It was September 1950, and that first day of school my brown uniform shirt scratched, the heavy corduroy pants were stiff with newness, my suspenders would not stay up, and my new shoes (bought a size too big for growing into) had slippery leather soles that made each step an effort. My mother carried my lunch and, gripping me with her other hand, led the way from our house on L Street to Our Lady of Angels, a two-story square brick building at 24th and Market Street.
Standing at the door of the first-grade classroom was somebody really scary. I could see no hair, but I guessed that she was a lady because she wore a long-sleeved black dress that went almost down to the floor. She was as big as a sixth grader, and she had wrinkled skin, and she wore a bib as stiff as a paper plate. From under the bib, hanging on some wood from her neck and at eye-level to me, was a man wearing a diaper. Also, we had nylon curtains at our house, and this lady had one that went down her back just like our curtains except that hers was black. Around her waist was a rope of big wooden beads that were each the color and size of an extra-large black olive.
She said her name was Sister Ruth, and when she smiled she was not so scary. She told me to sit in the second row and pointed. There were six rows and six desks with somebody in almost every desk. Others came in after me. The girls wore dark blue skirts and white blouses; the boys had everything brown like me. Big windows let in lots of sunshine. Pigs, lambs, and happy tabby cats were taped to the walls. In one picture above the blackboard a lady was holding a baby in a nightshirt like the kind my grandpa wore to bed. They both had yellow hair.
I did not see my mother leave that first day.
Sister Ruth closed the classroom door just when a loud bell rang. Some children were crying and Sister Ruth said, "Well, now." We learned to sit at attention and raise our hands, and that first morning she taught us how to get under our desks and cover our ears for air raids. Nobody was crying by the time Sister Ruth finished reading a story. We colored with crayons and pasted with glue. Recess was for going to the toilet. Boys and girls had their own bathrooms. In the boys' bathroom, some boys had their underpants on backwards and had to pull down their pants and their underpants too. Sister Ruth made us wash our hands. The Borax powder felt like sand, and the paper towel hurt.
At noon we were back outside to eat lunch and run around. Other ladies in black clothes were on the playground, but we stuck close to Sister Ruth. After lunch, before we laid our heads on our desks for quiet time, Sister Ruth asked who knew that the baby in the picture was named Baby Jesus and that He loved us. I raised my hand like everybody else because I forgot that I only got baptized just so I could go to Catholic school and that nobody at my house talked about how Baby Jesus loved us. Sister Ruth said Baby Jesus was God's only son and that He wanted each and every one of us for His very own, but I had brothers at my house and I had to learn how to share.
Afterwards, my mother was waiting for me in the playground. She asked how I liked school. I gave her my coloring and said it was fun, but the next morning it was the same thing all over. I put on the same clothes, and we walked that whole way again. Sister Ruth stood at the door just the way she did yesterday. My mother kissed me, said goodbye, and turned away. That's when I got it. Today was like yesterday, and tomorrow was going to be like today -- stories, lunches, and quiet time, over and over and always without my mother. This was school.
A primitive awakening gripped me and I howled, but my mother kept walking.
"Stop that!" said Sister Ruth. She took me by the cuff of my shirt and led me to my seat, where I wept more. My heart was breaking, and then others remembered and their hearts started to break too. At the front of the classroom, Sister Ruth said that that was enough of that; and then she called me by name. I shut up and gulped air, baffled. I had just heard my name spoken, so it seemed to me, for the very first time.