The First Grade

Mom woke me at dawn. I washed up, put on my new school clothes, and grabbed my Roy Rogers lunch box. She walked me down our dirt dri­ve­way and held my hand while we stood on the shoul­der of Route 60, wait­ing for the school bus.

It was the first day of the first grade, and I was scared. There were no pre-schools or kinder­gartens where I lived, so I didn’t know what to expect.

Mom was scared, too. Her hand tight­ened around mine when the bus came over the hill, and she had tears in her eyes when she helped me up the steps and sat me in the front seat.

The bus pulled away and rolled along towards Williams­burg, stop­ping to pick up kids at falling-down shacks, trail­er courts, and truck farms. At a run-down gas sta­tion, Georgie Thomp­son, anoth­er first grad­er, climbed aboard and sat next to me. Too scared to talk, nei­ther of us breathed a word until the bus pulled up in front of a dark hulk­ing brick build­ing that looked like a jail­house, where­upon Georgie said in a small voice, “Oh, God.”

Georgie’s Stop

Two sixth-grade girls were wait­ing for us on the curb. They pulled us by the hand into Matthew Wha­ley Ele­men­tary School and down a long hall through a swarm­ing fren­zy of shout­ing, laugh­ing kids. Georgie’s guide shoved him through a door on the left; mine pushed me into a class­room on the right.

Mrs. Pear­son, a short frail gray-haired teacher, met me at the door and sat me down at a table with oth­er dazed first graders. After a few more stunned kids trick­led into the room, she launched into a wel­come-to-school speech.

In the mid­dle of it, a tall stout woman dressed in Sun­day-go-to-church clothes appeared at the door.

It’s the prin­ci­pal,” a girl at my table hissed. “Somebody’s in big trouble.”

Is there a Ken­ny Oder here?” the prin­ci­pal asked.

My stom­ach did a backflip.

Mrs. Pear­son pounced on me and hand­ed me off to the prin­ci­pal. With a grip as tight as a pair of pli­ers, she pulled me across the hall into anoth­er class­room and plopped me down in a chair next to a boy slumped over a desk bawl­ing hys­ter­i­cal­ly at the top of his lungs.

Calm down now,” the prin­ci­pal said to the boy. “Here’s the friend you asked for.”

The boy raised his head and looked at me. I sucked in my breath at the sight of my dread­ed child­hood neme­sis, Robert West. Once a week Robert vis­it­ed his ten-year-old cousin, who lived next door to me, and they teamed up to tor­ment me mer­ci­less­ly. Robert tried to make me cry every time he came around, and with his cousin’s help, he usu­al­ly suc­ceed­ed. I hat­ed him.

Robert stopped cry­ing when he saw me and clamped his sweaty hand onto mine. I tried to jerk free, but he held on like his life depend­ed on it. He scoot­ed his chair clos­er to mine and grabbed my arm with his oth­er hand. I couldn’t make him let go, so we sat like that until the prin­ci­pal final­ly returned, dis­en­tan­gled me from Robert, and took me back to my class.

Thank you, Ken­ny,” she said. “You’ve been a big help to your friend.”

Inside my head I screamed, “He’s not my friend! He’s a big dog turd!” But out loud all I could man­age was a meek “Okay.”

I don’t remem­ber the rest of the day except that Mom hugged me for a long time when I got off the bus, and lat­er when I told her about Robert, she laughed so hard she cried.

The first grade turned out to be fun for the most part – sto­ry­time, craft time, nap time. Recess was the best. They turned us loose on a play­ground that would qual­i­fy as a killing field under today’s safe­ty stan­dards. No plas­tic slides, rub­ber mats, or guardrails, and a fall from the giant iron jun­gle gym’s mon­key bars held the promise of per­ma­nent paral­y­sis, if not out­right death.

Mirac­u­lous­ly, I didn’t get hurt on the play­ground. As it turned out, a much greater men­ace lurked on the school bus. Our bus car­ried kids in grades one through twelve, and the big kids bul­lied the lit­tle ones. I was espe­cial­ly afraid of a teenag­er I’d heard talk­ing to oth­er boys about wash­ing his hands in the blood of a deer he’d killed and stran­gling chick­ens just to hear their pan­icked death-squawks. I was care­ful to stay away from him, but one day when I got on the bus the only open seat was behind him.

