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By Andrew L. Ramirez

____

That morning was my first day of school. It was the most exciting day of my life. I woke up bright and early. I bathed. I brushed my teeth. I was a five-year-old overzealous boy. My shirt was perfectly pressed and buttoned down – white as the driven snow. My corduroy blue pants had razor-sharp pleats. I sported brand new “Buster Brown” shoes and would probably be the only kid in the first grade lucky enough to own a pair. I was excited and ready to learn some great lessons.

Thirty boys and girls sat impatiently inside the class. Some were nervous. Others were crying from leaving Mommy and Daddy. I could barely sit still.

I was full of life, happy and energetic. I turned to the kid next to me. “Hi.” I twisted and turned as I sat. Anxiously looking front and back and side to side. Smiling at all of the other kids, I gazed at the classroom decorations.

The green “blackboards” were immaculate. Having never been scribbled on, the white lines were straight as arrows. They would be our writing guides. The long Alphabet table just above was crisp and clean. The poster boards were covered with white construction paper and this was filled with images of fruit, animals, letters and numbers.

The small desks were as if in military formation. The petite drawers underneath were filled with books, pens and paper. Brand new, they crackled when opened and were crisp to the smell. Oversized pencils, pink erasers and Elmer’s glue beckoned me. The arts and crafts area had the works – colored paper and crayons and water paints and scissors and clay and markers and tape.

It was going to be a great year.

Then it got even better!

“Good morning, class.” The most beautiful and gentle voice greeted us. A Belgian accent both calming and fascinating. As if sent by God himself, there stood the most angelic Nun. Her bleached white habit was perfectly pressed and pleated. The color matched her meticulously curled hair. The oversized black beads and cross of her rosary dangled at her side and matched her glistening shoes.

I was in a fairy tale. Dashing in the Bavarian Alps, hand in hand with my very own godsend singing “Doe a deer, a female deer, ray a drop of golden sun…”

Before me stood my real life Julie Andrews. My guide. My mentor. My teacher. How perfect.

We went around the class making introductions like Romper Room. “… Angelica, Saxico, Jose, Alex, Paulina, Stephanie … .” I was anxious, desperate to take my turn.

“David, Arlene, Francine… .” Some of the kids were nervous and shy. Not me. I was confident. I was ready. I knew it too. Months prior, I had starred in the leading role as Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer in the kindergarten play. It had prepared me.

My imagination wandered. I mentally rehearsed. Time stood still while the vignette played in my mind. It was a magical vision. I would stand erect. Shoulders back. Feet firmly pressed together. Perfectly manicured in Catholic School garb. I would proudly announced myself.

The scene felt real. It filled me with pride. I was ready to take on my role. I would be the best student. The role model. The leader. The prestigious “Teacher’s Helper.”

I came out of my vision more excited. Now I was jumpy. It would soon be my turn. I couldn’t sit still. It was killing me. I wanted to raise my hand and beg to be next. But I knew it wasn’t my turn.

The third of five endless rows began. “… Moses, Lisa, Rudy… .”

I was in the fourth seat in the fifth row. It felt like an eternity. I was about to burst.

“Isabel, Joaquin, Jovanna… .” I couldn’t take it.

My mouth was close to cracking. Words of excitement were about to spew like vomit. I tried to muster up the strength. I couldn’t.

I turned to the kid in the row next to me. “Are you excited?” I softly asked so as not to attract attention. “What’s your name? Do you want to be friends?”

I could see the boy was distracted. Focused on the ongoing introductions two rows away he didn’t even hear me. It didn’t matter. I was relieved. I had let out enough steam. The pressure was off and manageable. I felt a sense of relief. I felt good. I could wait my turn.

I turned my attention back to the introductions when, moving fast across the room, the nun swept in toward me like a hawk diving for prey. Lips pressed, brow tense, her eyes cut through me.

My mouth dried.

As if in slow motion and in one move, Sister smacked her hand down on my desk.

“BANG!” She struck with brunt force.

“BANG!” Her hand slammed again this time louder than the angriest judge slamming a gavel to block. The sound rang throughout the cosmos.

My ears rang. I was terrified. I teared up. An apple-sized ball crawled up the back of my throat. I forced it back.

“SHUT YOUR MOUTH!” she yelled.

I shrank.

Furiously, she continued to shout at the top of her lungs, her eyes fixed on me.

“How dare you speak out of turn in MY classroom! You do not speak unless spoken to!”

My excitement shrank.

“Because of your selfishness and lack of control you have disrupted the entire class.”

My energy shrank.

“You have ruined the fun for everyone. I’ll teach you to talk out of turn.”

My morale shrank.

