Regardless of the fact that I was five and seldom knew what to expect in just about any given situation, I looked forward to starting school. I had watched my sister carry herself through that first year of academic training with ease and decorum. I wanted everything Judy had been given. She could spell and read and count to pretty big numbers. She knew the words to a few clapping songs, as well as the days of the week. Access to storybooks and finger painting, pretzel rods, sandwich cookies and very small containers of milk. I thought I’d be able to slide right into the same kind of lifestyle she clearly enjoyed.
Kindergarten orientation did not go as smoothly as I’d anticipated.
I can’t recall exactly what my preparation entailed on the morning of that preliminary meeting. I probably ate cereal and read the back of the box as though it were the Daily News. Most likely, I fought my way into a pair of navy blue leotards at my mother’s insistence. If the TV was on – and why wouldn’t it be? – I watched it.
Despite my excitement, I hated having to leave my mother during the day. I worried that she might be lonely. I’d be lonely in the house all by myself, but she said she’d try her best to manage while us girls were away.
Mommy and I waited among the informal crowd to be introduced to Mrs. Hughes, a gently swaying tree of a woman with large hands and a kind face. Word from the front of the line was that we needed to know when we were born, which seemed easy enough. We didn’t even have to get the year right, just the month and day. I double-checked these details with my mother, just to be on the safe side.
September 10th. Of course, I knew this. But now that knowing was part of a necessary test, I was afraid I might not remember. I tried to store the information inside my brain.
As we new students were gingerly separated from our parents and inched our way closer to the desk where the interviews were being conducted, I became less confident in my ability to pull ahead as an early classroom favorite. There were so many other children who seemed smarter and much more interesting than I felt. Everyone looked like they were already friends.
I smiled at the little boy directly in front of me, but he was mean and didn’t smile back. I eavesdropped on his brief exchange with our new teacher. When asked about his birthday, he said, “September 12th.” By the time it was my turn, I was confused which date was which and repeated what I’d just overheard.
“Are you certain your birthday is the 12th?” Mrs. Hughes asked. She glanced at a piece of paper that seemed to indicate otherwise. “Perhaps there’s been a mistake.”
I stood completely still and said nothing. I scanned the collection of mothers, searching for my own, even though I knew she’d be angry that I got the answer wrong. I started to cry.
“There, there,” Mrs. Hughes rose from her chair and kneeled beside me, jingling my wrists in efforts to keep me from falling apart. She smelled like powder and peppermint, and I loved her immediately. I’d spend the rest of that year trying to get her to love me back. “Why don’t you take these crayons and have a seat at the red table?” She gestured toward the opposite side of the room.
I got as far as the orange section and sat down, unable to control my tears. I had wanted everything to be perfect. I couldn’t even look at the other kids. I crossed my arms over my chest and tucked my hands under my armpits. I closed my eyes and waited for somebody to go get my mom.