying in our bright dirndls, makeshift peasant blouses and black oilcloth vests, we link arms and belt out Mendelssohn's Spring Song: "Welcome, sweet springtime, we greet thee with song . . ."
The applause is tremendous. I turn to see if Mrs. Fillmore is impressed with our warm reception, but she has disappeared. We find her back in the classroom, checking the Studebaker tests.