Do you remember your first day at school? The classes were terribly crowded at James Lane Allen Elementary in Lexington, Kentucky that sunny fall day in September, 1959. I tucked my cigar box under my arm, full of crayons and pencils with a hand pencil sharpener shaped like Felix the cat’s face, with a paper sack in my hand holding a box of tissues, coloring pencils, blunt-ended scissors and Red Chief writing tablet with the red and blue dotted lines.
Every professional woman needs her favorite power suit in order to meet the unknown and I had mine–my favorite red cardigan, red corduroy pants and tiny red oxfords with black shoe laces. (I called them my dancing shoes). Nothing could stop me now!
There were six first grade classes at our school eventually, as they endeavored to ease the crowded classrooms. Miss Holcomb’s classroom was mine, the pale green cinder block walls covered with the alphabet and posters with rules. Look both ways before crossing the street. Drink 6 to 8 glasses of water daily. Raise your hand to speak.
I didn’t know any of the other kids in my class. We even had two black kids, something I had never even thought about before. One was little Howard Underwood, sobbing his eyes out and clinging to two of his older sisters who were trying to get him to stay. They finally succeeded in bribing him with a nickel for ice cream, so he sat down–but with his body language still poised to run when he got the chance.
We began our day with the pledge like most American classrooms, and announcements from the office via the public address system. One of our first lessons was telling time and learning your left hand from your right. I mastered that one at the same time I discovered west and east. The sun always rose in the east in the mornings at 8:00 when we came to school and made a beautiful sunset out the windows to my right–on the west side of the classroom, in the late afternoon. Thus I learned my right hand was on the west. A fact that confused me greatly the first time I tried it out at home.
My favorite time of day was Milk Time at 1:30. Since our lunch period was at 10:45, we had a short break at 1:30 and were allowed a carton of white or chocolate milk for a nickel. We would listen to a story from Miss Holcomb while we sipped our milk and allowed our imaginations to wander. The third day of school, the story was about the blarney stone in Ireland and how you could kiss it for luck if you bend over backwards. Some kids laid their heads down on their desks during the story, until Miss Holcomb asked us to stand up and stretch, getting ready to stretch and sing “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” When Howard, the curly headed little boy sitting behind me didn’t budge, Miss Holcomb asked me to wake him for her. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he looked up, his face streaked with tears.
Mrs. Holcomb attempted to get Howard to tell her what was wrong, but I saw the dark spot on his shirt pocket, and spoke up, “I know, he saved his ice cream from lunch and it’s melted!” The class erupted into laughter but I knew better. I’d listened to Howard sobbing. I thought it was very sad. So did Darlene. Opening her Howdy Doody lunch box, she took out a Hostess cupcake: orange frosting, orange cake, creamy filling and seven squiggles of icing. Darlene was recovering from polio, and walked with a pronounced limp. She passed her cupcake to Howard, and smiled at him. That day I wanted to be her friend.
Those were the days…a trip on the school bus to the Bird and Animal Forest, a petting zoo on the outskirts of town where I came home with a monkey on a stick toy.
Another time the firemen allowed us to actually slide down the pole on our field trip to the fire station. That day we went home with Junior Firefighter badges on our chest, waving our plastic firemen’s hats.
And I can still remember the feel of the cool skin in my hands as I milked my first milk cow at Borden’s Dairy. Although we got free chocolate milk that day, I carry the memory of the experience with me today.
When the first day of First Grade ended, I gathered my lunch sack and sweater, searching for my big brother Mike for the long walk home. The big kids were running in the halls, stopping only when one of the safety patrol kids, wearing their fancy badges on the white belts, held up a hand to slow them down.
I wasn’t the same youngster that left the house that morning. I was now a student. I was a tiny bit more independent. And, thanks to Howard and Darlene, I had a new friend.
Now if I could just figure out the left/right-east/west thing.