As the start to a new school year is well underway, and we are preparing for Halloween I found myself reminiscing with the memory of my first day in school.
I’ll never forget the weeks that led up to this magnificent day. We went shopping for clothes, a lunch box, new shoes and the rain gear. I remember the rain gear the most vividly. Just like everyone else mine was bright yellow and it reeked of plastic. I had the whole set up with the latching boots and the rain hat. My umbrella was candy apple red. I just knew that I could weather anything in this outfit.
The only thing that made my preparation for the first day of school different than other kids was that I had to learn my new age. I was 5 years old and you had to be 6 to start first grade. My mother worked full time and the kindergarten class let out at noon. This was 1967 when 5 year olds were sent home for a nap and they were done with school for the day.
My mother rehearsed with me over and over. “How old are you?” she would ask me spontaneously. I got it wrong a few times, but eventually I answered “six” consistently.
The other change would be to my name. I knew my name was Ramona, but at the age of five I didn’t know my last name. I had never used a last name at this point. So Ramona Johnson would be the name that I would start my life with.
No one in my whole family had the last name Johnson. My mother at the time was Socarras. I think that my mother was trying to pass me off as an American. Again, it’s 1967 and creating your own documents was pretty easy.
Which brings me to the language barrier, I didn’t speak English. The only thing I knew was “what is your name, and how old are you?” That was due to the weeks of training with my mom.
We practiced walking to school and home again because she would leave before I went to school and would not return until dinner. We must have walked the path twenty times in the last few weeks.
I was very well prepared to enter into the world on my own with a fake name and a fake date of birth.
The Tuesday after Labor Day 1967 I woke up early with my parents for this exciting day. We had breakfast together and they left for work. I was to watch out of the window for when the kids began walking to school and that’s how I knew that it was time to leave. I couldn’t read a clock yet.
So off I went in the direction of all the other children from the apartment complex where we lived at the time. I didn’t talk to anyone. I just followed the crowd until I arrived in school. My mother and I had come the week before to register and although they showed me how to get to class, with the crowded halls I became confused and lost. I didn’t know how to ask for help so I wondered the halls until the bell rang and the halls were empty.
The hall monitor discovered me and got me to class. I passed the first test as he walked me to my classroom. “What’s your name? How old are you?”
When I opened the door and quickly scanned the class of about twenty kids, all older than me, they were a little bigger than me and I was now the center of attention for everyone in the room. I was late and so I got the big entrance.
“What’s your name?” The young teacher asked me. “Ramona Johnson.” I said just as I had practiced over and over.
“Ramona the pest!” One kid yelled from the back of the room causing the entire room to burst out in laughter.
I broke out in a wail of tears that I could not control. The teacher walked up to me and pulled me to her chair which was at the front of the classroom. She sat down before pulling me up into her lap.
“Why are you crying?” she asked. I barely understood her question.
“Are you five or are you six?” she asked while her eyes scanned the class. Everyone waited for my answer. I was still whimpering.
“Six.” That is what I was supposed to say no matter how many times I was asked.
“Well you are in first grade now. Kindergarteners cry. First graders don’t cry.” She explained to a degree that I could somewhat understand.
The class broke out in laughter and I was the Kindergartener/pest for the rest of the day. I had no idea what was said for most of the day. I mostly sat at my desk and did nothing because I didn’t understand a single direction. I wondered if I should follow what others were doing, but none of it made sense enough to pull off imitating.
I made it through the day and as I walked home in the rain, I knew that I never wanted to go back. I arrived where I had to cross the street to my apartment complex and I could not cross. The curb on the other side was a storm drain and it was sucking water from the street creating what looked to me a river.
I was afraid to cross because I thought that the water was going to suck me into the drain and kill me.
Again, I was crying today. Just stood there in the rain crying. Kids passed me by and didn’t get sucked in, but I still didn’t trust it. I couldn’t cross anywhere else because this is what I practiced.
Finally an older man came out of his apartment, crossed the street, picked me up and set me back down on the sidewalk that led to my home.
I never shared this story with my mom. I would have gotten in trouble for letting a stranger help me.
The years that followed would be marked by this very first day. I would always hate school. It took until third grade to get my name right, correct my age and learn English.