It was the first day of first grade. I was enrolled in the old cinderblock and tar Pleasant Ridge Elementary School, which naturally sat atop Pleasant Ridge, an escarpment that rose about 40 feet above and ran alongside Highway 3 for about half a mile, roughly between the Charlestown Police Station, which was just off the town square, and the two lane road that led to the World War II housing project that lay up the hill and opposite the JayCee grocery store in Charlestown, Indiana. Next to the old school, a new school had been built for the bigger kids. It was modern, by Charlestown standards, and was named after Jonathan Jennings, whoever that was.
In the wintertime, Daddy would take us, my little sister, Lucinda, and me, snow sledding down Pleasant Ridge, straight toward busy Highway 3. Somehow, we always seemed to crash or fall off the sled before ever even getting close to the highway, but every time we launched, we knew that time it would be the end for us all. The thrill of uncontrolled speed made us scream till we gagged. I can still remember the cold wind stinging our faces, Lucinda’s nose incessantly running, our hot breath steaming in front of us, and being layered up like mummies so we could hardly move, which was only a problem when we crashed the sled and needed to woggle ourselves onto our feet again in the knee-deep snow and work our way back up the ridge for another suicide attempt. Daddy, whom everyone called “Mousie,” was a fun-lover and usually game for anything. Mommy didn’t sled. She’d wait at the top of the hill at the edge of the school parking lot, tending to our baby brother, Rusty, smoking cigarettes, and generally complaining someone was going to get hurt. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Mousie (his real name was Earl Wayne Hall) was our stepfather. He and Mommy had married in 1965, and we kids, Lucinda and I, took his last name. Rusty Wayne was born two years later. When Rusty got big enough to say his name, he said he was Hudty Hayne.
The old Pleasant Ridge school house atop the suicide sled ramp.
Anyway, I had waited and fidgeted in the hot sun for what seemed like hours to catch the school bus on Monroe Street, just across the road from our nineteenth century, Early American-styled log cabin. Mommy, in posh house shoes and pedal pushers, with her slept-in, misshapen, teased beehive, wore a sleeveless, pale yellow, cotton top with a stand up collar. She leaned in the frame of the flimsy screen door and watched me, occasionally inspecting her finger nails, brow furrowed, with a Viceroy between her lips. Two or three buses came by, and then one finally stopped. She nodded it was okay to climb aboard. I was nervous. I had my Land of the Giants metal lunchbox with the glass lined thermos and the screw off lid that doubled as a cup. I also had a satchel I didn’t like very much with some sort of school supplies inside. I think she had also given me a bit of last minute change, in case something came up on my first day. An envelope was safety-pinned to my shirt. I figured it probably looked silly, but I tried to ignore it. When I climbed the steps into the big yellow school bus, I was relieved to see other kids with envelopes pinned to their shirts, too. The bus smelled stale and rubbery.
It took forever for the bus to get to the school. I knew where the school was, more or less, and the driver seemed to be lost, going all over town, turning this way and that, stopping to let other kids on, and sometimes talking to their mommies. It eventually occurred to me that I was not the only person for whom the bus rolled. A few of the windows were down on the bus, but mine was not, and it was getting stuffy. I was too new to make any unilateral decisions, so I sat quietly, annoyed at the bus driver and all the kids. I watched everything and everyone, but tried not to make eye contact. I was petrified that someone was going to speak to me. No one did.
All the teachers wore flowered dresses and seemed old. The ones with glasses had strings tied to the sides that draped around the backs of their necks. This was puzzling. The strings were too long to hold their glasses on while they played a game of tag. The teachers were all pretty matter of fact. I got into a little mischief during lunch. I got a hold of a fork and used it as a catapult. My ammo was a pile of loose peas on the tray of the boy next to me. I let the first one fly, and to my chagrin, it landed at a most inopportune location. I had failed to consider the range and trajectory of my missile. This would have been really fun in my backyard with those little green army men and some dirt. The landing zone was the food tray of the short, stumpy teacher sitting at the head of our lunch table. She snapped a glare in my direction, jumped from her seat and stormed toward me, lips pursed and arms swinging, elbows high. All I could do was mumble, “Uh-oh.”
She snatched me up by the arm and called to another teacher who leapt from her own seat and came up alongside us. The three of us marched in unison to I didn’t know where. I can still remember the clack of our shoes on the shiny square tiled floor, the musty smell of days gone by, and the vaporous dust that was evident in the sunbeams that filtered through the windows of the classrooms and into the long, shadowy hallway. We stopped outside of an empty classroom, and the second teacher, skinny, rigid, and determined, disappeared inside. She returned in a flash with one of those ball and paddle games, but without the ball and the long elastic rubber string that attached the ball to the paddle. I was never any good with those things. I started to point out the defect of the missing ball and rubber string when the first teacher (the short, stumpy one) grabbed the paddle, spun me around and whacked me three times on the bottom. Neither teacher said a word. I was stunned. It had come out of nowhere. My rear end was on fire. I couldn’t remember Mommy or Daddy ever whacking me that hard. I couldn’t even remember them ever whacking me at all. Threats were the only thing I ever got from them. It was madness.
When I got back to class, I was uneasy, but no one said anything, and I was more than happy to pretend it never happened. Maybe the other kids saw the brutal attack and were cowed by the experience. I, for one, had arrived at two conclusions: you didn’t want to flick peas in the cafeteria, and you didn’t want to tangle with those teacher ladies. I decided right there and then that I’d play their game and go along with whatever they said. At the end of my first day of first grade, I whispered to myself, “Twelve years, I’ll never make it.” I didn’t even know what a year was, but I knew it must be a really long time. Twelve of them would be torturous terror.
“Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him.” – Proverbs 22:15
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