My parents walked me into kindergarten on my first day of school. I didn’t fully understand that we weren’t just visiting a new place, but that I was being surrendered to the mercy of the public school system for a long school career.
I attended Kindergarten at the old A.S. Letourneau Elementary School, a brick schoolhouse that had one classroom for each grade from kindergarten to fifth grade. My father had attended the same school as a small boy, and not much had changed in the time since. The tiled corridors bent like a U around the Kindergarten class at the epicenter and its adjoining courtyard; the granite floors were freshly polished for the start of the school year. The hallways smelled of industrial cleaners, coffee from the teacher’s lounge, and pipe tobacco from the Principal, a rotund, bearded man who sat behind a mountain of a desk on top of which a collection of pipes hung in a neat display.
The kindergarten classroom was a large space filled with desks and nooks for art supplies, books, toys, and other activities. It smelled sweet and earthy; a pleasant mixture of old books and crayons. Early morning sunlight flooded through the giant windows at the back of the classroom. We were warmly greeted by my kindergarten teacher who invited me to sit on a carpet remnant in the circle of kids who had arrived before me. After a brief exchange with the teacher, my parents made their exit. Quickly realizing that I was expected to stay behind, I ran screaming out of the classroom with my teacher in pursuit. I reached my parents as they were about to exit the building and clung to them with tears in my eyes while my teacher reassured me that it would be okay. Somehow, I was coaxed into the back into the classroom where I joined my new classmates in our circle on the classroom floor.
That year I made new school friends and together we learned a bunch of new things. Apparently, bathrooms were called lavatories in schools and old dress shirts made handy arts and crafts smocks when worn backwards. We learned how to make holiday decorations out of construction paper and Elmer’s Glue, which is not cow-flavored despite what the picture on the label might imply. In the spring we planted marigold seeds in baby food jars and set them out on the classroom windowsills. When they were fully grown, we were sent home with them to present to our respective moms for Mother’s Day. During lunch time, we ate at our desks, some kids getting trays of hot-lunch and the rest of us eating out of paper bags or metal lunchboxes. I started that year with a lunchbox that featured heroic rescue scenes from the television show Emergency! and finished out the year with my prized Superman lunchbox from the 1978 movie. For recess, we were let out into the courtyard just outside our classroom, the hollow of the U, where we’d run around the circles and hopscotch grids painted on the concrete playing tag, or chasing around a maroon ball. I turned out to be a pretty decent student that first year, as the class syllabus was heavy on creative activities like drawing pictures, making hand turkeys, and cutting out stuff with safety scissors, and consequently light on history and math.
Just as I began to acclimate to the routine of the school year, summer vacation arrived. Without the obligation of the classroom, the next ten weeks were like an endless weekend; the very concept of school fading with each long day. Other than the occasional day-trip to Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, my family wasn’t big on travelling and I was never sent off to summer camp. For me, summer vacation meant sun-baked afternoons at the local beach with my family. Armed with a standard issue, castle-shaped bucket, shovel, and rake, I’d dig trenches looking for sand crabs. Naturally, my parents still had their daily responsibilities, so I’d often end up in the care of my Grandmother. There I’d sit on the living room rug inches away from her television, a giant thing that was more furniture than TV. I’d tear myself away from episodes of The Banana Splits, The Flintstones, Mighty Mouse, and Tom and Jerry only for the distant sound of the ice cream truck pulling onto the her street. After begging for a handful of coins, I’d bolt out to the gathering crowd at the ice cream truck window hoping I had enough change for a Screwball cone. If not at my grandmother’s, I was at my best friend Aaron’s house. We’d play with his vast selection of toys. With school out of the way, we were always able to pick up where we’d left off the day before. Summer was the time of cookouts and clam boils. I enjoyed trips to area amusement parks like Lincoln Park in Westport, Massachusetts or Rocky Point in Warwick, Rhode Island. It meant summertime movies, and later bedtimes. In the throes of such kid-anarchy I got to thinking that summer would never end.
The notion of an endless summer was soon extinguished by the appearance of circulars among the daily mail advertising Back to School sales at our local department stores. Similar commercial spots began to run during the breaks in my favorite television programming. Shortly after, I found myself in a number of department stores being forced to try on starchy clothes that made me sweat and itch in contrast to my summer attire. I was asked to kick off my sneakers and try on pair after pair of stiff shoes. My mother would pinch the tips in search of my toe and then demand that I test drive them down the shoe store aisle. My only consolation came in the form of things like a Trapper Keeper or movie and cartoon branded paraphernalia like pencils, pens, and erasers. In the years that followed, the back to school marketing blitz arrived like a heavy black storm cloud over my summer. The promotions offering steals on school supplies at CVS or clothes at Bradlees, K-Mart, and Zayre would fill me with dread. It meant trying on more uncomfortable clothes, a new classroom, a new teacher, and worst of all, the end of summertime freedom.
The kindergarten experience was not indicative of the schooling that was to come. With each year, more was expected of the students. Gone were the backward dress shirt smocks, fingerpaints, and carpet remnants. Our books got thicker and contained fewer pictures, and crayons gradually disappeared from the curriculum. Kindergarten was no more than an elaborate flim-flam to indoctrinate us the way of the public school machine. With each year, I felt that my first reaction to run screaming from the classroom was an appropriate one. I made many more subtle attempts at avoiding the classroom in the years that followed with varying degrees of success. I wouldn’t come to appreciate school until my college years where my focus in fine arts afforded me access to things like crayons and fingerpaints. But long after I’d graduated from college and with ten week-long vacations a thing of the past, I’d still wilt under the gloom of the back to school season.
Now, as an adult, with summer winding down and signs of back to school popping up in their usual spots on television, websites, and in store advertisements, I’ve realized that the storm clouds have finally passed for me. The dread is gone. It’s probably because I no longer have yearly ten week-long vacations to mourn the end of. Nonetheless, I’m happy to be finished with it all, even if the alternative is being a working stiff. I wonder how my boss would react to me packing my lunch in a Superman lunchbox or taking a yearly ten week-long vacation.
Read what other League of Extraordinary Bloggers members had to say about this week’s theme:
Nerd Nook lists some favorite school movie classics.
Crooked Ninja has ten good, and five not so good back to school memories.
The Truthful Liar explores the strength of olfactory nostalgia.