He turned around and smiled at me with a wound­ed look in his eyes, sad and hurt, but mean at the same time. He reached over the seat, wrapped his hands around my throat, and began to choke me. I don’t know if the oth­er kids didn’t notice or just didn’t care, but none of them did anything.

I clawed at the boy’s wrists, but his grip only tight­ened and his sick smile grew wider. I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t scream.

Pol­ly Craw­ford was a fat ugly eighth-grad­er with dirty hair who smelled bad. No one liked her. That’s why the seat next to her was emp­ty when I got on the bus.

Let him go,” Pol­ly said.

The boy squeezed hard­er. My vision began to fade.

I said let him go!”

Shut up,” the boy said.

Pol­ly slapped him as hard as she could. He let go of me and lunged at Polly.

I must have faint­ed because the next thing I recall is lying on the floor, cough­ing and gagging.

There was a big fight. The dri­ver, a William and Mary stu­dent, stopped the bus, threw the boy off, picked me up, sat me beside Pol­ly, and drove on as though noth­ing had happened.

Matthew Wha­ley Elementary

Where I lived you had to be tough, even as a lit­tle boy. For the rest of the year I sat beside Pol­ly every chance I got and avoid­ed the boy as best I could, but I didn’t report him to the prin­ci­pal or any­one else. I didn’t even tell Mom and Dad about him.

As a coun­ter­bal­ance to that god-awful trau­ma, the first grade pro­duced one of the most impor­tant learn­ing expe­ri­ences of my life. One after­noon Mrs. Pear­son arranged our chairs in a cir­cle and asked us to share sto­ries about our fathers’ jobs. The first kid said her dad was an engi­neer at VEP­CO. A boy’s dad worked for Chesa­peake Bank. And so on. No one’s dad did any­thing inter­est­ing, and the sto­ries about them were dead­ly boring.

When Mrs. Pear­son called on me, I start­ed to say my dad sold cars, but a strange feel­ing came over me and I fell silent.

Ken­ny?” Mrs. Pear­son said.

I looked at her blankly.

What does your father do for a liv­ing?” she said, try­ing to get me back on track.

The strange feel­ing swelled up inside me. “My dad dri­ves air­planes in big races every Sat­ur­day in Rich­mond,” I said.

The kids perked up.

Your dad races air­planes?” the boy next to me said, awe-struck.

Yeah. He almost crashed in the last race.”

Every­one stared at me, wide-eyed.

Ideas bub­bled up so fast my mouth could bare­ly keep pace with my brain. I put Dad in a blue plane shaped like a cig­ar with wings, small­er than the oth­ers, but sneaky fast, dip­ping, ris­ing, zig-zag­ging, and soar­ing. The kids were on the edge of their chairs when Dad lost pow­er and had to use the gaso­line choke to restart the engine and pull the plane up off the ground just before it crashed, and they were hang­ing on my every word when Dad opened the throt­tle, steadi­ly gained on the oth­er planes, caught the leader at the end, and won by a nosecone.

After the kids stopped cheer­ing, I looked at Mrs. Pear­son. Her mouth was hang­ing open. A chill went up my spine. She knows it’s a big lie, I thought. She’s going to yell at me.

But she didn’t yell. Instead, she said, “That was a won­der­ful sto­ry, Ken­ny, and you told it well.”

Then she called on the girl to my left, whose father was an accoun­tant. While the girl droned on about keep­ing track of bills, Mrs. Pear­son smiled at me. I smiled back, and a bond formed between us that inspired me long after I left her class.

That was my first sto­ry; it was real­ly fun to tell; and it set me on a long wind­ing path that even­tu­al­ly led to Whip­poor­will Hollow.

Sev­er­al months ago, almost sev­en decades after Dad won that air­plane race, my deep well of sto­ries final­ly seemed to have run dry. I tried hard, but noth­ing good came forth. With more than a lit­tle sad­ness, I stopped writ­ing and told Bob­bye to let my blog go qui­et­ly into that goodnight.

A few weeks passed. Then Against All Odds cried out to me. Turn­ing Points came along soon after­wards. The Down­fall fol­lowed. Now this one. As I close it out, I hear more ghost-voic­es whis­per­ing from the bot­tom of that deep well.

The time to quit may come some­day, but it seems I’m not there yet.


Post Script: “There is no greater agony than bear­ing an untold sto­ry inside you.” Maya Angelou