January 1 isn’t the true New Year’s Day; it’s too cold then to think about anything, least of all new beginnings.
For eyeball-popping, stomach-fluttering, start-over excitement, nothing compares to the first day of school: new teachers, different classmates, and blank report cards.
I still sense a quickening in my world when the school year begins.
As a child, I thought summer would never end. Then, as quickly as parachuting seeds can be blown from a dandelion, the first day of school arrived, and contrary to our sluggish natures, my siblings and I made it to the bus stop early and completely groomed.
We felt excitement more than anxiety, because at Lake Shore Elementary, we entered a known world.
We knew what time the bus doors would pop open at our stop, which dim-witted boys would try to trip us in the aisle, and where long-standing tradition would allow us to sit: kindergarten babies and first-graders in the front, sophisticated sixth-graders in the back, and the undistinguished masses muddled in between.
We knew the bus driver — Schroeder of grease-begrimed coveralls and booming voice — and his rule: if anyone displeased him in any way, he would stop the bus and the offenders would walk.
From kindergarten through sixth grade, I went to school with the same 20 children. We knew each other as well as we knew the outline of the sleeping princess on top of Mount Timpanogas, who kept watch over our school.
My classmates and I ran in and out of one another’s houses, squabbled with each other’s siblings, and obeyed any parent without question.
Many of us attended the same family reunions.
We could predict who would be chosen first for kickball, who would win the spelling bees, and who would lie during show and tell.
Had our new teachers shown interest, we could have reported on one other’s church attendance or the number of children, horses, and dogs in each family.
And it was no secret Kathy liked to run down the boys and kiss them.
We had another advantage as well: When the bell rang to start the first day, we faced a teacher whose eccentricities our siblings had described in detail. We were warned in advance about chalk throwers, hard graders, saliva sprayers, homework assigners, and burpers.
From experience, we knew on Friday the grandmotherly cooks would serve us chili and fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, and that the principal would ignore playground fights unless they resulted in bleeding or broken glasses.
We expected the annual warning from the office that no more rubber balls would be issued if we kept kicking them on top of the school.
The elderly custodian who let us pull the rope that rang the tower bell made all of us believe he liked us best.
We giggled at his standard reply when we remembered to thank him for handing us our carton of milk: “You’re a Welshman — if you don’t marry a Danish man.”
As a group, we dreaded one day beyond all others: the nightmare day when the school halls smelled of alcohol and we were marched to the cafeteria for our shots.
We knew which classmates would faint, which would claim they didn’t feel a thing, and which older boys would threaten to hit our sore shoulders.
And always, day in and day out in our small redbrick school, we were certain that if we didn’t behave, our parents would deal with us more severely than the principal.
My rural classmates and I went to school in a simpler time and place. I number that simplicity as one of my blessings.
We were secure in the predictability of our days: safe among our knowns.
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