The start of a new school year always reminds me of my older brother, Norman. He was one of those larger than life characters, who thought ordinary rules didn’t apply to him. Norman would invariably show up the first day of school not wearing a belt and his shirttail hanging out. Mr. Dant, the principal, would lurk by the front entrance just to throw Norman out, like the first baseball of the season.
Once Norman was kicked out of a physical education class because he was wearing purple gym shorts. School rules clearly stated that gym suits must conform to the school colors of green and white. No other colors were allowed. Outraged, that night Norman acquired a pair of green shorts and a white T-shirt. Never one to leave well enough alone, he painted large white polka dots on the green shorts and large green polka dots on the white T-shirt. He thought that technically he had won, but they threw him out of class anyway, citing the school rule about not creating a nuisance — that was one charge Norman could never beat. Norman and Mr. Dant locked horns for Norman’s entire four years of high school. I am not sure which one was happier at graduation.
My own educational career in Steeltown had an equally unpropitious beginning. Although I couldn’t stay within the lines very well, I enjoyed coloring the heavily line pictures of pumpkins and corn. I especially like the playground, even though they had reduced the monkey bars to half size, after a first grader fell and suffered a compound fracture of the arm. The playground had a large wet low area that would freeze over and kids could slide on it. Also everyone took pleasure in using the long cement banisters on both sides of the front steps as sliding boards.
Mrs. Cook was a kind kindergarten teacher and my fellow classmates, while not friendly, where at least not as unpleasant as my older brother. As the Christmas holidays approached, sliding on the playground mini-pond was excellent and some of my classmates even started talking to me. They seemed excited about Christmas and talk quickly turned to putting on a Christmas program — a nativity scene perhaps? I was told by some of the popular kids that I could even be a wise man.
Of course, I would need a costume — something like a bathrobe or maybe a blanket. I could pull it over my head and use it as a burnoose. I immediately told my mother about it and insisted that I get a blanket and some cord to wrap around my head. I was taking no chances in impressing my new buddies. Plans for the program were discussed every day and eventually a date was set for the big program– just a few days before Christmas break. On the appointed day I arrived at school with my cardboard box in hand, containing my blue blanket, some gold cord, and a small package wrapped in gold colored paper. As I put my stuff in the cloakroom I thought it was curious that no one else seemed to have brought anything — how could the show go on like this? In class Mrs. Cook asked me in front of the other children why I had brought a cardboard box to school. I said for the Christmas program of course. She asked ominously, “What program?” It was then I smelled a rat. Before I could say anything one of my new buddies said, “Look!! Terry brought a blanket to school. What you gonna do? Sleep in the cloakroom? This set off a flurry of laughter with a dozen kindergartners repeating, “Yeah, what you gonna do? Sleep in the cloakroom?”
I was mortified and not for the last time in Steeltown schools, I wished I was dead. The only redeeming aspect of this disaster was the fact that I had not actually worn the blanket to class, as I had originally planned.
Denying the obvious truth, I would still like to think it was not a total setup. Maybe it was just kid talk that got out of hand. Had I not want to be part of that crowd so bad, I might’ve be more curious why the teacher wasn’t involved in planning the program.
For the rest of the year I had to endure constant comments about sleeping in the cloakroom. Kindergarten was pretty much ruined for me and only the blessing of summer vacation gave any relief. Over the summer I almost managed to repress the whole sordid affair. I would not have been so carefree that summer, had I known that that I would have to face the meanest first grade teacher at Steeltown Elementary in a few months.
From the start first grade was nearly unbearable. My new teacher, the infamous Miss Cobb, obviously could not stand me or my extremely sloppy penmanship. She seemed to take it as some sort of personal insult. “What did you write this with? A dirty fingernail?” She would say. “This isn’t writing, this looks like chicken scratching.” I started missing the teasing about the cloak room.
In those primitive times, self-esteem hadn’t been invented yet, so no attention was paid to children’s pathetic little feelings. And with no rules about taking universal precautions, Miss Cobb was known to jerk intransigent pupils around her classroom by hooking her finger in their mouths and pulling on their cheeks like they were carp.
Towards the end of first grade I got in big trouble for accidentally smearing some grape jelly in a school library book. For a week I was subjected to a daily public castigation for my sloppiness, much to the amusement of my disloyal classmates. I thought the whole ugly incident had finally ended, when I gave a book report a few weeks later. I had read a picture book about a girl named Janet who lived on a farm. After relating the simple story and surviving a few tricky questions from Miss Cobb, the other pupils where then allowed ask questions and make comments. Much everyone’s delight, Charles, my so-called best friend, shouted out, “How much jelly did you feed her, Terry? Even then, I didn’t think I could take ten more years of this.