My school career began back in the autumn of 1963. The First Day of Kindergarten was going to be the first time I would leave the security of my home and family all by myself.
I do not remember being anxious. Throughout the summer my parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother exclaimed that I was the big girl setting the example for the rest of the kids. I was the oldest.
Before age 4, I had three little sisters and five younger cousins. I never lacked for a playmate. I knew how to make up games, take turns, share, negotiate a tattle tale’s threats and wipe tears away while fabricating a better story to tell Mom or Grandma. Kindergarten was about play and cooperation. I had that mastered.
I was feeling very special with all of the attention. I needed a new dress, shoes, and a haircut. Mom toted her four little girls to A&S. Mary, at 3 ½, who never thought of herself as the little sister, insisted that she too needed a new dress and shoes. She litigated a relentless argument. She was not about to miss out on all the specialness surrounding Kindergarten. We left A&S with three red plaid jumpers and three pairs of white and black oxford shoes. Mary insisted that Little Diana needed a dress and shoes as well but conceded that Baby Barbara could wear the usual hand-me-down. Later, we all marched into Frank’s Barber Shop for our pixie haircuts. Baby Barbara had only wisps of tawny hair covering her year-old head. She watched from Mom’s lap and drank from her bottle while twirling a lock from Mom’s long ponytail.
First Day of Kindergarten arrived. Bowls of Cheerios and glasses of milk were scoffed down before Daddy left for work. Mary and I helped each other pull on and zip up our red plaid jumpers. Mom tightened three pairs of shoelaces and neatly cuffed six ankle socks. She supervised our teeth brushing while applying her red lipstick. She swiped a comb through our heads and put barefooted Baby Barbara into the pram. Finally, we were off to the First Day of Kindergarten. Little Diana held the pram handle alongside Mom. Mary and I skipped behind them hand-in-hand. My new shoes hurt, but I was too excited to care.
We met the crossing guard at the corner of Merrick Road. Mrs. Grayson was a large woman with a gravelly voice. She wore a yellow sash across her wide front and an official white and black cap with a tight gray bun peeking out the back. She directed her safety instructions to me. Mary and I nodded.
When the school was in sight, Mary began to cry. It was not fair that I was the only one going to Kindergarten. By the time we walked into the playground, Little Diana was bawling, and Mom had to pick her up. Children and parents congested the hallway. Teachers with fresh lipstick and neatly coiffed beehives and flip hairstyles greeted everyone at classroom doorways.
I never cried when Mom left my sisters and me with Grandma or an aunt. I never needed to cling. I was always in good company. Even if I want to cry, Mom did not have enough hips or lap space to fit me with three little sisters taking up so much room. I was the big girl.
I did not recognize anyone. I did not see my friend, Leslie, from around the corner who was a year older than me. The few children on my block were attending Catholic school. I kept close behind Mom, holding Mary’s hand whose cries were getting louder. Little Diana echoed Mary. Mrs. Palmer’s Kindergarten classroom was at the end of the long corridor.
From the Kindergarten doorway, I witnessed a mother peeling her tear-stained little girl in a green plaid jumper from her waist and into the ample arm of the teacher. Mrs. Palmer took up the whole piano bench.
“Behave,” the mother told her daughter as she scurried away flanked by two toddlers. The little girl screamed “MOMMY!” while trying to wrestle out of the teacher’s arm. Mrs. Palmer’s other arm held a chubby boy shuddering sobs into her lace collar. The room was a hive of noise with children banging blocks, crashing trucks, and making baby dolls and puppets screech. One skinny red-headed boy pinged the highest note on the piano incessantly.
Mrs. Palmer sweetly spoke reassurances. She was a blonde version of my grandma—broad and soft with a halo of frizzy hair held back with a headband. Her rosy pink smile greeted me as Mom pushed us through the door.
“My oh my, and who is this little lady?” she asked.
I stood wide-eyed and mute, like a deer in a headlight.
“This is Antoinette. She is almost 5,” replied Mom. She hiked Little Diana onto her other hip. Mary’s cries rivaled the little girl in the green plaid jumper.
“Welcome to Kindergarten!” cooed Mrs. Palmer, “I’ve been expecting you.”
Mom leaned down to kiss me. Little Diana, now too exhausted to cry anymore, wanted two kisses. Mom shook Mary grip from my hand. I kissed Mary goodbye. Mom turned the pram around with her free arm, forcefully placed Mary’s hand onto the handle, and walked out. The crowded hall quickly swallowed them. Mary’s cries faded. Mrs. Palmer said I could play with anything and anyone I wanted. I remember wanting to be the girl in the green plaid jumper screaming “MOMMY!” But I was the big girl, and Mrs. Palmer’s arms were already full.
Writing Challenge: I believe our first school impressions are rooted in our Kindergarten experiences. Write about your Kindergarten memory. Spread the stories. Don’t forget to like and share the link.