I began my school career at Deauville Gardens Elementary School in Copiague–a small hamlet on the South Shore of Long Island.
It was the 60s. The community was diverse. My classes were a mix of white, black, and Puerto Rican children. There were kids who did not speak English and some who lived with collateral damage from polio and rubella. Together, we played hopscotch and double dutch jump rope to songs and chants on the asphalt play yard.
I did not have dear friendships. My best friends were my sisters and cousins. Our social world revolved around family outings and gatherings. We knew our neighbors at the friendly wave level. The neighbor kids went to Catholic school, accordion lessons, and cotillion classes. I was very familiar with my street and was allowed to walk around the corner and run quick errands for my mother in town. The streets were short and tight and predictably went up and down and across.
When I was 10, my family’s little house on Albert Road could no longer hold the five kids, a few cats, and my dad’s projects and tools. It was time to move. My parents had bought a lot in Sayville six years before on a whim and a wish for one day.
We moved to a brand new house with four bedrooms. I shared the pink room with just one sister instead of three. There was a huge yard to run through with real speed. The Great South Bay was in the backyard. Best of all, there were kids everywhere.
During the building year of 1968, we frequently visited the site. We met the new neighbor kids and played spud, ran through the reeds, and jumped off the bulkhead to swim in the water. The roads in the neighborhood we’re wide. They curved and turned about. I anticipated a happy beginning in a new neighborhood with new friends.
Throughout that summer, the builder had trouble staying on schedule. We moved in on Labor Day weekend despite that there were boards covering the big holes where large windows were supposed to be (another story). My mom was beginning her career as Sayville High School’s biology teacher, and my little brother, Billy, was expected at the Jack and Jill nursery school. My sisters and I were registered to start school at the Greene Avenue Elementary School. I was going into sixth grade, Mary fifth, Diana third, and Barbara second.
On the first day of school, everyone scrambled to wash up, brush hair, and eat breakfast. We wore crisp first day of school dresses and not-yet-broken into new shoes. Mom and Dad left early. I was in charge of getting everyone to the bus stop.
I am not quite sure what had happened. We left the new house on time each clutching our school bags that held a pencil case, composition notebook, memo pad, a new long jump rope, and a paper bag that held a salami sandwich, apple, three Oreo cookies, and milk money secured in aluminum foil. I lead my sisters to the bus stop. The kids we expected to see were not at the corner. Either we were late, or we were at the wrong corner or perhaps it was both. After craning our necks up and down the street hoping to see a familiar face, I realized the bus had already left. Diana and Barbara started to cry.
We had to walk to school. We had always walked to our old school and walked home for lunch and back. The new school could not be that far away. I started out hoping we were headed in the right direction. Soon, our new house was within sight. Now all four of us were crying. Suddenly, I missed my old school and little house on Albert Road. The first day of school was ruined, and it was my fault.
Mrs. Driscoll, our neighbor, pulled up in her station wagon. She had just dropped off her children at St Lawrence Catholic School. Although we had not met Mrs. Driscoll, we had played with the Driscoll kids all summer while visiting our house. Little Ginny waved to us from the car window.
“You must be the Truglio girls. Get in. I’ll bring you to school.” Mrs. Driscoll had a broad red lipstick smile, just like my mom’s. Her voice was reassuring and friendly. I told my sisters that she was not really a stranger since we had played with the Driscoll kids the day before. We piled into her car. Mrs. Driscoll asked Mary and me to sit up front so we could learn the way to school.
“Our street is Palmer Drive,” explained Mrs. Driscoll, “and here we are at the corner of Jones Drive.” She pointed at the street sign. “That is an easy name to remember.”
Mary and I nodded. We were afraid to speak fearing another break down of sobs. But, Mrs. Driscoll was right. Jones Drive was a simple name to remember. I began to feel relieved and dried my tears with the collar of my first day of school dress.
“Now here we are at the end of Jones Drive. We turn left onto Handsome Ave,” continued Mrs. Driscoll. “Think of a handsome man,” she added with a big smile. Diana, Barbara, and little Ginny laughed from the backseat.
“Now, here is the St. Lawrence School on the right. You can see where the church stood before the fire last year. A new church will be built soon,” said Mrs. Driscoll. Mary and I nodded again. I recalled the announcement about the building progress in Sunday’s church service in the school auditorium.
“Main Street is very busy, so there is always a crossing guard. Always cross Main Street with the crossing guard.”
“There was a crossing guard at our old school,” said Mary. Her voice was calm and steady.
Mrs. Driscoll waved at the crossing guard as she turned onto Greeley Avenue.
Mrs. Driscoll continued her navigation narration. “Now Greeley Avenue sounds like Greene Ave, but you can walk down this street. Here we are!”
She drove into the back parking lot for the Greene Avenue Elementary School. It was a two-story brick building surrounded by a vast field, swing sets and a slide, basketball hoops, and two tetherball courts (another story).
“Look!” exclaimed Mrs. Driscoll, “The children are still playing in the yard. You are not late!”
My sisters and I scrambled out of the car. Our faces were dry of tears.
“Have a wonderful first day of school, girls” called Mrs. Driscoll.
We repeatedly thanked our neighbor and waved goodbye to little Ginny who frantically waved from the backseat window.
Mrs. Driscoll saved the Truglio girls’ first day of school.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.