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Slimantics: Memories of the first day of school

 

Slim Smith

 

Call it the Half-Million Kid March. 

 

Roughly a half-million kids will descend on roughly 1,100 Mississippi public schools to begin the 2013-14 school year on Wednesday. 

 

I suspect it will be a controlled chaos and that most of what is learned Wednesday won't be found on the syllabus. Being where you are supposed to be when you are supposed to be there will be the first objective for the kids. 

 

I don't spend an awful lot of time reflecting on my experiences as a young student. Now, 48 years after I stepped off the school bus at Lawhon Elementary School in east Tupelo, the memories of that first day of school are obscured by the fog of distant events. I do remember getting on the school bus that first day, book satchel in tow (this was long before the era of backpacks, of course). My older brother, Mick, being a worldly fourth-grader, made sure I found my first-grade classroom where Mrs. McCarty, a towering woman who seemed very old to me, was in charge. 

 

The first thing I noticed is that our classroom didn't have desks. Instead, we had tables that sat two kids to a table. 

 

I sat at an empty table and looked around the classroom -- the blackboard, Mrs. McCarty's desk, the pictures of animals and the row of placards that had been strung above the blackboard, each with a letter of the alphabet. 

 

My solitude was interrupted when a plump girl with thick glasses informed me that I had to sit at her table because I was her boyfriend. 

 

I didn't want to be Connie Smith's boyfriend. I didn't want to be anyone's boyfriend, my view on this subject having yet to evolve. Still, she had spoken with such authority that I dared not object. I just got up, picked up my book satchel and walked over to Connie Smith's table with the kind of enthusiasm you generally associate with a condemned man walking to the death chamber. 

 

As I sat there thinking about how I could tell mama and dad that I had decided to drop out of school, the rest of the room filled up. That I was only boy who was forced to sit at a table with a girl did not escape my attention, either. You could get beat up at recess for this sort of thing, you know. 

 

When I got home and told mama about Connie Smith, she must have taken the matter into her own hands, because the next day Mrs. McCarty commuted my sentence, moving me to the table where Freddy Turner sat, a move made easier by the arrival of another little girl who had not been at school the previous day. The new girl moved in with Connie, although I judged by Connie's expression that she was not happy with the new arrangements. 

 

A few months went by. I remember doing first-grade math, which consisted mainly of counting bundles of dynamite in the work-book (well, they looked like sticks of dynamite, at any rate) and adding them. Then, Mrs. McCarty went over some addition on the abacus. For spelling, we worked in our little writing books, which were about the size of an envelope and had several lines that were supposed to indicate the proper heights of the various letters.  

 

Sometimes, we had programs. Patch The Pony came to tell us, "Nay, Nay, From Strangers Stay Away." 

 

The man from the Gideons came in and gave us little copies of the New Testament with the Psalms at the end. 

 

In the spring we had a special program, that Mrs. McCarty said it cost a quarter. She started reminding us to bring a quarter to school a couple of weeks in advance. She sent home two or three notices for our parents alerting them that we would need to bring a quarter on the prescribed day. 

 

When the day came, Mrs. McCarty went by our tables collecting quarters. I handed her my quarter and joined the other kids as they lined up at the door, waiting to march to the school auditorium. 

 

Freddy Turner didn't have a quarter, though. Mrs. McCarty told him that he would have to remain in the classroom while the rest of us went to the program.  

 

I felt sorry for Freddy and wondered why he didn't bring a quarter. At that age, you never think about poverty, so it never occurred to me that Freddy's folks might not have had a quarter to spare. I knew he only had a handful of broken crayons. I knew that he didn't have a shiny book satchel, that he carried his stuff around in a cloth sack that people usually only used when picking peas in the garden. I knew that his clothes were old and worn, that his tennis shoes were almost rotting off his feet. I knew that he never wore a coat, not even when it was really cold. But I didn't put it all together. Freddy was poor, even by the standards of our poor community. 

 

In the hour before the program, we had been working on our Easter artwork. I had finished a brilliant rendition of the Easter Bunny and a half-dozen or so wonderfully-decorated eggs. I pronounced it my best work yet. I left it on the table, so that the other kids might see it and be moved by the beauty of great art. 

 

Off we went to the program, which turned out to be a thinly-veiled evangelical service where first-graders were warned about hell and how to escape it. Step one was having a quarter, I guess. 

 

When we marched back to class, I returned to my table to find that someone had defaced my Easter Bunny masterpiece. There was only one suspect. 

 

Mrs. McCarty, seeing my face flushed with anger, strode over and stood looming over Freddy Turner, who had ducked his head, staring at his rotting tennis shoes in an attempt to avoid her withering gaze. 

 

"Why did you do this?" she hissed, holding my artwork in one hand. 

 

Freddy said nothing. He just kept staring at his shoes. 

 

Then Mrs. McCarty said something that caught me off guard. 

 

"You can do anything you want to him," she told me. 

 

I didn't need much encouragement, I am ashamed to say. Seething, I grabbed Freddy by the collar and slung him to the floor. He didn't struggle. He didn't say a word.  

 

Just as I was about to jump on him and pound him, his eyes caught mine. It was a look that expressed neither fear nor anger. It was a look that said, "Go ahead. Do what you want. It doesn't matter." 

 

And I began to cry. I didn't know why. 

 

It took some years for me to understand that when you are very poor, you sort of expect that bad things are going to happen and that mercy is a rare thing, even among 6-year-olds. 

 

Today, a whole new crop of kids will arrive in school. I hope there are fewer Mrs. McCartys. There will be plenty of Connie Smiths. 

 

And I am certain there will be Freddy Turners, far too many. 

 

May today's Freddy Turners find a kinder teacher and a better classmate than the Timmy Smith of Lawhon Elementary School, 1965.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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