Sunday, September 27, 2015

Another First Day at School

What I remember most about my childhood homes is leaving them. Just as my life threatened to dry up in one small town or another, the United States Navy, my family's own deus ex machina, would appear to move us to a new and always dangerously innocuous location. My friends, many of whose lives were dictated by military maneuvers, found themselves in various parts of Europe; I toured various parts of Maryland. While many of my peers were only a short drive from Vienna—I was only minutes away from Busch Gardens. When I complained to my father that we never went to Europe, he would do in one breath what Atilla the Hun could not accomplish after numerous invasions—reduce the continent to the rubble of inconsequence.

“I've been there,” he'd say, “you wouldn't like it.”

So I learned to accept the small corners of America as my lot in life. I grew to enjoy moving; it seemed a nice trick that I, whose movements were circumscribed by leg braces, should become the master of the quick getaway.

Indeed movement became my chief talent. I changed schools so frequently that at an early age I developed the forced gaiety of a road company Blanche Du Bois. Too often I felt as if I had just sold Belle Rive and was going to depend on the kindness of yet another stranger.

My first day at school was a familiar ritual. My father, absent on so many other occasions of my life, was always impressed into service for this event. These were always uneasy times because my father always displayed how really little he knew about me. I feared being placed in the wrong grade because he always believed me to be two years older than I was. He would peer at me quizzically—as if he were nearsighted and I was a total stranger—when forced to answer the questions about my coloring that appeared on the school registration form.

As if to make up for having blown his lines in this part of the performance he would ask to speak to the school principal. While I was never sure what my father said to these administrators, I was convinced that he assigned to me qualities that would have made Little Eva look hopelessly jaded.

The principal, usually a blue-haired woman, would emerge from her office misty-eyed; if my father had given a bravura performance, she would be wiping away tears. She would gaze forlornly at my braces and then give me a smile reserved for children about to undergo operations from which they might not recover. My father, under the guise of giving me lunch money, would pull me aside, wink at me slyly, and say, “Well, kid, I paved the way.”

Since I never remembered putting in bids for roadwork, this final comment always perplexed me. Dad would square his shoulders and straighten his tie secure in the knowledge that he had given a performance that any actor worth his Stanislavski would envy. The principal would turn her still moist gaze on me, take me by the hand, and lead me to the classroom.

I always dressed inappropriately for these occasions. As a rule my mother bought me demure pastel dresses that called no particular attention to my physical appearance. However, perhaps in apology for our constant wandering, she always allowed me to choose the dresses I wore on my many first days.

“Gaudy,” my mother would say as I picked out bright colored dresses—I favored odd shades of purple and red—in flimsy materials.

“You have the taste of a taxi dancer,” she would add.

But I adored these dresses. My leg braces might thunk unbecomingly, but these cheap gauzy materials swirled so effortlessly around my knees it really didn't matter. I never let my mother know how often I heard teachers whisper “Who dresses that child?"

Since I always seemed to make my entrance just before recess, I was plunged immediately into the task of making myself known to my classmates. Though the world of the jungle jim and the seesaw was not my natural mile, I pretended I was hosting an urban garden party and prepared myself to be a receiving line of one. With my gauzy clothes and my air of coming from a different and much more interesting planet than the one I was visiting, I managed to antagonize my audience. I braced myself for the inevitable question, posed this time by a small boy who displayed both curiosity and chutzpah.

“Why is that stuff on your legs?”

I would usually meet the query with the authority of the Surgeon General.

“I have cerebral palsy. It's a birth defect.”

But that day I was a little weary and a little less gracious and I remembered what a drunken relative had said to me when I complained of unceasing questions.

“Tell the little bastards you're in the tertiary stages of venereal disease.”

I said it. I loved saying “tertiary.”

The kids had no idea what I was talking about. My teacher did.

The principal I faced after recess was not the woman reduced to mawkishness by my father's charm. I was suspended for two days for “conduct unbecoming to a lady of such tender years.”

Clearly the principal shared my love of affectation.

As I was leaving her office, the principal said “Your father told me you were shy, painfully shy.”

A poster child. I bet he made me sound like a poster child.

Later that night, at home, when I repeated the principal's parting shot to my mother, she replied, “Next time you talk to her, tell her she's not the first woman he lied to.”

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson


  1. This is just delightful !!!! I laughed all the way through it! T. Straw

  2. Fabulous! As a child of the army, I recall those first days of grade school -- 4 in six years -- which were never actual first days, but mid-year. And my bumbling attempts to be anybody but myself to impress.

  3. i too went to a different school each year in grade school ( from MASS, to LI, to PA to NC ) and had to bear the taunts of being from "the north - and had ( Oh !!!) curly hair." tjs