As the youngest of four, I went to school last. The sibling closest to my age was my brother, who was 18 months older than me. So there was one school year when I had my mom all to myself. I was in heaven. Sometimes at lunch time she would set me up at a little kid’s table while she did things in the kitchen. I remember having canned tomato soup, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and one of my favorites at the time – canned mushroom soup poured on a piece of toast. (What was I thinking?!) Once in awhile my mom would create a face on my plate out of the food to make it fun.
In the mornings, I would sit in her lap after the other kids had gone to school, playing with the strings on her bathrobe while she drank her coffee. She would make out a shopping list, or maybe glance at the paper for coupons. One morning I asked her if she would teach me how to write my name. She took the pen and paper and showed me one letter at a time. I had no idea how long I was there, but I remember being focused and engrossed in my new skill. I had wanted to learn how to write my name seemingly forever, and I was not going to miss this opportunity. (I was four years old.) I remember feeling I could have stayed there all day, eager to absorb the information. She was very encouraging and proud of me when I finally got all five letters. I was so excited! Can you show me my last name now?! “Nooo, she said with a laugh. That would take too long! (9 letters in my last name.) Crushed, I wondered if I would ever get a chance to learn it. It had taken her this long to show me my first name, I doubted she would show me my last name.
My birthday is in December, and in our school system, I was allowed to go to kindergarten in September at the age of 4. Although I had some much needed alone time with my mom, I was even more excited about going to school. I had heard about school from my brothers and sister for years, and couldn’t wait to be part of it, despite the complaints they voiced when they came home. The school was called “Happy Hill Elementary School” which was so pleasing to my ears. I refused to believe it was as my older brother described it, “Happy Hell.”
The day finally came when I met my kindergarten teacher. My mom reminded me several times that this wasn’t a guarantee that I was going to be able to go, this was a chance for them to meet me to see if I was ready to be in this class. I walked into the room with awe. There was an upright piano in the room, a big colorful carpet on the floor, toys along the back wall and 4 or 5 windows bringing in lots of natural light. Miss Vanderleist had short brown hair that was carefully curled, glasses with the typical 1960’s dark frame, and a very kind demeanor. She welcomed me and asked my mom to step out of the room. We sat at a table that was my height, with perfect little chairs that fit my body. I was amazed that a place like this existed. She sat in one of the chairs, her knees all bent up, but seemed comfortable sitting at my level. I loved her already. I was a little nervous, because I wanted to do well so I could come to her classroom.
She showed me a Dick and Jane book, and started reading a few pages to me. She asked me if I could read it to her. “This was easy!” I thought to myself. I knew these words, and if I came across one I didn’t know, she would tell me what it was. I immediately catalogued the word and remembered it forever. I loved that time with her. It was probably only 15 minutes, but that time is ingrained in my memory as one of my favorite moments. I felt loved and accepted from the moment our eyes met.
I jumped up and down when I found out I was going to school. It was only for a ½ day – a perfect transition for me. I got to go to school and still get a little bit of alone time with my mom before the rest of the kids came home.
Every day I looked forward to going to school. It was pure playtime. We had free time to pick out any of the toys we wanted to play with. I remember being intrigued with the large cardboard “bricks” that I would stack up and build around me, creating a safe enclosed space. There were wooden bins filled with options, including dolls, cooking pans, dress-up clothes, and stuffed animals. Then Miss Vanderleist would call us to sit on the carpet in front of the piano. She would play the piano and encourage us to sing along. I remember looking up at her lovingly, and happily singing with the other children. This was heaven! She would read us a story, and at some point, we would sit at the table and color on the pre-printed sheets that had a number, or letter, or shape. When she taught reading or writing, I realized I was ahead of most of them. But it didn’t matter. I was so content being in her presence.
The end of the school year came, and on the morning of my last day I suddenly realized, I didn’t have a gift for Miss Vanderleist. It wasn’t like it was a tradition in our house to give the teacher a thank you gift, it was just a sudden impulse that washed over me. The desire was so strong, I began to panic.
I started yelling in the house, in search of my mom - “Oh no!!! I need to give her something! I need to give her a present to thank her!” I was in such a state, I ran into my parents’ bedroom. We were not allowed in their room, unless invited, so I was breaching rules for this all-important mission. The door was open and my dad was looking in his mirror, tying his tie. “Dad!” I cried out. “It’s the last day of school and I don’t have anything I can give Miss Vanderleist! What am I going to do? Do you have anything I can give her?”
I can still see him standing there, calm as can be, looking at the things on top of his tall dresser. A smile came across his face. “I have something very, very special for Miss Vanderleist.”
“You do?!” my heart skipped a beat. This was a miracle!
