If there were nursery schools on the northwest side of Chicago in the late 1950s, I knew nothing about them. The other preschoolers on my block and I negotiated our way through those years when we were two and three and four the old-fashioned way. We hung around our mothers while they did their housework. We looked after our younger siblings. We napped. We made up games and played hide and seek. Weekday afternoons, we watched the Mickey Mouse Club on our primitive black-and-white TV sets.
Compared with that long, quiet prelude, the first day of kindergarten struck me like a thunderclap. I had just turned five, a sturdy girl an inch or two short of four feet tall. The evening before my first day of kindergarten, my mother had grasped locks of my straight brown hair, wrapped them around her left index finger, then secured the flattened coils with crisscrossed bobby pins. When my head hit the pillow, she cajoled me into ignoring the pressure of the metal against my skull. I slept but jolted to instant wakefulness when her voice sang out the next morning. "Rise and shine! You know what day this is!" How could I not? Together we'd counted down the days.
In anticipation of my first day of kindergarten, we'd taken the bus to one of the local clothing stores and had found me a blue and gray plaid dress that we thought looked both festive and scholarly. It had a snowy white collar adorned with a dusty blue bow. Big white buttons decorated the waist. We'd bought new shoes, too, a pair of black-strapped leather flats that I wore with pristine anklets.
When I had donned my new outfit, my mother freed my hair from the bobby pins and brushed it into a bushy halo. Then she lugged a bench out into our little back yard, so she could capture the moment on film. I could dress this way, as if bound for a birthday party, because I wouldn't be attending St. Edwards, the local Catholic elementary school, for two more years. Students at St. Ed's wore uniforms, but the parochial school was a mile from our house, and the only way for me to get there was to walk. The John Palmer School was just three doors away. The public school where my father had received his elementary education, Palmer occupied a stately brick edifice trimmed with limestone and topped with a steeple. A vastness of gravel playgrounds surrounded it. On that portentous Tuesday morning, my mother secured the baby in his carriage and, leading my other brother by the hand, accompanied me to Room 110, the domain of Mrs. Kerschke.
Today I remember not one thing about Mrs. Kerschke, not a single image, not a single emotion. I remember nothing about any of my classmates from that year, though I think some were sniffling the first morning; clinging to their mothers and afraid to part from them. That seemed silly. I knew my mother would be waiting for me after school. That afternoon I could still play with Carla Cuccio, the four-year-old next door. I could still watch The Mickey Mouse Club before dinner.
What I do remember from that first morning is withdrawing untouched crayons from my new Crayola box, then following Mrs. Kerschke's instructions for filling in the color wheels she had prepared for us. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, brown, black. That's the order she wanted them in, and I memorized it on the spot. As I colored, I made sure to keep each waxy hue within its designated confines. When we used our round-tipped scissors that morning, my cuts were clean and straight.
I listened to Mrs. Kerschke, and I raised my hand to answer her questions. I got the answers right. I lined up with alacrity and stood just the way she told us to stand. And when school was over that first morning, I had glimpsed something that became clearer to me in the days and weeks and months and years that followed. I excelled at this business of paying attention and memorizing things and describing them to others and cutting straight lines and coloring neatly. I could learn almost anything the schools wanted me to learn, without much effort. I could leave most of the other little girls and boys in my dust. All the grownups thought well of me for doing so. I'd won the lottery, and it would pay off for a long, long time.