When I was a little girl, I thought Labor Day should mark the beginning of the New Year: a big celebration before school started. After all, what in the heck was New Years Day doing in the middle of winter? The day before was one dark and bleak snowy day, just like the day after. With the beginning of school everything changed, everything was new. I remember the very first school day I ever had.
Deanna talked about school all the time, mostly about riding the bus and how everyone must sit in his or her seat. Deanna’s a year older than me, so she got to do everything first. I tried to imagine what the school bus was like on the inside. I imagined so hard, at night I dreamed I was riding to school in a bus full of kids, bouncing up and down and singing fun songs, like the ones Mom sang: My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean, and Mrs. Mumbo-Jumbo, and Que-sera-sera, Whatever Will Be Will Be. In my dreams, I sang right along just like I did with Mom. Night time dreaming about things was almost like real.
Deanna told me everybody had a seat in the school bus, and I had to stay in my seat. I imagined the school bus was full of folding chairs, like the chairs they had in the Methodist Church basement, where we went for the Fish Fries on Friday night.
Mom made me a new dress, all red and green checkers, for my first day. Red was my favorite color. She took me to Baldy’s for new leather shoes. I had lots of hand-me-down, but never shoes, ’cause shoes have to fit a kid perfect and after shoes were worn a while, they only fit that one person who broke them in. I wore lots of hand-me-down dresses to school, but on the first day, a new dress, a new pair of shoes, brand-new white anklets with white lace around the folded down. Baldy said I looked all grown up now. That makes me giggle, ’cause I was a big girl for a long time; I had two littler sisters.
Most mornings Mom brushed my hair back in a tight pony-tail, a barrette above each ear, pointing up the top of my head, and one underneath the pony-tail, so every stray hair got tamed. Not on the first day of school. Mom wet neat strands of hair and brushed it around and around her middle finger, then slipped her finger out, leaving the prettiest ringlets all over my head; as pretty as Shirley Temple and just like Deanna’s. I started tap dancing right then and there, before I even had one lesson; I knew how, ’cause I watched lots of Shirley Temple movies on TV.
“Stop all that jumping around, or your curls won’t set,” Mom said. She was already brushing Bonita’s hair, so I wondered how she could even see me. “Get your rug.” I had a brand-spanking new rag rug, with red and green and gold threads holding everything together, so the rags looked beautiful. My rug was from Ben Franklin’s in the town where the grain elevator was. Dad called that the Five and Dime, ’cause back in the old days everything in there cost a nickel or a dime or even less. I could still get jawbreakers and Bozooka bubble gum for a penny, and Squirrel Chews for 2¢, but a rug cost more than a dollar.
I ate my breakfast, tied my milk money in the corner of the hankie Grandma C gave me with my name on it, tucked my rug under my arm and headed out the door. I was ready.
The school bus was nothing like I imagined it. The seats were green and cushy plastic stuff, kind of like upholstery, but slippery. Deanna and Nancy from across the roads were good friends, so that sat together. At the next stop Diana got on and sat with Deanna and Nancy. Her little brother Mike got on, too. He looked scared, so I said he could sit with me, but he went back to sit with his big brother, Bob. Diana and Bob and Mike all went the St. Joseph’s, that how I knew those guys.
I sat all by myself and watched everybody get on. All sorts of people: big boys, and teenager girls with big full can-can dresses rustling as they squeezed past. Those girls smelled like flowers and the stuff that Mom used to kill germs; that mix-up of smells made my head feel queasy. Another family of kids, two teenagers and a girl, littler than me, got on.
“Here’s a good seat for you,” the teenager girl said. and she plopped the little girl right down beside me, and the big girl swished to the back of the bus. That little girl turned out to be my best friend from the bus, Betty.
The bus driver played jumpy radio music and the teenage girls sang along and the big boys snapped their fingers. Nancy knew how to snap her fingers. She showed me how, but was still in the practice stage: I got all my fingers in the right place, but no snapping sound. With all that snapping going on, my fingers just started practicing right there, laying in my lap.
Mike and Betty went to the same room as me: down a big hall, where grades 1-6 were, then up three stairs and on the far side of the high school bathrooms. Besides Mike and Betty, I met Frankie and Georgie, Betsy and another Betty, and Annette who wore dresses half-way to her ankles, and Daylene who walked to school, and Larry and of course, Dale. I think I might have loved Dale right from the first day, but so much was wonderful and I loved just everything; it was hard to sort out that special kind that was just for Dale.
Then I met Mrs. Brown. She bent over, and her bowls rolled down at me, and might have rolled out of her dress, if it wasn’t buttoned up tight around her neck. That seemed to start an avalanche like I saw on Wild Kingdom, ’cause her neck wrinkled forward like a wave and waggled there around her chin. Mrs. Brown’s lips pulled down at the sides, in a big frowning “Hello there, young lady.” I was pretty sure this was not the teacher Deanna had that she loved more than Mom and was all the time saying, “Teacher says…”
Fall still brings back memory of intoxicating odors and sights: the smell of chalk and crayons and school paste mixed all together; piles of multi-colored construction paper, boxes of scissors, a clean blank chalkboard. New people, new friends, new places, new things to learn, and most of all, new adventures. A whole lot of anticipation and excitement, mixed in with a little bit of anxiety and fear.