When it comes to the first day of school, there are two schools, as it were, of thought. There are those who think of that crisp day in September as the first blank page in the spiral binder of life, waiting to be filled, ripe with opportunity. Another year! Another chance to explore new horizons, open vistas, challenge the mind, engage in discussions on matters of great import!
And there are those who think of that miserable morning much the same way they thought of it all summer long -- with sheer and utter dread. It is the end of the world, it is the Day of the Living Dead, the moment when they stand at the threshold of another year knowing full well that their worst fears will come to pass, their notebooks will be incomplete, their tests imperfect, their friendships fleeting, their equations unbalanced, their essays misunderstood. It is the day that they know in their heart of hearts that it is just a brief matter of time before their teacher will inevitably and inexorably come to loathe them.
Herewith, some tales out of both schools.
From kindergarten to mortarboard, school was nothing but traumas, generally involving being in the wrong place at the worst time, picking the wrong fight, buying the wrong book, blowing flat in the band and sharp in the glee club, having clean-poor roots and disappointing my first seven teachers because I wasn't my sister. The first day of every school term for 12 years (plus a couple of summer schools) was mortifying, and I wasn't even cute, like Charlie Brown. I showed up with the wrong pants, the wrong sweater and the wrong shoes, and the only girlfriend I had throughout the whole mess predated the perm movement by three decades and was the only girl I ever met who made me grateful that she kissed with her lips sealed. I have sublimated the first days of all that except the first day of kindergarten, when they told me I'd won the Scarecrow role in the upcoming production of "The Wizard of Oz," and Mrs. Maurer, who'd left Germany just before they could make her a concentration camp guard, hung me on the picket fence by the collar of my sailor suit and forgot about me and took everybody else in for their nap. Somebody has to pay for all this.
-- Robert H. Williams Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
When I reported for my sophomore year in high school, I found my homeroom teacher was not only new but very young and pretty. The other boys thought so too, and began whistling and stomping. The room quickly became chaotic and remained that way so long that the teacher spent most of the day on the verge of tears. Although I generally behaved conservatively, I did throw one spit wad; naturally I was the one apprehended and punished as an example. It was quite embarrassing.
Late that afternoon at home, my mother asked who my teacher was. "Miss Eiselman," I responded. "Mary Ellen Eiselman?" my older sister asked. I said I thought so. "Why, she was my roommate in college," my sister said, whereupon she ran to the phone and called her. Half an hour later, I had to sit down at supper opposite Mary Ellen Eiselman. I didn't say a word. -- John Phillips California Dreamin'
In 1962, my family moved from Fullerton, Calif., down the freeway to Orange, a few miles from Disneyland. I pouted all summer because I was happy at my grade school and didn't look forward to changing schools and making new friends.
Then came the first day at Olive Elementary School. It was the most unique school a 9-year-old could ever attend. Built on top of a hill, like Dodger Stadium, the mission-style school was in a campus setting, with classrooms set apart and tiered along the hills. The classrooms were spacious, with a separate room where we could store our lunches. Outside the window were dozens of mature eucalyptus and cypress trees and oleanders. It was quintessential old California.
But the best part was the pomegranate bushes. I'd grown up around orange, lemon and avocado trees, but what were these exotic fruits? A bunch of us picked them and peeled the red, leathery rind to find dozens of juicy, edible seeds. The seeds stained everything -- our teeth, hands and clothing -- but hey, this school was going to be great! If we got tired of eating them, we threw them down the hill, Koufaxlike, and watched them smash onto the ground in a hundred pieces.
Olive was closed later that year because it was too old and would have crumbled in an earthquake. We finished grade school in a new, boring but earthquake-proof school.
I can't remember the last time I saw a pomegranate bush.
-- Stephen C. Fehr Sex Education
We were sitting at the dining room table, my 9-year-old son and I, playing a card game called Spades. I was winning.
I had just finished dealing the cards when out of the blue, Barry leaned back and said, "You know, Miss Jefferson was a nice teacher." "Uh-huh," I said, as I continued to arrange my hand by putting all the suits together. Aaahah! I had the big joker!
"Barry, why are you thinking about your English teacher and it's still summer?" He studied his cards and bid eight books. "I don't know. I was just thinking about how she was a nice teacher, but at the end of the year she started getting mean." I looked at my cards and bid six books. There can be only 13 books, so I knew one of us was lying.
"Well," I said to him, "you know they say that Miss Jefferson and the gym teacher are dating. So maybe they weren't getting along at the end of the year and she was in a bad mood."
Barry played the ace of diamonds, and with a straight face said, "No, I don't think they were dating, because there were no visible signs of sexual attraction."
I laughed so hard I could barely see the cards in my hand. Barry just kept playing.
He made his eight books. -- Deborah Fleming Scents and Sensibilities
Perhaps one of the biggest traumas facing new college freshmen is a terrible roommate, and mine was downright frightening.
