Each year at this time, as thousands of 5-year-olds experience their first day of kindergarten, I know the mix of joy and dread they are feeling. I’ll always remember my first day of school--that sunny September day in 1944 in Summit Hill in nearby Carbon County--with pain and embarrassment.
For days before, I chattered non-stop about starting school. My mother had bought me new clothes for the big day. She wanted to take my photo before we left, a precious keepsake to be tucked away for the ages.
My father ceded matters such as discipline and logistics to my well-organized mother. In a rare exception, however, he told me the night before: Mess up in school and expect double what the teacher gives you when you get home. The fact that my dad made this point impressed me. For all of my school days, there was one unchanging rule: In school, the teacher is boss. Period. End of discussion.
As mom and I left, my enthusiasm quickly turned to apprehension, then dread. As we walked past the cemetery, across from the school, I had made up my mind: This was a really bad idea. I didn’t want to go to school after all. Let’s turn around and go home.
I stopped dead and, my eyes filling with tears, I told my mother I didn't want to go to school. "What?" my mother asked in disbelief. "I don't want to go," I repeated. "Come on now," she said impatiently. "This is silly. We've got to hurry or you'll be late." She took my hand and started to walk, but I didn’t budge. Then mom really got angry and rattled off three oaths in Italian. I learned a long time ago not to cross mom when she’s mad and talks in Italian. Reluctantly, I began walking, but I could not control my convulsive sobs.
For some reason, school, which just hours before had represented such great expectations, had now become the source of paralyzing fear. I couldn’t explain it then, or now.
I was introduced to my teacher, Edith Storch, who tried to assure me that things would be just fine. My mother said that she was going to leave. I started screaming, "No! No!" I don’t remember what happened next. I figure I went out of my head for awhile. The next thing I knew, my mother was gone; Mrs. Storch had a grip on my hand and was leading me to one of the small chairs in the front row, probably so she could keep an eye on me.
I reluctantly sat down, and Mrs Storch went to the front of the classroom and began talking. A wide-open window about five feet away beckoned. I bounded toward it, climbed up on the sill and, in a flash, jumped about five feet to the schoolyard. I landed on my feet, stumbled a few times, then began running as fast as I could. But where would I go? If I went back home, my mother would kill me.
Mrs. Storch was hanging out the window calling after me frantically: "Bruce, Bruce, come back."
She was too big to fit through the window, so she would have to go through the schoolhouse doors. I ran into the nearby cemetery, scurried about halfway through, then ducked behind a big tombstone and continued to sob softly.
I must have cried myself to sleep. Suddenly, I heard familiar voices. I saw the relieved faces of Mrs. Storch, my mother and the borough’s police chief. I thought I was a goner, but, miraculously, there were no reprisals, no punishment. Mrs. Storch asked me to come back to school. Now, for some reason, I wanted to and took her hand.
From that day until this, I have loved schooling and learning.