First day of first grade, first time at Nathan Clifford School. Six-year-old girls in 1955 wore dresses. I chose my pale pastel striped puffy-sleeved rainbow one, my favorite, if I had to wear a dress at all. My feet sported black Mary Janes and white lacy ankle socks. Not my pick. I fancied myself as tomboy. But Mom shopped for me. I wasn’t thin like her, wouldn’t have chosen the dress’s tight collar or belt. My five-year-old brother Mark, like Mom, was slim. He had a stuffed animal — a very slight elephant or a slender donkey, I don’t recall– named String Bean. My body, though, mirrored our stocky Dad’s, thick muscles, strong legs. I needed size 6X clothes. That embarrassed me. To me 6X meant I was too fat, too short. At 6! Imagine.
At 8:00 Mark and I walked hand in hand to the yellow brick school, skipped home at noon for Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, raced each other to school again for afternoon math, science and play, then ran home at 3. That first day of first grade, my first time at Nathan Clifford, partnered with my big little brother, I felt brave for the first time.
First grade enchanted me, a split class with our old wooden desks on the right of the classroom and second graders on the left. I loved learning to read Dick and Jane books, our teacher Mrs. Patch, and my friends. Debby T and I one day marched through the echoey hall, arm in arm to boost our bravery. Mr. Loomis, principal, invited us into his office. We voiced, politely, boldly, “Could we pleeeeze stay in Mrs. Patch’s room next year?”
Mr. Loomis seemed like a mountain, with a booming voice, at least it boomed to us. He half-smiled. His grin seemed to demean us, though I didn’t know that word. He shook his head and barely parted his lips, “No.”
I felt a mad-sad “Harrumph” on the one hand and “yay for us” on the other. We had risked petitioning a powerful man. Stepping up at 6! Imagine.
Mrs. Foster, my first music teacher, taught Civil War songs. I dared to ask her if Stephen Foster, who composed them, was her husband. Her face softened, and her real smile assured me as she shook her head, “No. Thanks for asking. Good thinking.”
I stood taller. Feeling more grown up at 6. Imagine.
Now more firsts: rallying hand in hand with my friend Sophia to protest for the first time; the firsts of writing letters, signing petitions and speaking in meetings, even to the powerful, especially to the powerful. I don’t wear dresses, nor pale pastels, and nothing tight, nothing to tighten the vigor of voice. My rainbow tomboy-ish t-shirts stand for solidarity with…let’s just say lots of friends and family appreciate the artistic support.
Firsts meld into seconds then grow into and become our lives. For more than sixty years Mark has bolstered me. Still long lean and string-beany, he sat with still-short me, still needing his hand, for five hours in a hospital waiting room during a loved one’s risky surgery. Tapping the energy of firsts can energize us today: the first books that emboldened us; the first compassionate or wise people we trusted; the first time we rebelled; the fierceness of our first heroes, and first love. Remember? What gifts and strengths live now in those firsts? Maybe we could hold hands with those first learnings, join arms to ask bold questions, even to elephants and donkeys. Imagine.