School begins this week. All over the country kids are buying shoes and shirts and pants, dresses and backpacks. It’s a New Year and it calls for new duds. Teachers are hauling supplies, bookcases and books into schoolrooms everywhere. We say that January first is the beginning of a New Year. No. For children, parents and teachers, the year really begins at the end of the summer when the school doors open. But like January 1, there is something wonderful and scary about the opening of a new door and walking into the unknown.
I still remember going to school that first scary day. We lived two blocks from the schoolhouse. My school was a great big two-story redbrick building. From a six-year olds viewpoint it looked like the biggest building in the world. Across the street from the school was a long white building we called “The Teacher’s Cottage.” Single women lived in what could easily have been called a Protestant Convent. I don’t know how many teachers lived there. I do know the Mother Superior in that boarding house for teachers was a tall stately woman named Miss Eva. She seemed to be as old as God and twice as scary. She was the Principal and ruled the school and the cottage filled with unmarried teachers, with an iron hand. After I entered school that first week, I learned the most frightening thing that could happen to a student would be to be summoned to that Principal’s office. Up the long stairs, down the dark hall at the end of the second floor was her office. It was whispered that behind those forbidding doors there was a whipping machine. We were also warned that few who entered those doors ever came out again. Six-year-olds are believers and seven or eight-year-olds would talk about the whipping machine and other unimagined horrors at the top of those stairs.
That first school morning, my mother did not go to work at 7 :00 as she usually did. She stayed home, put on her best dress and waited for the big bell across the street at the mill to ring. The ringing of that bell was a signal that it was time for us to go to school. The bell would ring thirty minutes before school started. The second bell would proclaim that school had started.
I still remember that September day. The air was cool and crispy for a Georgia morning. My mother opened the screen door on our front porch, turned and said, “Let’s go.” I did not know then what I know now. There was a grief in the opening of that door. She knew, standing there, that something monumental was happening. I would walk down the steps, up the street into a larger world. I would return that afternoon and thousands of afternoons after that. But I would be different. That morning I crossed the Equator. My innocence would slowly fade away. Surely my Mother knew that this beginning was like no beginning I had ever faced. There would be things to learn, people to meet, failures and defeats and laughter and promise. There would be mean kids to fight and friends to discover and teachers to cram dreams in my head.
After my Mother left me at the door, she turned around to go back to her job in the mill. Alone and scared, I found my room and my teacher. It has been sixty years ago and yet I can see her still. She stood in the doorway to my class that morning. Dishwater blonde hair, small-frame, freckled and light complexioned. She wore wire-rimmed glasses that glittered when the sun hit them. She wore a starched printed dress and was gentle and seldom raised her voice. Her name was Miss Beggs. Surely other teachers along the way challenged me more. But Miss Beggs I will always remember. She walked with me across a bridge my parents could not walk. She taught me about a world bigger and finer than I had ever known. There would be no going back—this was the point of no return. I still remember that she held my hand as we walked to recess, to the rest room and to the lunchroom that first year. She must have known I was shy and afraid. The passing of the years often adds far richer colors than are present in real life. Yet as I think of Miss Beggs I really believe the kindness that I remember was truly there.
I don’t recall if she taught at our school more than a year. I never remember seeing her after that first grade experience. Where did she come from and where did she go? It hardly matters. What did matter was that she took me by the hand, she pointed the way. I love school and books and studying to this very day. She opened windows and doors that could never be shut again. Is it any wonder that syarsome seventy later I can still see her face and I still remember her name?
(Several years ago I published this piece in The Greenvile News and on one of blog pieces--this year's school beginnings brings it all back.)
--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette.blogspot.com