By David Orr*
“Hurry up! We’re late for school! You’ll like school. You’re going to be in the same class with your cousin Johnny. Sister Mary Margaret is expecting us!”
My mother whisked me across the park past the immense statue of Christopher Columbus through the grove of Dutch Elms that arched over the path to St. Michael’s Parish School. I clutched my mother’s hand and looked for something familiar. I recognized Lucibello’s Pastry Shop and Frank’s Pizzeria across the park, and finally there was the school.
The school was behind the church. I knew the church well. We crossed the park every Sunday morning, so I could sit in the pew with my mother and stare at the altar rail and the marble statues all imported from Italy. I was fascinated by the patterns of light that filtered through the stain glass windows. The priest’s chanting and the incense made me dizzy. My mind would wander until my mother would look at me and whisper, “Sit up straight. Listen to the priest. This is Mass!”
I shivered in the mid-morning sun and tried to kick some leaves as my mother pulled me across the street. The fall term had already started earlier in the week, and school was in session when we entered the principal’s office. Sister Mary Margaret was tall and wore a long white robe with black trim. I could see only her face. My mother quickly kissed me goodbye, and Sister Mary Margaret escorted me up to my kindergarten classroom on the third floor.
My teacher, Sister Mary Rose, stood up from her desk at the back of the classroom. She showed me my place in a long row of iron desks with scarred tops that were bolted together on rails. As soon as I sat down, the row of desks wiggled, and the kids turned to look at me and giggled. Sister gave me a sheet of paper, a pencil, and a ruler and told me to copy the shapes that were on the blackboard.
Sister walked up and down the rows to make sure that all the boys and girls copied the neat, straight lines correctly. More than once she snapped her ruler on the shoulder of any boy who dared whisper, laugh, or even turn around. I kept my head down and stared at my desk top. I could hear the soft sounds of breathing and desks creaking.
Suddenly the buzzer sounded for recess! Sister told us to leave everything on our desks. She marched us in formation out to hall, and all the boys and girls scrambled up the steps to the roof. I was astonished to see a playground on the rooftop! What would happen if you fell off this roof? There was a waist high wall around the edges of the playground, and it was divided by a long, thick rope – the boys’ side vs. the girls’ side!
The boys quickly formed up for baseball and ran to different places on a faded diamond that was painted on the playground. The biggest kid yelled at me, “Hey you – you new kid! You’re in the outfield. Get out there by the rope!”
I stood at the rope and watched the little girls on the other side playing something like hopscotch, squealing and arguing, darting and dodging chalk squares. I was five years old. I had never played baseball. I looked around this strange world for my cousin Johnny who had not been in Sister Mary Rose’s classroom. Maybe he was somewhere on this baseball team? Just as I started to look for him, the batter swatted the ball.
“Hey you! Who is that kid? Does anybody know him?” Everyone yelled at me, “Hey, new kid! Get the ball!”
“What are you doing on the girls’ side of the playground?” She grabbed me and dragged me to the parapet. She hoisted me up and held me over the edge. I hung there! I was frozen with fear as I stared at the traffic in the street four stories below!
“What is your name?” demanded Sister. “Even though you are new, you are going to learn the rules at this school! I’m going to show you what we do to little boys who don’t follow the rules!”
All I could hear were the screaming voices from the other side of the playground! “Hey, what happened to that new kid? Where is he?”
After Sister set me down, I sprinted back to the boys’ side. Recess was over, and we marched down the steps to our classroom.
That first day of school on the roof I was the new kid who began to learn the rules. From that day on at St. Michael’s, I learned never to cross certain lines, and instinctively I knew where the boundaries were.
*David Orr was born in Connecticut and grew up in Arizona. He lives in Tucson and has recently retired after teaching high school English for 35 years.
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