[November 7, 2023] It was a big big room, dark and eerily quiet. I entered the first-grade classroom on the first day in the autumn of 1959 in a little town with no traffic lights, Mer Rouge, LA., deep in the antebellum south. The teacher showed an 8mm color home video of her class from the previous school year. These kids seemed to be having a good time, smiling and laughing, playing on the playground, painting colorful portraits of their dogs and other animals, and waving at the teacher doing the videotaping. I guess the idea was to put new kids at ease and show us that First Grade would be fun and exciting. It didn’t work for me. I was nervous, and I didn’t like being there one bit.
As I remember, we were all released from school that first day shortly after lunch. The food was good, and the milk was cold and quenched our thirst. Like so many kids starting school for the first time, we thought we were special. We became close to each other, happy, and inspired to learn. We were us, each with a unique anxiety for school despite our mothers telling us we would make new friends, and yes, that did happen. About half the class were farm kids, who attended class only after completing their chores at home. Like me, the rest of our class lived in town and had running water, a bathroom inside the house, and electricity. Some of the farm kids lacked a few of these “necessities.”
While I do recall that first day clearly, the rest of the academic year was unimpressive and a blur. Luck would have it that I did like our teacher. She was in her 40s and married. That’s all I knew about her. We didn’t pry into her life, and I think she appreciated our hands off, and she didn’t pry into our lives either. During recess that first day, we played several group games. Our teacher taught us “Red Rover,” which remained our favorite outdoor game for years. For the game, the class splits into two groups, and when your name is called, you run fast and try to break through the other team who are holding hands. The suspense of waiting for your name to be called is great. We had class officer elections, and I was elected president of my class; even if I cannot remember why or what my classmates thought of me, to give me a chance. I remember learning my ABCs, reading about Dick and Jane, counting to 100, eating properly and with manners with a fork and knife, and how to Square Dance, all very dull. The one part of school I liked was when our teacher read a story, any story, to us as we sat in a big circle around her desk. These stories were all real adventures. My favorite First Grade stories were The Little Red Hen, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and The Old Lady in the Shoe.
I walked home from that first day of school and walked into our house. Mom asked me about my day. I didn’t want to talk much about it. Mom seemed to be pleased that I wasn’t too traumatized. I know she cared; she knew I was a bit anxious about my first day. Looking back, I can only see that she actually had an interest in my schooling. Then I went out to play in our yard. No homework. No thoughts about tomorrow, but tomorrow would come quickly as we were immersed in schooling – reading, writing, arithmetic, and comportment. And our class would shrink in size every year from 23 until I finished sixth grade with them, with only 13 in my class when I left in May of 1966. I lived in Mer Rouge for about ten years, much longer than anywhere. Moving from town to town after grade school was hard, leaving my friends behind. We also left our dogs, and all the moving was shocking to my brother, sister, and me.
I’m still in contact today with many of my First Grade classmates from that first day. We are scattered across America, but most are still located nearby where we went that day in the little town of Mer Rouge. That was 64 years ago, nearly to the day I wrote this letter.
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