The sun wearied the paint on the green and white VW van in the driveway of the small red brick house, on the first street over from the wooden ones. A nail-bitten hand clenched the handle of the side door, and a little girl looked up, home cut brown bangs tracing a crooked line above her squinting eyes.
She wore a red bandana print dress with an elastic waist. Its open neck flared to a little collar and its cap sleeves revealed arms not particularly tanned. Silver-colored Concho buttons tipped its sash. Another new dress hung inside, blue and white checked with eyelet trim, but this was the one for today. Laura Ingalls Wilder always had to wear red because her hair was brown, too. Blue was blonde Mary’s color.
It was the best day of her life. Why wasn’t it a holiday, she wondered, like Christmas or Halloween? It was more exciting than the World Series, even the Olympics she’d watched last year, all the way from Japan and Austria. The other girls on her block could run faster, and weren’t afraid to climb trees. But she wouldn’t be last today. She’d been practicing for as long as she could remember for this and knew it was her time, her chance.
The click of the camera startled her.
It was her first day of school and she never looked back.
As a young child, I wasn’t such a great fan of summer vacation. First of all, it was a frigging inferno of climatic misery. And chiggers. Sure, it was fun to play with the other three girls on the block, until the inevitable “mean girl” nonsense reared its ugly head every third day or so. By the middle of July, it was all about the library’s summer reading program for me. My name is Blue, and I was a nerd.
But by then joy loomed on the humid horizon. The run-up began when the Rexall Drug a few blocks away ran its annual “Back to School” ad with the all-important coupon: buy five dollars of school supplies and get a free milk shake at the soda fountain. We’d go up and down the aisle and I’d hold my breath. Mother, a child of the Great Depression, often did not see the need for a new box of crayons each year. Why should we buy a box of No. 2 pencils when we had perfectly good ones at home? And wasn’t last year’s bottle of Elmer’s Glue still half full? Even so, we usually made it to the magic number, especially when interesting items like mucilage began to show up on the list, around third grade.
School (the learning part of it at least) was a haven to me. It still is, I suppose. I began first grade as a fluent, advanced reader. I could also add and subtract. No doubt this shaped my attitude. Even in the hellish period (grades four, five, and six) after the popular girls had black listed me for my intelligence but before I’d found a like-minded peer group, I could take refuge in achievement and the attendant praise.
Looking back, I realize how very fortunate I was. Although I attended public school in what was then a not particularly desirable Dallas suburb. I received an outstanding education from well-prepared teachers in structured classrooms within safe, orderly facilities. [Insert obligatory liberal disclaimer here: Perhaps my teachers were outstanding because intelligent women had few other career options at that time. Perhaps students who were not tracked in GT classes from grades 1-12 did not fare so well. Perhaps my district practiced de facto segregation through its “neighborhood schools” policy. ] To this day, I believe in the mission of public education and trust the intent of most classroom teachers.
Parents all have dreams for our children. While every pregnant woman demurs, “I just want a healthy baby,” we all keep our true thoughts to ourselves. My big-bellied fantasies did not center on soccer games and slumber parties and shopping-bonding. I dreamed instead of sitting side by side with my brilliant daughter, reading or writing, and watching proudly while she – ravenously curious – took the academic world by storm, free of the constraints I’d encountered.
Tune in tomorrow, for the fast-forward.