“Go to the back of the room and sit in the corner. Face the wall so we don’t have to see your stupid little face.”

My confidence shrank.

Paralyzed by fear, I failed to follow her orders. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me. As she walked all I could hear was her stomping and heavy breathing.

Now shaking and in shock, I waited desperately for someone to save me. But no one came.

I tried to wake myself from the nightmare. It was real.

She dragged me to the back of the class. I moved like a medieval criminal making his way through a sea of unforgiving onlookers towards the rack. I lowered my head, tucked tail and whimpered.

“Not only are you not going to introduce yourself. But you are going to sit there all day. And I don’t want to hear a peep out of you for the rest of the day.”

My ego shrank.

“And let that be a lesson to you to keep your mouth shut and to remember to be seen and never be heard!”

My spirit shrank.

“That ought to teach you a lesson!”

____

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By David Orr

“Hurry up!  We’re late for school!  You’ll like school.  You’re going to be in the same class with your cousin Johnny.  Sister Mary Margaret is expecting us!”

My mother whisked me across the park past the immense statue of Christopher Columbus through the grove of Dutch Elms that arched over the path to St. Michael’s Parish School. I clutched my mother’s hand and looked for something familiar.  I recognized Lucibello’s Pastry Shop and Frank’s Pizzeria across the park, and finally there was the school.

The school was behind the church.  I knew the church well.  We crossed the park every Sunday morning, so I could sit in the pew with my mother and stare at the altar rail and the marble statues all imported from Italy.  I was fascinated by the patterns of light that filtered through the stain glass windows.  The priest’s chanting and the incense made me dizzy.  My mind would wander until my mother would look at me and whisper, “Sit up straight.  Listen to the priest.  This is Mass!”

I shivered in the mid-morning sun and tried to kick some leaves as my mother pulled me across the street.  The fall term had already started earlier in the week, and school was in session when we entered the principal’s office.  Sister Mary Margaret was tall and wore a long white robe with black trim.  I could see only her face.  My mother quickly kissed me goodbye, and Sister Mary Margaret escorted me up to my kindergarten classroom on the third floor.

My teacher, Sister Mary Rose, stood up from her desk at the back of the classroom.  She showed me my place in a long row of iron desks with scarred tops that were bolted together on rails.  As soon as I sat down, the row of desks wiggled, and the kids turned to look at me and giggled.  Sister gave me a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a ruler and told me to copy the shapes that were on the blackboard.

Sister walked up and down the rows to make sure that all the boys and girls copied the neat, straight lines correctly.  More than once she snapped her ruler on the shoulder of any boy who dared whisper, laugh, or even turn around.  I kept my head down and stared at my desk top.  I could hear the soft sounds of breathing and desks creaking.

Suddenly the buzzer sounded for recess!  Sister told us to leave everything on our desks. She marched us in formation out to hall, and all the boys and girls scrambled up the steps to the roof.  I was astonished to see a playground on the rooftop!  What would happen if you fell off this roof?   There was a waist high wall around the edges of the playground, and it was divided by a long, thick rope – the boys’ side vs. the girls’ side!

The boys quickly formed up for baseball and ran to different places on a faded diamond that was painted on the playground.  The biggest kid yelled at me, “Hey you – you new kid!  You’re in the outfield.  Get out there by the rope!”

I stood at the rope and watched the little girls on the other side playing something like hopscotch, squealing and arguing, darting and dodging chalk squares.  I was five years old.  I had never played baseball. I looked around this strange world for my cousin Johnny who had not been in Sister Mary Rose’s classroom.  Maybe he was somewhere on this baseball team?  Just as I started to look for him, the batter swatted the ball.

“Hey you!  Who is that kid?  Does anybody know him?”  Everyone yelled at me, “Hey, new kid!  Get the ball!”

“What are you doing on the girls’ side of the playground?”  She grabbed me and dragged me to the parapet.  She hoisted me up and held me over the edge.  I hung there!  I was frozen with fear as I stared at the traffic in the street four stories below!

“What is your name?” demanded Sister.  “Even though you are new, you are going to learn the rules at this school!  I’m going to show you what we do to little boys who don’t follow the rules!”

All I could hear were the screaming voices from the other side of the playground!  “Hey, what happened to that new kid?   Where is he?”

After Sister set me down, I sprinted back to the boys’ side.  Recess was over, and we marched down the steps to our classroom.

That first day of school on the roof I was the new kid who began to learn the rules.  From that day on at St. Michael’s, I learned never to cross certain lines, and instinctively I knew where the boundaries were.

____

David Orr was born in Connecticut and grew up in Arizona.  He lives in Tucson and has recently retired after teaching high school English for 35 years.

 

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