Leaky Thermos, bad butter that's first day of school

September 06, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

That first day in the first grade turned bad when my Hopalong Cassidy Thermos bottle sprang a leak and the butter went rancid on my chicken sandwich.

It was the Tuesday after Labor Day 1956. My sister Ellen and I, dressed in unworn, scratchy school uniforms, were each off to school. The first son and the first daughter, we were what my mother called her Irish twins, born 10 months and 28 days apart.

As if that day didn't bring enough apprehension, the neighbors on each side of the family house on Guilford Avenue assembled bright and early.

They added to the grand send-off -- my own parents, both grandparents, great-aunt and curious younger siblings.

I had hoped to slip away quietly. Fat chance. There was a five-minute noise-making session. My grandmother cried. Mary Dankmeyer, the neighbor to one side, waved a lace handkerchief. Stewart Hoopper, the neighbor on the other side, rolled the morning Sun into a megaphone and called out a warning to watch out for red lights and stop signs.

I was so embarrassed I wanted to crawl and hide in the hydrangea bushes around the front porch. Sis, always great in a crisis, took that morning like the indomitable Shirley Temple. She practically took bows. No wonder she's a school administrator today. She was through her first reader by the third week in September.

As the day for first grade rolled around, school itself was not a mystery. I'd logged a year in kindergarten and been exposed to the mysteries of the style of conservative and orthodox Catholic education delivered at the old Baltimore Academy of the Visitation, founded in 1837 and proud of it.

I'd gotten used to the big statues of St. Michael the Archangel lustily spearing the serpent and St. Cecilia playing the celesta. Not even the big oil painting of Baltimore Archbishop Samuel Eccleston frightened me.

Admittedly, it took two more years before I'd learned how to tie that blue necktie and get my brown Oxford shoes to lace up correctly.

First grade meant a nine-to-three day, a real recess, a trip to the cafeteria and genuine oak desks. It also meant a year with Sister Mary Agnes, a member of the Order of the Visitation. Firm, professional and ever sweet, she guided her 6-year-old charges with the determined ways of the practiced schoolmarm she was. That first day she made it clear we would learn to read, be drilled in catechism, attain a fine penmanship and sing in her operettas.

The worst disaster of that day turned out to be lunch. Other students arrived with dollar bills for lunch tickets. I had demanded a tin lunch box decorated with cowboy William Boyd, my beloved Hopalong Cassidy. This turned out to be a poor choice. The milk jug was broken in no time and the Western Maryland dairies' best homogenized product soon soured and tasted even worse than the butter on the sandwich.

Sister Mary Agnes retired an hour each afternoon and turned the chore of arithmetic over to another teacher, a strict authoritarian named Placide Morris.

Mrs. Morris was a legend at the school. Her family hailed from Bolton Hill and she wore a Victorian-style locket at the neck. The picture showed herself as an infant surrounded by all her sisters.

Mrs. Morris, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the actress Edna May Oliver, ruled with her eyes. She could be droll and sarcastic. She was also one of the very best teachers I've ever encountered. Her classes were brisk and challenging.

After her rest, Sister Mary Agnes breezed back into the classroom. She was a stickler for cleanliness and detected the odor of stinkweed clinging to boys who had their first brush with recess and a ball field.

Without missing a step, she went into a closet and atomized the room with oil of wintergreen spray. We avoided the stinkweed thereafter.

The nun then took a seat at her spinet piano and played a few notes.

Now it was our turn to sing. On the spot she administered a singing test. Those who passed became known as the larks. I flunked and was forever degraded as a bluebird.

I've remained a bluebird in music all my life. And I'm a bluebird vTC when it comes to calculus, physics, biology, chemistry, computers, football and driving a car.

It was a real lesson I learned that sunny September afternoon in 1956. Some are born larks and some remain just bluebirds forever.

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