He pulled down a little lion that he had on his dresser. I don’t remember ever seeing it before, probably because it was up so high and I was rarely in his room. It was a calm and proud lion, lying down, covered in soft tan-colored felt. Its head had a full main with dark brown fur that felt like feathers to my tiny fingers. Its head was loosely attached, so that when you moved the lion, it would bobble up and down in a small circular motion. It gave it a life-like feel. It was impressive, but I was wondering if Miss Vanderleist would actually like it. It seemed kind of like a boy’s toy to me.
But then my dad really sold it. He said, “This is no ordinary lion. Tell your teacher that this is a magic lion. If you rub his head and make a wish, it will come true. Make sure you tell her that his name is Leo.”
I’m sure he saw my eyes widen and my mouth drop open. A MAGIC LION?! It was perfect!
“Are you sure I can give it to her?” It was hard for me to believe that he would let such a treasure go. He said he was sure, that he already got his wish from the lion and he was happy to pass it on. I carried it like it was the most precious thing in the world.
When I got to school that morning, I immediately walked up to Miss Vanderleist and told her I had a special gift for her. I explained very carefully that his name was Leo, and all about his magic powers. She was delighted and reverent, and accepted the gift in the most perfect way. I was so pleased I could give her that treasure. It felt important to me to let her know how much I cared about her. (Side note: if you go to my main blog page, you'll see a picture of a lion bobblehead, very similar to the one I gave her.)
As it turns out, Leo the lion really WAS magic. Three years later, I received a wedding invitation personally addressed to me in beautiful handwriting (an exciting piece of mail for an 8 year old.) Enclosed was a note from Miss Vanderleist. She explained that when I gave her the lion, she made a wish. She had wanted to marry for a long time but never met the right man. When I gave her the lion, she rubbed its head and wished for that man to come into her life. A few weeks after she made that wish, she met the man of her dreams and his name was, are you ready for this? Leo!! She said it would mean so much to her if I came to her wedding. The invitation indicated that I could bring a friend, but my best friend couldn’t come that day. For some strange reason, my mom dropped me off at the church and I sat in a pew by myself, my feet couldn’t even touch the ground. I looked around and knew no one. It was such a let down. This was supposed to be an incredible moment, witnessing my beloved teacher’s dream come true. Watching Miss Vanderleist become Mrs. Klein was bittersweet. I was happy for her, yet wished I could have shared the miracle moment with someone. Instead, it was another reminder of how alone I was.
After that school year, we moved from Milwaukee to a suburb not far called Brown Deer. But the move was big enough that we were transferred to another school district. This school district did not allow me to go to the first grade as a 5 year old in September. I had to be 6, and they insisted that I attend kindergarten again. Only this time it was a full day of kindergarten. The classroom was filled with tables and chairs, and the toys were not easy to find. There was no piano, and the teacher and her assistant seemed very uptight and distant. They even had our names on placards in front of us at our seats for the whole first semester, and I still wasn’t convinced they ever learned my name. We had to eat our lunches there, were forced to take naps, and had graham crackers every day for a snack. I felt like I was in a prison. I remember long drawn out lectures as one teacher would stand in the middle of the tables and talk endlessly about Indians and pioneers. The contrast in my two classroom experiences was immense. The first kindergarten was like heaven on earth. The second one crushed my spirit. Within a week, I hated school. Every moment we were told what to do. And most of the time, it was “be still and be quiet.”
The other big differences between the two experiences were that I didn’t have anymore one on one time with my mom, and secondly, I had to take the bus. I was the first one to be picked up on the bus route, and the last one to be dropped off, which made the days even longer. Two of my siblings were in middle school, and my brother closest in age was at the elementary school that went from 1st grade to 5th grade, so I was on my own. There were only 5 or 6 other kids in the neighborhood, but they were either too old or too young to be at the same school, so I was literally out there by myself. I remember standing at the bus stop on the corner that was in front of our house. I wasn’t close to the house by any stretch. We had almost in acre of land in front of the house, so I felt far removed from the safety of my home. There were some very long waits and cold mornings. I would watch the killdeer run and complain – protecting ground nests as if I were a threat. They fascinated me. I tried to make friends with them, but it never worked. They were always “on the job.” When the bus came, I grabbed onto the rails and somehow navigated the huge steps to get in. I sat in the front seat right behind the driver. It made me feel safer being closer to an adult – I felt incredibly vulnerable being so little on the big, initially-empty bus. The driver rarely spoke, which was fine with me. I was a shy and quiet child. As other kids got on, and the bus slowly filled up, I watched most of them going to the back of the bus. No one ever sat with me or spoke to me. Looking back, I can see that it was the beginning of some very dark days ahead.