I began fourth grade at Harborview School, but only a week or so into the school year we moved, and I changed schools. Fifth Street School was in an old, three-story building. I was assigned to a classroom on the second floor the first morning I was there, and then, later that same morning, was moved to Mrs. S's class, on the first floor. That meant that in less than two weeks of school, I had had three fourth grade teachers and about six dozen classmates, none of whom I had gotten to know!
That first day in Mrs. S's class may have been the worst day of my entire elementary school career. Mrs. S wasn't one of those teachers who gave a new student special consideration - no "buddy for the day," or anything like that. I was simply assigned a desk and expected to figure things out. I did surprisingly well . . . until lunch time.
When noon came, we all lined up at the door, one line for cold-lunch kids, another for hot-lunch. My Grandma had bought me a red plaid lunch pail, with a matching thermos. I stood in the cold-lunch line with the others, wondering where the lunchroom was and what the rules would be. After Mrs. S opened the door, the line leaders led us up a mountain of stairs, to the top floor; down a hall; through a door; and into a huge room with a stage at one end and rows of folding lunch tables spread across the floor. I was hoping that we would all eat together, as a class, so that I could stay with the group. But that wasn't the case. As soon as we passed through the door, everyone scattered, and I stood alone, for a moment, wondering where to sit. I finally chose a seat, sat down, and opened my lunch pail. In it, as I expected, were my tuna sandwich on white bread, with no mayo (that's how I liked it back then); an orange with the skin scored and a circle cut off the top, to make it easier to peel; a sugar cookie from our bakery, a folded napkin and a thermos of cold milk. Somehow, that lunch, familiar and safe and prepared by my Mom, eased my jitters a bit.
As I sat eating my lunch, I kept an eye on what the others were doing. As they finished their lunches they packed up, tossed their trash, and headed out the door. Not knowing where they were headed, I looked around for a classmate to follow. But, having been in that class for only part of one morning, and having been in two other classrooms in the week before that, I couldn't positively identify even one classmate. But there was one boy, with a crew cut, who had been acting goofy and making faces at me; I figured he must be from my class. So when he hopped up and headed for the door, I followed him. He went out the door and turned left, down the hall. I followed, although I was pretty sure that my classroom was to the right. About half-way down the hall, he noticed he was being tailed. He sped up, doing a fast-walk (we didn't dare run in the hall), and so did I. Then he stopped. And I stopped. I guess he figured it was a game by then, so he took me on a wild-goose chase around the school, finally entering a classroom on the second or third floor - by then I wasn't sure whether I was up, down or in between. He tossed his lunch pail on the shelf in the cloak room, and so did I, although this clearly was not my classroom. From there I followed him down stairs and outside to the playground.
I didn't know if I was supposed to be outside. And I didn't know where my lunch pail was. And I didn't know who my classmates were. And, when the whistle blew, I didn't know which line to get into. So I just leaned up against the building and cried.
The "duty teacher" saw me, and after the lines had been dismissed, one by one, to go inside, she came over to me, knelt down, and asked me why I was crying (she was the first kind face I had seen since arriving at school that day). WHERE TO START?! I finally sobbed out my story, and she took me by the hand and brought me inside. She asked me if I would recognize the boy whom I had followed, if I saw him again. I nodded. So, starting on the second floor, we went room to room. She would open the door, I would look inside at all the children (who would stare back at me with all 48-or-so of their eyes) and I would shake my head "no." Finally, upon opening yet another door, I saw the boy. He saw me too and turned red and covered his face with his hands.
I looked up at the duty teacher, and nodded "yes." She walked me into the cloak room, and we retrieved my plaid lunch pail. Then she took me to my own room, and came in with me to explain my tardiness to Mrs. S.
That disastrous first day set the tone for the entire year; the fourth grade was the only one, of all my school years, that I didn't like. In fact, to me it felt, all year long, like Mrs. S was trying her best to get even with me for that first day, when I came back from lunch tardy.
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