The Last First Days of School
On my very first day of school, my mother told me to sit in the first seat of the bus. I don’t remember her reason, she may not have had a reason at all. She had her own way of giving instructions, and later on I would develop my own way of listening.
I don’t remember a whole lot about the very first day of school, aside from one odd incident. I did listen to my mom, and took the very first seat on the bus, just like she said. A few stops later a kid with light red hair and freckles got on the bus, he had two arms and two legs, and a pair of long silver crutches, not the kind that fit under the armpit, but the kind that are attached by medical gray cuffs to the forearms.
This crippled kid saw me sitting in the first seat on the bus. He probably explained to me in English (which at the time was not exactly my primary language, I had lived in Indonesia for 4 years just before starting school) that this was his seat and not mine. I probably then countered his argument (maybe in English maybe not) that my mother, in her infinite wisdom, told me to sit in that particular seat. Diplomacy having failed, the crippled kid let go of his crutches that remained attached to his arms, grabbed me by my shirt collar, and threw me out of the seat.
Things were not off to a good start.
Being bullied by a crippled kid is one thing, having that as your very first impression of school is something else entirely, but there is one little detail that makes this whole episode that much better: I am a big dude. As an adult I am a big man, I was always one of the biggest guys at school, and that was by high school when a couple of friends had “sprouted” and gained just an inch or two on me. In elementary school, I was the tallest in my class, by third grade: tallest in the school. So for those of you playing along at home, on the first day of school, the tallest first grader was bullied by a crippled kid.
What ever happened to that crippled kid? I don’t know. He probably turned into some jock/meathead in high school, star of the football team, constantly in the gym pumping iron, you know the kind. This is of course all a guess, because as you can imagine I didn’t last too long at the school.
The first school had been a Catholic school. In the classroom they put the crucifix right in front of the PA speaker so it looked as though Jesus was talking to the class himself announcing inane school wide messages, seriously how messed up is that? After a week or two of staring at the crucifix I was taken out of the Catholic school and was sent to a Friends school. The Quakers are good folk, they seemed to embrace difference, which was a good thing for a semi-socially awkward ex-expatriate. I don’t remember what my first day at the friend’s school was like, probably because it didn’t suck, but I wouldn’t be there to long either.
As it turned out there was a hippy at the Quaker school that didn’t teach and wasn’t there every day, but evidently he was not quite as useless as I had assumed. While he was sitting around playing songs for the kids on his guitar, he was apparently studying us, and unbeknownst to me, he had discovered that I was not learning to read at the same rate as the rest of the class, my spelling was atrocious to the point of being non-existent, and handwriting resembled Chinese characters more so than any Latin based alphabet.
Speaking of Chinese it would probably be inappropriate to omit the following episode. While in the Friends school I had written a paper in Chinese as opposed to English. Just to be clear, I did not know Chinese, and what Indonesian I did know had already been lost. There probably wasn’t any punishment directly connected to the episode, because the “crime” was so obscure, it could even be argued that it was a cry for help. The reason for writing the paper in pseudo-Chinese was because I couldn’t write, and tired of seeing all the red ink handed back, I figured that if I wrote something in a language the teacher couldn’t understand, then she would have to default and accept that whatever was written was “good.” As it turned out that trick did not work in first grade language arts, nonetheless it was worth trying. Or was it? Somehow my cousins found out about this, and they liked to bring it up at every family get together for the next 25 years or so, showing no sign of stopping.
You didn’t have to be a Nobel Prize winning child psychologist to realize there was a problem; evidently all you needed was long hair and a guitar. My mother took me to a legitimate child psychologist who gave me a test, and afterword took me out to McDonald’s for lunch, the later part being something my father usually did, making it the highlight of the day.
I was diagnosed with dyslexia, pretty sever actually. It’s a learning disability in which left and right become abstract concepts that make little to no sense, letters refuse to cooperate: constantly moving about the printed page, making you their bitch. If you’d like to see what it’s like for yourself here’s an experiment:
Take a book and put it behind you.
Take a mirror and put it in front of you but only use one eye.
With your other eye stair into a lava lamp.
Find a laugh track from any popular 80’s or 90’s era sitcom.
When you stumble on a word play the laugh track.
Repeat this experiment for 12 years without a break.
Report your findings when people ask you why you didn’t like school.
The Friends School was not equipped to educate someone with my myriad (just one actually though it seemed like many) problems, so I was sent to public school. The transition was difficult but ultimately successful, if it had not been then you would not be reading this story now would you? I was in public elementary school for 3 years, made some friends, lost some others, and before we all knew it (and/or were ready) we were sent to middle school.
My assigned school bus for the new middle school was #20, the bus that came that morning was #23. A mistake like this was not impossible, a simple typo on the letter sent out to parents prior to school starting. Since that bus came to my house, at roughly the time it was supposed to, then it must have been the right bus, despite the wrong number.
