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Starting School: My Earliest School Memories Were Not So Happy

That smile vanished when I entered the school building

Published in ChicagoNow, July 25, 2018

Do you remember the cloak room or folding your piece of paper into eight sections? If yes, maybe you started school in the fifties like I did. That was an era when parents were more ghosts than helicopters and when The Teacher’s word was respected and feared. We sat in neat rows with lots of other kids. My main emotion during those early years was anxiety. Don’t make a mistake. Don’t get in trouble.

In my day, growing up in Detroit, no one went to preschool or childcare. I’m not sure what I did for five years. I think I just played, as in “go outside and play.” Starting school in kindergarten was a huge deal. But no one really worried very much about children’s feelings back then. My mother took me there and left. I didn’t dare cry, but I remember feeling fearful for a good part of those early elementary school years.

The first thing I feared was the cloak room in kindergarten. This was a huge, open closet filled with hooks for our jackets, but it doubled as a place of banishment for bad behavior. Rumor had it that children sent there who didn’t comply were somehow attached to one of the hooks to ensure they wouldn’t leave until their punishment had ended. Being sent to the cloak room was a fate I avoided by keeping my head down and saying nothing. Great start to elementary education.

By first grade, I not only walked several urban blocks to and from school, but I was also responsible for my younger cousin, who was in kindergarten. I still remember the horror I felt when I lost her. She wasn’t at our designated meeting place and there was no way to phone a friend for help. Being too intimidated to ask a teacher for assistance, I wandered around and finally found her in the candy store across the street from the school. We bought our usual candy buttons and walked home knowing we would never share the secret of our mishap with our mothers.

I vividly remember the task of folding my paper until I had eight squares and being told to draw something in each square. This was back in the pre-worksheet era. The assignment was to draw one thing in the first square, two in the second, and so on. I failed miserably because I liked to draw and spent too much time on squares one and two. I never got to square eight. Not a math whiz, even in first grade.

Nevertheless, I had an excellent memory back then. My parents had a record that told the story of Passover, which I listened to many times on rainy or cold days when I couldn’t “go play” outside. For some reason, I recited the entire record to my teacher who dragged me to the principal’s office where I repeated the feat. The principal rightly suspected that I didn’t comprehend all of what I had memorized and asked me what the word “pursued” meant. When I answered that my middle name was Sue, it was back to the first-grade classroom for me. I was not going to skip a grade, which in those days was common practice.

I had always loved looking at books and having them read to me, but Dick and Jane, that was another matter. If you were taught using these early readers, you probably remember such classic plot lines as Dick and Spot (the dog) flying a toy airplane while his sisters, Jane and Sally, watched in their matching dresses:

“Look,” said Dick.

“See it go.

See it go up.”

Jane said,

“See it go.

See it go up.”

“Up, up, “said Sally.

“Go up, up, up.”

So boring. And Jane and Sally rarely did more than look, often with their hands behind their backs. Eventually, we began to read non-fiction passages by going around the room and taking turns reading aloud. For someone so worried about making a mistake, this exercise was pure torture. I remember trying to calculate which paragraph would be mine to read so I could practice it in my head, barely paying attention to the content of the lesson.

By third grade, we had moved to the suburbs and all of my worst fears about school were confirmed by the infamous Mrs. Cartwright and her paddle. Yes, in suburban Detroit in 1953, corporal punishment was fine with parents. Most of the paddling recipients were boys. One boy named Johnny, who tended to talk out of turn and disobey her, was paddled every morning at the start of class to remind him to behave. No way would I risk such humiliation. I don’t think I ever raised my hand to answer a question that whole year.

As I write this, I remember so clearly the feelings of powerlessness and fear that starting school engendered in me. It’s so sad that these are my earliest memories of formal education. While school has changed considerably for my children and grandchildren, I worry that there are still kids whose experiences are not that different from mine. I was lucky not to be crushed by these early school years, and I hope that children whose early schooling mirrors mine find their voices and the resilience to learn what matters to them.

Wishing a much happier time starting school to my grandson who enters kindergarten next week.


by Laurie Levy
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