During the summer of 1982, after Jean and I were friends, we’d go for walks with mom and dad by my old school. I showed Jean the Kindergarten/1st grade area, the classrooms where Jamie and I played tag and who could spit the farthest, the hopscotch and 4-square courts, and the place where I tripped and cut my eyebrow. We made the short walk a couple of times a day and I always showed her the same things. Each time, I waited until she asked to see my eyebrow scar. I pointed to the spot on the concrete where my blood was and pointed to my eyebrow, “four stitches, right there.”
“This is going to be my room,” she asked pointing at the Kindergarten room.
“No, this school is closed down. We’re going to a different one. We won’t know anyone there.”
We’d go home and practice hopscotch and math and play baseball and sit in the treehouse and talk about school.
“School’s not that hard. Kindergarteners don’t get any homework. You get naps and chocolate milk and the teacher reads to you. I’m going to be in second grade, with multiplication and recess and cursive writing and lunch and kids that are all bigger than me. It’ll be a little sad because when you’re napping, I’ll have to find someone to eat lunch with, but it’s ok, most the kids will like me when they see my Pac-Man lunchbox.”
I explained to Jean that three kids in my first grade class had Pac-Man lunchboxes and all three were good at kickball.
The weekend before school started, we all went for a walk again.
“Mom, we’re going the wrong way,” I said.
“We’re going by your new school today,” she said.
Topeka Drive Elementary was on the other side of Tampa and Lassen, two major streets. “Jim, I want you to look both ways before you cross. Left, right, left. You need to be careful because you’ll have Jean with you when you go to school.”
That was the first time I had been put in charge of anyone. I stuck out my chest a little and waited for the signal to change. I held up my hands, looked for the hand with the freckle, looked that way, then right, then left again. I tried to step into the street, but dad caught the back of my collar as a car turned right in front of me.
“Ok,” he said, “I’ll be driving you to school.”
I woke up early the first day of school. I had new school clothes. Mom punished me if I didn’t go shopping with her. Now I had to try to impress new kids, 2nd graders, while I was wearing a white button-up shirt with dinosaurs on it. I had new, bifocal glasses so I could read when I looked down and see the board when I looked up. I used lots of hairspray to comb my hair to the side. I got my school folder ready. I put some baseball cards in my pocket in case I met any kids to trade with. I pulled my lunchbox out of the refrigerator. I checked the clock: 5:30.
Jean and I got into the van. We both called the front seat at the same time so we shared it. The oversized shoulder and lap belt held us close together. When we got to school, dad held Jean’s hand and led her to the Kindergarten section. I tried to follow. “You’re in room 8, Jim.” He pointed to another building.
I waved to Jean and walked to the building. I found room 8 and walked in.
I had never seen so many kids. They all seemed to know each other, talking and laughing. I looked for a place where the lunchboxes went, but didn’t see one. I held onto my lunchbox and sat in a seat that was in the corner and looked around. Dr. Hasenstab’s name was on the blackboard. I saw a beautiful girl who also looked alone. She had a pink and white dress and sat quietly, looking around the room. Our room was connected to the room next to it, kids were running back and forth. Above the doorway was a sign that said, “When All Else Fails, Follow Directions!”
The bell rang. A kid tapped me on the shoulder. “You’re in my seat,” he said. I stood up and walked toward the pretty girl. I stood next to her and my face turned red. I glanced at her out of the corner of my eye.
A big lady stood next to the blackboard. “Welcome back, class. You’re moving from second to third grade now!”
The class cheered. Everybody through the doors. The kids, even the pretty girl, stood and walked through the door. I followed.
“I think you’re in the wrong place,” the teacher said to me. “What grade are you in?”
I looked up, silent. She repeated her question. “Second.”
“Are you sure, you look a little small for second?”
I stood up tall and showed her my Pac-Man lunchbox to verify my age. “The other second graders will be here in a second,” she said, “you can put your lunchbox over there and have a seat.”
I sat in the seat the pretty girl was in, hoping she’d come back.
New kids came into the room. I looked to see what kind of lunchboxes they had.
“Ok everybody, if you brought your lunch, put it over there and find a seat.” I watched for the cool kids, looking at their lunchboxes. I waited to see who would sit next to me. Big kids and little kids, boys and girls came in and sat down. Only two others, girls, brought their lunch. An Asian boy sat next to me.
“Where’s your lunch,” I whispered.
He looked at me and whispered, “Lunch? It’s pizza day.”
“Pizza day!” I said, “I love pizza!”
“Shhh,” he said.
Dr. Hasenstab introduced herself. “We’re going to learn a lot together. Feel free to ask question at any time… ”
I raised my hand. “When do we get pizza?”
“Lunch isn’t until 11:30.”
She continued with her introduction. I looked at the clock, but I hadn’t learned to read it yet. I raised my hand again. “When do we learn to read clocks?”
“In November, two months.”
I sighed. I spent the rest of the morning looking at the other kids in the class. It looked like there were two girls who were smaller than me and one boy who was almost as small as me. One girl wore an eyepatch like I used to and another had a big mole on her neck. As best as I could see, nobody else had bifocals. I nodded my head in approval.
The teacher called roll. The boy next to me was Eric. I started talking to him.
“What kind of pizza is it?”
“Pepperoni,” he whispered.
“Jimmy, can I help you?” Dr. Hasenstab said.
“What time is it,” I asked.
I whispered and Eric ignored me for most of the rest of the morning. The teacher talked about reading levels and a test we were going to have and spelling words. Then she said, “Ok, lineup for lunch.”
I ran and got my lunchbox and stood behind Eric. “It’s Pac-Man,” I said. Dr. Hasenstab walked us to the lunch area. “These are our lunch tables and there’s the line for lunch.”
I got in the line behind Eric. “Is this the line for pizza?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
The line moved quickly. Eric got his pizza and it was my turn. I held out my hand to the lunch lady, but she held her hand out to me.
“Pepperoni Pizza, please,” I said.
The lunch lady responded, “Lunch is fifty cents.”
“Oh,” I said and looked down at my lunchbox. “I’ve got a peanut butter sandwich and milk in my thermos.” I opened my lunchbox to trade.
“No, buddy,” she said, “you have to have fifty cents for lunch.” Her hair was orange and she smelled like cigarettes. I thought about throwing in a couple of baseball cards, too, but the kids behind me were complaining. I closed my lunchbox and looked for Eric.
He was sitting alone at the end of the table. His pizza was square and folded in two. I could just see the cheese and sauce coming out of the side as he bit into it. “Hmmpf. You have to eat pizza? Look what I have! A peanut butter sandwich with a thermos in a Pac-Man lunchbox! My mom loves me.”
“It’s good,” he said and took another bite.
“I really like pizza,” I said. “It’s my favorite.”
“Mine, too,” he said. He took a big bite and smiled, sauce on his cheek. There was hardly any left and I hadn’t even gotten a taste.
“I was in Kindergarten and first grade at Devonshire St. school. They taught us to share there.”
He finished his pizza. “Do you want some of my apple?”
I turned my back on him and started eating my lunch. I was about half way through with a sticky, peanut buttery mouth when I learned that my milk had soured. I sulked the rest of the day.
That evening, when Jean was talking about the three art projects she did on her first day of Kindergarten, mom asked, how I liked my new teacher, my new school. “Did you make any friends?”
“Mom, I’m in second grade now. I think it’s time I started buying my lunch.”
“How much does it cost?” she asked.
I was about to answer when dad came in. “Congratulations on your first day of school!” he said.
He was carrying a pizza.