I was the second one on the bus and took the last seat (since there were no upper classmen to say otherwise) next to an old friend (the first one on the bus). They were the same seats we usually took all throughout the previous year. Some upper classmen we had never seen before started to get on the bus, but we were going to a new school, so new people were to be expected. The route was different then the elementary school route, but again: new school new routes. Some of the upper classmen told us we were not supposed to sit back there, those were “their” seats, which they had earned through years of being lower classmen. The bus stopped at more places we didn’t know and picked up more kids we had never seen before. The upper classmen never did anything outright or even threatened us to move to the informally designated lower class seats, they were just annoyed that we were in their seats, and would grumble complaints about that.
They were only inconvenienced for one day however, because that bus we got on, bus #23, arrived at a school I had never seen before. The letter from the school had been correct all along, bus 23 did not even serve our district. The same bus driver stopped the next day, but I didn’t get on this time. The day after that he flew past without stopping at all, and that was the last I saw of him. He returned to that quiet well of transitory players, along with the crippled bully and the not-so-useless hippy.
The anxiety just before the start of high school was equal to the anxiety of each previous first day of school combined. My mother and father spent a good deal of time and energy calming me down and telling me that high school was not going to be as bad as expected. It turned out they were right. It was worse.
Of course this is regarding the overall experience, but the point of all this (if there is a point at all) is to focus on some of the more interesting first days of school, and the first day of high school, was, yet again, quite interesting.
Have I mentioned the anxiety? Everyone else felt it too, the freshmen did not speak a single word to each other, somehow knowing that everything that would happen for the rest of their lives would be a result of even the tiniest most transitory event of that very first day of high school. You could see it in their eyes. Over the summer we were sent letters with homeroom assignments in addition to the bus numbers. My homeroom happened to be the one with lights off and a door that remained locked, and for the length of the homeroom period, the twenty or so of us stood alone in the hallway together, no one saying anything, all wondering what we were supposed to do next.
I’ve always been respectful to the teachers that deserved it and to those that didn’t alike, my homeroom teacher was of the latter category. She was horrendous. It wasn’t so much that she was a bad teacher, I never had her for any real subject so I can’t make any definitive judgment there, she wasn’t particularly nasty or cruel to her students. What made her so awful was that she was simply inept, incapable of performing the most basic homeroom duties.
On the second day of high school, our homeroom teacher was 10 minutes late (that is 10 minutes late to a 15 minute class). When she did finally show up she told us that she was not going to be able to make it to the class on time all the time, and that we simply had to deal with that, furthermore her attitude suggested that it was somehow our (the students) fault. My homeroom teacher was also our class sponsor to, a sort of quazi-spiritual advisor (spiritual as in school spirit) to the graduating class as a whole, at least that’s what I’ve come to understand it as. What it actually was or was supposed to be I have no idea, because clearly she was as incapable of performing these duties as she was with performing her duties as a homeroom teacher.
Although this is not about lasts, I must digress ever so slightly again. Kid’s don’t know this, maybe adults don’t either, I don’t know (I don’t seem to be either at the moment) but when you graduate, and you walk and whoever at the front of the auditorium gives you a paper, despite common assumptions, this paper is not your diploma. In college they gave us instructions (rolled up in a nice diploma-esque package) on how to get your actual diploma which cost another $50 and you had to fill out a couple of forms and so on. I don’t remember what the “thing” at our high school graduation was, but it too was not a diploma, our actual diplomas were to be given to us by our (insert disappointed gasp) homeroom teacher, as a sort of solemn gesture of moving on, a mother bird letting her hatchlings leave the nest, etc., add your own metaphor here. So we, with our last names alphabetically close, looked for our homeroom teacher in the crowded hallway were our class diplomas were being distributed, and after a while of confusion and not quite knowing what was going on, I, like the rest of my homeroom classmates, received my high school diploma, from a substitute teacher.
There were always problems on the first days of primary school; by college these problems became much stranger, and considerably funnier, and because of the two semesters a year structure, I had eight first days of school in four years. In case you’re getting bored with all this I’ve only selected two episodes worth mentioning.
My college was able to provide some assistance for learning disabled students, but not the kind of assistance that my mother and father could provide at a moment’s notice. School had not been easy for me, not ever, but I had come too far to fail, so I drove (or commuted) to school. Every day it would take exactly 35 minutes to get to school, no matter the path, and another 35 minutes to get home. Accept for one time.
Here’s a math problem for you: from the Norristown exit on the Pennsylvania turnpike to the campus took 10 minutes. From my house to the Valley Forge exit of the turnpike was 15 minutes. How long did I spend on the turnpike?
