In an era when the majority of women stayed home, my mother returned to the workforce. Her working never bothered me, and I suffered no ill effects because she wasn’t there to greet me when I got home from school. Frankly, I was relieved she wasn’t like the moms who organized holiday parties, volunteered for PTA and made spontaneous classroom visits to question the teacher’s methods.
I rather liked my parents being an enigma to the school, communicating by the occasional note written in elegant cursive. They were both like secret weapons held in an arsenal, just in case. She battled for me in fifth grade, and he in eighth. Aside from these conferences and the occasional school program, they kept a healthy distance, which allowed me to get on with school in peace.
If there were any disadvantages of her returning to work, it was my being thrust into the educational system before I was ready. I had the brains, but I wasn’t prepared for the outside world. Someone should’ve warned me.
The year before kindergarten, I was placed in daycare. When I visit my hometown, I still cannot drive by the First Christian Church without recalling one of the worst years of my life. I didn’t dread the first day, as I didn’t have enough information to cause me worry. No one had bothered to tell me about structure. We had structure at home, but I was completely unaware there would be so many kids everywhere, and group time, play time, music time, mealtime and nap-time required more scheduling than I’d ever imagined.
Adult joiners of multiple organizations and committees probably loved daycare. Children who assimilated into that world undoubtedly grew up to embrace team projects, group discussions and networking. I’ve never been overwhelmed by social anxiety, but the kids! I couldn’t get over how many there were. More than I’d ever seen in my life at one time, and I didn’t like it a bit.
Before daycare came along, I’d spent a lot of mornings at home learning my ABCs and writing them in capital letters, which I still do to this day. Daycare wanted to change that and force my adherence to something called “lower case.” At home, I watched the Today show and television reruns. I encountered other children at church, but at home I played by myself and came up with my own amusements. From 60s TV, I knew about cattle rustlers, saloons, The Munsters, space travel and other trivialities, but these kids seemed to know about games and toys I’d never heard of. The play yard for recess was a sandpit, but I was forbidden to enter, as I was reminded each morning that tracking sand through the house when I got home was unacceptable. I ended up standing on the sidelines with the teacher. I liked her okay, but at home I’d heard it mentioned, while miniskirts were all the rage, that her dresses were entirely too short! From then on, I silently judged her qualifications.
Unlike kindergarten, daycare was a full day. I only had to attend two or three days a week, but it was more than I could handle. First of all, there was a horrible smell to greet me each time I entered the building, as if someone were roasting a turkey in an old library. I found out the offending smell was an institutional lunch being prepared in a secret location; at least it was always kept secret from me.
Around 11:30, an enormous white woman with a large posterior and diabetic neuropathy delivered lunch. She repeatedly bent over a serving cart, exposing us to countless views of veined thighs like a map of the Los Angeles freeway system. This woman without a girdle is my most vivid memory from that year.
Mealtimes were terrifying, as anyone who ate with his or her hands was immediately exiled from decent society to the “baby table” set up in a highly visible corner of the room. I’d been eating with utensils since I could remember, but became nauseous from worry at the sight of casual Friday’s potato chips and tuna sandwiches. How did one eat chips with a fork? One of the teacher’s aids announced these could be eaten with fingers, but could she be trusted?
The curly headed girl with the thick glasses always abused the privilege and got sent to the baby table after scooping up a few baked beans with a chip and shoving them into her mouth. There was a fine line, and none of us were sure. The baby table was more than isolation; it was the daycare equivalent of colonial stocks. Solitary confinement held more value than a chest full of rubies, but public humiliation was unthinkable!
At some point in the afternoon, there was forced nap-time. On the surface, who wouldn’t want a block of time in the middle of the day to shut down? What’s nicer than closing one’s eyes to seemingly insurmountable problems? I would’ve loved for those other kids to disappear, and that sickening food smell would surely fade as a deep sleep washed over my calm little body.