Our introduction was his popping his head into the doorway of our room and letting out a loud "Heeeeeeeeeey Roomie!" while flailing his arms in a weak imitation of Steve Martin's "wild and crazy guy." Although I was genuinely embarrassed for him, I was far more concerned about the fact that I would be waking up each morning with this guy not five feet away.
My initial fears were not unfounded. In addition to being incredibly goofy, he had an overly stimulated social conscience. One day I discovered a broken telephone had replaced ours, and he explained that Bob down the hall had one on the fritz and he had traded with him. When our carpet disappeared because Bob's floor was too cold, it became time to give him an emphatic lesson in "Indian giving."
Pieces of my room vanishing was bad enough, but it did not compare with his overpowering smell. He was not a big fan of the shower room, and when I confronted him about his BO, he tried to diffuse the sensitive situation by pulling out of a closet jogging clothes that had been fermenting for seven weeks. I offered that it would be unlikely that this particular stench would follow him everywhere he went, but conceded it probably contributed to the general odor of the room.
Perhaps the worst part of living with him was the fact that he had a twin brother down the hall, who often came by for extended visits. There are few things more annoying than being stuck in the middle of obnoxious "just between twins" jokes. I will say, however, that these fraternal meetings allowed for quality library time that probably kept me in school.
I lost touch with my roommate after that first year, and often wonder what he is doing now. Probably mowing Bob's lawn!
-- Michael Farquhar Wishful Thinking
I always looked forward to the first day of school. My anticipation was similar to the kind that afflicts mediocre baseball teams during spring training: a mix of retrospective falsification and wishful thinking triumphing over hard evidence and common sense.
Every September, from the days when I strolled the 3 1/2 blocks to elementary school on Chicago's South Side until the final first day of school at American University in 1986, I made the same vow that the coming school year would be different: My homework would be completed on time, studying would be done on a daily schedule, and in June, the A's would march in my parade.
It never worked out that way. After about a week, like a .500 ballclub that never gets the hang of how to lay down a bunt or hit the cutoff man, I fell back into my poor work habits -- daydreaming in class being a frequent problem. I'd putter along until March, and with the prospect of failing staring me in the face, I'd go through a flurry of cramming and makeup tests to pull out C-level grades by semester's end.
But I always forgot such unpleasantness on the first day of school. Armed with new pens and unblemished notebook paper, I walked optimistically onto playgrounds and quadrangles that were noisy with the gab and holler of young people reveling in an oddly holiday atmosphere. Inside, the hallway air was always cool and smelled of floor wax. Shafts of light fell through open doorways and illuminated the way. -- Eric Charles May 'A Moveable Feast' -- or Famine
On the first day of my junior semester abroad, I bought myself a thick paperback. It was a biography of Ernest Hemingway by Carlos Baker. I got it at Shakespeare & Co., a wonderful, musty bookstore not far from the Seine. I spent whole afternoons gorging on that book. Imagine being young and in Paris. With your parents' credit card.
So anyway, there I used to be, an American student bursting with expatriate delusions in the courtyard of the Jeu de Paume. I'd be stretched out luxuriously on one of the black wrought-iron chairs that were nestled in millions of tiny sand-colored cobblestones -- reading about Hemingway.
About a week before my charmed semester was scheduled to end, I called home and informed my parents I'd no intention of ever leaving. How could I give up my afternoons with Hemingway? My folks informed moi that that was fine with them, but that I'd be on my own financially.
I came home.
I despised every second of that enforced repatriation.
Back in hideous, vulgar America -- a country that now made me feel much like the Munch screamer -- the first class I signed up for in my senior year was a course (of course) on Hemingway. Noting Papa's biography, the professor explained what "A Moveable Feast" was all about. I couldn't wait to hear this.
"How're you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?" he asked us brightly.
"God," I wailed, eyeing the gross, dismal, tacky, ugly, horrifying, pathetic, stupid alienating roomful of so-called human beings. "How're you gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen the farm?"
-- Gigi Anders Survival Skills
It was the second day of fifth grade in my first year at Marshall Elementary. Twenty-five years ago, it was one of the toughest schools in St. Louis.
So far, I was batting a thousand. I had two new friends, Dorsey and Isaac, and there was a fine classmate named Mia who was clearly interested in having me carry her books.
At the lunchtime recess, there must have been 400 children on the playground. I was standing against the eight-foot fence, looking for a friendly face, when this weird-looking kid came over and asked me if I'd seen Isaac.
"No," I replied, "but I'll tell him that you're looking for him if I do."
A minute or so later, Isaac appeared. "Hey, Slick," I said in my deepest, coolest voice, "some jive turkey was just here looking for you."
"What was his name?" Isaac inquired.