Answer: 10 minutes, on most days.
Throughout the summer between high school and college I frequently reminded my father to get me an EZpass, but he kept putting it off, and by the first day of college, it still hadn’t arrived, though it had at least been ordered by that point. In that way, and in many others, we are very much alike. I was supposed to write this story back in high school after all.
On the first day of college (orientation as they called it), us freshmen were given the choice to either go to an American Idol concert or a Phillies game. Both of these prospects had the same appeal to me, zero. I managed to get myself into a small group that went to the Franklin Institute instead, and there met my first (of two) college friends. After the museum we went out for ice cream.
I didn’t leave school until about 9:30 that night.
I got home at 1:30 that night.
Question: how much time did I spend on the turnpike?
Answer: getting to the turnpike was not the problem that night, it was a straight shot down Germantown Pike, the same road the college was on, and there were big signs and swirling cloverleaf ramps garnishing the exit, you couldn’t miss it. I got my ticket from the dispenser (because of the absent EZ-Pass), put it in the cup holder, and quickly arrived at the first problem. There were two ramps. One was headed toward New Jersey, the other toward Harrisburg. But I didn’t want to go to New Jersey or Harrisburg I wanted to go home. Knowing I’d be screwed either way I turned onto the ramp for New Jersey, and quickly realized this was wrong. I saw what looked like another exit, very close by, and took it.
This was not an exit however, this was the Northeast Extension, which took me further away from home, but now in a northerly as opposed to easterly direction. The nearest exit on the northeast extension was Lansdale which was 15 miles away. While paying the toll with cash (again because of the missing EZ-Pass), I asked the toll booth operator if it was possible to U-turn right there. Since it was by now 10:00 at night there was no real problem. Back on the turnpike, heading south there was another fork, where the Northeast extension junctions with the main turnpike. At this intersection, with no discernible signs, one tiny little road sent you heading west, the other 3 or 4 lanes send you east.
After 30 miles I was back on the main turnpike, but unfortunately heading again in the wrong direction toward New Jersey and away from home. At Fort Washington, another 8 miles up the turnpike I did another U-turn, and for the first time that night, heading in the right direction.
I can’t explain what happened next, but somehow I ended up back on the Northeast Extension. You would have probably turned around at the Lansdale exit again, but out of the anticipated embarrassment of having to deal with the same toll booth operator again (though he was a nice guy), and thinking the next exit was just up the pike, I purposely drove past Lansdale and turned around at Quakertown which was not “right up the pike” but 34 miles away from Lansdale.
I’m telling you, that junction at the northeast and the main turnpike, the road heading west is very small, it almost looks like an access road, and that’s why I missed it. Again. And again had to turn around at Fort Washington, ignoring the potential embarrassment (though the tollbooth operators had changed shifts at that time) and this time finally I reached the illusive Valley Forge Exit.
About a mile away from home, my cell phone (a graduation gift from earlier that summer) rang. My mother and father were on the speaker phone on their end, and wondering where I was and why so late, not angry or anything, legitimately just wanting to know. It was the latest I had ever been out up to that point, but it was too late to explain what happened. They had to wait until the next day to get the whole story, but for them it was worth the wait.
Because of excess anxiety prior to the first day of school, I always wanted more time, more summer break (or in college winter as well), always hoping we read whatever letter wrong and school would be starting a week later than planned. On my last first day of school however (the first day of my last semester of college) I was not anxious. For the first time ever I was actually looking forward to going to school, there were a couple of good classes slated for that semester, graduation was coming (after sixteen very very long years), and I would not see my two friends very much after we graduated so we tried to make the best of the time we had left. I was actually happy to go to school, one more/last time.
School started at 8:00 that last first morning, a minor one credit computer class required to fulfill a proficiency requirement that was put off until the last semester. There was no problem getting to school, I may have earned a bachelor’s degree after four years in college, but I was a master of the turnpike.
At school, there were maybe 3 cars in the entire parking lot. Realizing something was amiss I gave my friend a call.
“I think the girl’s La Cross team is there, they started practicing,” he said, not really directly answering my question. It was early in the morning and he was about as confused as I was.
“Wait,” I said. “Where are you?”
“Jersey,” he said. “At home.”
“Doesn’t school start today?” I asked.
“No.” he said. “Next Monday.”
I was mad. The one time I wasn’t hoping with every fiber of my being that school would be starting a week later, and school was starting a week later. I was home and back in bed by 9:30, falling asleep thinking about what I would be doing for the rest of the week, obviously I had much different plans.
Zach Smith is is a graduate of Chestnut Hill College and has been writing for more than a dozen years, struggling all the while with Dyslexia. His work has previously appeared in: Crack the Spine, Revolution John, Fast-Forward Festival, the Short Humor Site, and Schlock Magazine, among others.