However, sleep time was loosely supervised by a preoccupied old woman who planted herself in a white rocking chair at the end of what could only be described as a ward with cots. The curly headed girl would’ve been prescribed Adderall today, but in the 60s, that kid was bouncing off the walls. We were laid end to end in an open room like an overcrowded prison. At least in congested prisons, it’s my understanding that only the nonviolent are housed this way, while in daycare, Demonic Darla the Scissor Thief, with her baked-bean halitosis, went from bed to bed to see if you were awake. Of course I was awake! Only a fool would’ve closed both eyes with that shiv-hoarding freak on the loose.
One may inquire how I responded outwardly to daycare. To be perfectly honest, I cried. For the maturity I thought I had, the reality was that my four year-old self lacked the necessary vocabulary to sufficiently express my utter disgust for such incarceration, its conditions and those who’d been placed in charge of me. I lacked strong and appropriate language, but I’ve never made that mistake again.
My eyes would be red and swollen when someone came to get me in the afternoons. Part of my tears came from misery, but I hoped my emotional state incited guilty feelings in those who dropped me off. Whether it was my mother or my sister, who was usually stuck with the humiliating task of bringing me in and out of that church-house of horrors, I felt I’d been betrayed and expressed my pain by the only means I had at the time. What a rotten thing to do, but such a response is to be expected from someone with poor communication skills.
A turning point occurred about seven months into this social experiment. I’d never failed to start the daycare mornings without a tantrum, and the open weeping continued through the hours of organized music, meals, stories and time in the yard (still confined to the sidelines in spite of the fact that half of my face had been skinned off one afternoon by a kid who’d brought a remote control airplane for show and tell). It seems I realized crying was useless. My sister was surely relieved that particular morning when I didn’t tear up before she could sprint from the building and be driven away to school. It was a cloudy spring morning, which looked like rain. For some reason, bored with the routine or finally realizing there was no point to my madness, I simply stood just inside the classroom’s doorway for a few moments, leaning against the wall. There was a group of kids gathered around some new toy. Perhaps I wanted to play with it (alone at home with one of my very own), or perhaps I wasn’t focused on what was taking place. I remember someone mentioned I wasn’t crying, as one notices the silence after the shelling stops or a severe storm passes, and I realized the boy was right. I wasn’t crying.
I’m pretty sure the administrators and teachers hated me as much as I hated them. Maybe they’d liked me the first week, but I saw them as the enemy and burned my bridges from the start. They were probably delighted when that remote control plane crashed into my right temple. Then I really had something to cry about! For whatever reason, certainly not my sweet spirit and easy conformity, they let me stay in their crummy daycare. I never cried again after I gave it up, but after months of desperate tears, I’d like to think they were terrified I’d start again just as quickly as I’d stopped.
Kindergarten was much better. I was guaranteed to be out before noon each day, and my offended sensibilities had been given a summer to recuperate. While I could still smell the cooking of institutional food somewhere in that vast building, at least I was no longer at First Christian and I didn’t have to eat after seeing so far up the server’s skirt!
Mrs. M. was a nice older teacher, who didn’t wear miniskirts. In fact, I suspect the slips she wore under her dresses were considerably longer. The class was organized with interesting activities, and I didn’t arrive with the reputation as the crybaby. I was spared the humiliation thanks to the pharmacist’s kid who wailed that first morning like he’d slammed his thumb in the car door. Poor Mrs. M. In all the ways I never considered the daycare faculty’s feelings, I felt badly for Mrs. M. as she tried everything she could to quiet that kid. He was a jerk, and in my recently acquired maturity I believed crying was so “last year.” She made him the class leader to shut him up, and when she took us on a tour of the building as a way to get us used to the place, she had him rounding each corner and stepping onto each floor’s landing before the rest of us. His whimpering trepidation was almost too much.
The first day of kindergarten was a rainy August morning with thunder and lightening, and as a class we traversed darkened stairwells from one end of the place to the other. Most five year-olds would’ve been terrified of the place’s enormity on such a lightless day, but we were brave little souls walking in the shadows. The only one who was the least bit upset was that annoying crybaby at the head of the line.
© 2015 by Patrick Brown
Visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1 to learn about my books “Moral Ambiguity” and “Tossed Off the Edge.”