"I don't know." I said. "It was this pop-eyed, big-jawed dude with a bowl haircut."
Isaac bowed over in laughter. "Oh, you mean Stevie!"
He thanked me and ran in the direction I said Stevie had ventured.
A few minutes later, Stevie and three other budding malefactors came toward me. A short distance behind the thugs, I saw Isaac watching as he hid behind a group of girls playing hopscotch.
The tips of my tennis shoes touched the toe of Stevie's brogans; I knew then, especially after he grabbed me by the collar, that we were about to go "heads up."
Until that moment, I had never even considered eating a knuckle sandwich. Fighting was something gentlemen simply did not do at the parochial school I'd attended.
I stared Stevie straight in the eyes. In the pupil of his right eye flashed the neon-lighted word "YOU'RE." In the left, the word "DEAD."
"What did you call me?" he demanded.
"Nothing," I said sheepishly."
"Well, you better not have!"
With that, Stevie pushed me, whereupon I fell backward over the little criminal who knelt behind me to heighten the impact of my fall.
The four of them walked away, the three thugs reassuring Stevie of what a big, bad cat he was to take on ALL ONE of me.
Isaac ran over as I lifted myself from the asphalt playground. "What happened?" he asked innocently.
My gut reaction was to call him the lizard-skinned, rubbernecked, troll he knew himself to be, but then I realized that he had helped me learn my first valuable lesson about surviving in public school: the art of diplomacy.
-- Karl Evanzz The Annual Haircut
What I hated most about going back to school was having to go to the barber. It seemed as though everyone in the neighborhood would wait until the last day or so to get his hair cut. I felt it spoiled the surprise for the haircut I would be sporting on the first day of school. Now that I'm out of school, getting a haircut is something I look forward to. -- Clifton Davis Paradise Lost
My freshman year at Georgetown U. I enrolled in "Milton" and "Theory of Communism." They were courses usually restricted to upperclassmen.
Don't get me wrong. It wasn't so much that I was seeking to push my intellectual limits. Instead I was inspired because those classes met twice a week while all other freshman courses met thrice (and always on Mondays and Fridays).
Long weekends sounded cool to me.
Those were the days when I didn't worry about much else except correcting people who got my name wrong. Which happened a lot, by the way. Too many syllables and vowels for them to manage. Too exotic for a school filled with O'Briens, O'Malleys, Finnegans and ... a Ewing.
The only drawback to this intricate scheduling scheme was that Milton met at 8:50 a.m. I had trouble in the mornings (I still do) and the professor was a distinguished, tenured fellow whose furrowed white bushy eyebrows scared me to death. I tried, in vain, to be prompt.
Often oversleeping, my uniform for class had become my nightshirt tucked into jeans. On one such Milton morning I hadn't even bothered tucking it in and was scrambling to class with pink flannel fluttering in the breeze. The sun was blinding.
Suddenly I was gripped with terror. I spied my professor waiting on the corner of N and 37th streets for me. He was late too. I tried to compose myself. I hadn't spoken yet that morning.
"Glorious day, isn't it?" he said. "No," I replied in earnest. "Cris Del Sesto."
I didn't realize what had transpired until later that semester while daydreaming during an in-depth analysis of "Paradise Lost." -- Cristina Del Sesto Eyes for ABCs
Soon after we moved to the country when I was in fourth grade, we older kids began rising at dawn to stand in line with the day laborers and other local kids who signed up to help harvest potatoes on a nearby farm. We crowded into the back of a dented blue panel truck -- "the Blue Goose" -- as it rocked across the field, then leaped out to claim a patch of ground, quickly marking the boundaries with flat rocks or upended bushel baskets.
All morning, the bent bodies moved in unison along the flattened furrows in the wake of the tractor, scooping up the earth-damp potatoes.
I was smaller than most of the potato pickers; but I was conscientious and my work in the field was clean. So when the daily take was handed out in the barn at midday, 8 cents for every bushel, my earnings sometimes matched those of boys much bigger -- even $2 or more on some mornings when the yield was bountiful and the turnout slim. It also helped that I'd learned early on to keep an eye on Old Man Stille, who never missed a chance to snatch a numbered white ticket from someone else's basket and replace it with one of his own.
It was understood from the start in my family that the money each of us made, collected over the summer in cigar boxes, would go to buy textbooks and supplies at our Catholic school. On the first day of classes, I held my breath as the mimeographed sheets listing expenses for the year were passed down the rows. The total amount flashed bright like the numbers on a slot machine as I calculated quickly how much of my earnings would be left over to spend as I pleased: for a new binder with colored dividers; shiny packets of ruled paper; a fountain pen with blue ink. Usually there was enough money too to buy a new dress at J.C. Penney. The one I remember best was red and black plaid trimmed with white eyelet and a tiny velvet bow at the neck.
-- Diana Pabst