Lizzie: The first day of school

Rather than an essay last Christmas, I wrote about Lizzie, the little-girl version of myself. (Elizabeth is my middle name.) Actually, Lizzie has been with me all along, patiently waiting to tell her stories.

In honor of all children who just recently started school, I offer another Lizzie story: her/my very first day of school in the kindergarten-less days of the early 1950’s…

Every morning Lizzie’s mother pushed back the breakfast dishes, poured another cup of coffee, and opened a library book. Regardless of how loudly Lizzie and her three sisters played, their mother – turning page after page – seemed to be someplace other than the noisy kitchen.

Lizzie felt the same way when her mother read to them each night, stories from the pile of that week’s library books. Lizzie could listen for hours to the adventures of Sal and her blueberry search, Peter Rabbit’s dangerous trip through Mr. McGregor’s garden, and the loss of mittens by three little kittens.

Unfortunately, her mother did not have time to read as many books as Lizzie wanted to hear. The girls could each choose one book, meaning that Lizzie heard just four stories a day – when she really wanted her mother to read to her all day long. Lizzie dreamed of the time when she would be able to read every library book her mother brought home as well as every Little Golden book from the stack in the toy cupboard – all by herself.

Happily, however, she learned there was a solution to her problem: grandparents and aunts assured Lizzie she would learn to read when she went to school.

On a shopping trip for school shoes, Lizzie thought nonstop about the first day of school. When her grandfather dropped off one of his cigar boxes for her new crayons, paste, and scissors, Lizzie reminded him she would be reading soon. During the first haircut of her entire life at a beauty parlor filled with mirrors, Lizzie could hardly sit still as she imagined reading from their Bible story book or the thick volume of fairy tales about Snow White and Goldilocks.

The long-awaited day finally arrived. There Lizzie was, sitting in the same first-grade classroom where her father and assorted aunts and uncles had learned to read.

Mrs. Pratt seemed like a friendly teacher, and the room was filled with squirmy, chatty children, all about Lizzie’s age. Early September sunshine streaming through huge windows illuminated bulletin boards covered with numbers and pictures and a calendar large enough for everyone to see.

The children had already hung sweaters on hooks in the cloakroom and stowed cigar boxes in little compartments along the wall. Suddenly, Lizzie could hardly breathe as she leaned forward in anticipation of her sole purpose that day: learning to read.

After a couple of hours, however, Lizzie grew impatient. Without the slightest mention of books or reading, Mrs. Pratt sent the entire class outside to play on the monkey bars and teeter-totters. Lizzie waited for her turn on the swings, although she really just wanted to return to the classroom and get down to business.

On a sheet of light green paper with dark green lines, Lizzie used a fat black pencil to copy her name from the card Mrs. Pratt had handed her. She worked carefully, but it was hard to keep the letters straight on the line.

Later the children waited on the cafeteria steps until Mrs. Pratt allowed them to find seats at the long, first-grade table. For each child who had paid a quarter, the cooks laid out a plate of food beside a waxy container of milk and a straw. Classmates with lunch boxes and thermoses sat together, while Mrs. Pratt positioned herself at the head of the table to observe her pupils’ manners.

After lunch, the first-graders headed back out to the playground, joining everyone from grades two through six for the noon recess. Lizzie watched the braver children sail down the slide.

Back in the classroom, the children practiced numbers and counted to ten. Then they colored pictures of kitties and puppies and played outside one more time.

Lizzie furrowed her brow as she returned to her seat. The buses parked in front of the school made her think it might be time to go home.

Unbelievably, Lizzie had not yet learned to read. In utter frustration, she listened to her teacher talk about the books on display all around the room. Mrs. Pratt pointed out the small library in one corner. Enticingly, she pulled book after book from shelves under the window, showing a picture or reading a sentence from each.

Mrs. Pratt ended Lizzie’s first day of school with the promise that the children would learn how to read all these books and many others during the year. During the year? What about today? Lizzie was supposed to learn to read today. She hid her disappointment from the other children at her table, who seemed quite happy with Mrs. Pratt’s plan.

It was a sad, discouraged Lizzie who minutes later trudged to the bus. She could not understand how the day she had anticipated for so long had ended so badly. She knew she would still have to be satisfied with the four stories her mother would read that night. Lizzie had gone to school but had not learned to read.

By Shirley Scott

Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.