From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

A Childhood Memory

What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult for each other?

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)

It was November, 1957, and I was in the first grade. Each morning, Mommy let me pick out the dress I was going to wear to school, and she made sure I was clean and tidy before I left. I loved school, and I felt so grownup and proud as I put my hand in Myra’s. Myra, my sister, was eleven, and she was in the sixth grade. Myra and I went to the same school; her class was on the fourth floor, mine was on the second. We left the house together each morning, hand in hand, and Myra talked to me about everything: her friends, Hebrew school, the new sled Daddy was going to get for us, clouds . . . everything.

Well, Myra was talking about the surprise party that Mommy was planning for Daddy to congratulate him on his promotion. “We’ll be at the Botanical Gardens on Sunday, and I’ll make believe that I forgot something and need to go home. Now what do you think I could forget?”

Before I knew it we had walked the six long blocks and were in the outer yard where Myra always said good-bye to me, and where all the first-graders lined up and waited for their monitor, usually a fifth- or sixth-grader, to take them to their classroom. Denise, our monitor, picked us up as usual, and led us upstairs.

Well, this particular morning, Mrs. Cohen, my teacher, had to step out for a bit. She left the room in Denise’s charge, and instructed her to call each row to hang up their coats and hats.

I started to think about my teachers, and how pretty they were. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Rubinstein was pretty. I liked the way she wore her shiny black hair in a flip, and her makeup was always perfect. Mrs. Cohen is pretty, although she’s younger than Mrs. Rubenstein, and she looks a lot more modern. If I’m pretty when I grow up, maybe I’ll be a teacher, too.

I heard Denise say, “Row one, hang up your coats.” I got up and carefully placed the loop of my coat around the big metal hook, sat down and continued thinking about jobs that pretty women had. Airline stewardesses, movie stars . . .

I heard Denise say, “Row six, hang up your coats,” when I realized that my hat was still on my head. I quickly removed it and walked over to the closet to put it in my coat sleeve. Denise looked at me and screamed, “Benita, row six is hanging up their coats. Are you in row six?”

Very sheepishly I answered, “No, but I forgot to hang up my hat.”

“I forgot to hang up my hat,” Denise mimicked. “What row do you sit in?” she asked.

“Row one,” I answered, “but I forgot to hang up my hat.”

“I called row one before,” Denise shrilled. “Since you didn’t hang your hat up when your row was called, you will have to wear it all morning. Now, put your hat back on, and sit down.”

Everyone was staring at me, and my face began to burn. I sat down, put my hat back on and bit my lower lip until it bled. I thought, When Mrs. Cohen comes back, she’ll let me take my hat off and hang it up. Then Denise will feel stupid. Just then Mrs. Cohen returned. Denise walked over to her and whispered in her ear. I knew it was about me because they were both looking at me.

But Mrs. Cohen didn’t tell me to take my hat off; in fact, she didn’t say anything at all to me, and I sat there in my seat, in the first row, with my hat on for the whole morning.

When Myra picked me up to take me home for lunch, she took one look at my ashen-colored, pouty face and asked, “What happened to you, Beni?” I told her the story through outbursts, sobs and sniffles. She said, “You must feel terrible. But you know they were wrong. You have to tell Mommy.”

But I couldn’t.

I tried to eat lunch, but the food barely went down. I started to make myself feel pain in my stomach. I laid down on the sofa and gave myself the biggest bellyache a first-grader could. I couldn’t ever go back to school, and I couldn’t tell Mommy why. Mommy felt my head and said, “You don’t have a fever, but I’ll let you stay home this afternoon.”

The next morning I said that my stomach still hurt, but Mommy wouldn’t let me stay home unless I went to the doctor. So we went to the doctor. After Dr. Skodnick examined me, Mommy asked me to sit in the waiting room while they talked about the findings. The whole time I was there I was thinking of ways to stay home from school.

We got home about twelve noon. I was wondering why Myra wasn’t home for lunch, when Mommy said, “Benita, the doctor didn’t find anything wrong with you. Something must have happened at school to make you feel sick. Now, tell me what happened.”

But I couldn’t.

In the morning, Mommy announced that she was coming to school with Myra and me. I put on the most babyish dress I had; it was mint green with a white Baby Jane collar. Mommy knew I hated the dress, but she didn’t say anything. She just checked to make sure I was neat and clean.

The march to school was solemn and silent. When we got there, both Mommy and Myra walked me to the line. Then I watched them walk up the steps to the main entrance and enter the building. My heart was pounding so loudly that I thought everyone could hear the drum beating inside me.

Denise came to pick us up as usual and led us to the classroom. We couldn’t have been inside the class for more than two minutes when Mr. Rosen, the principal, appeared at the door with Mommy and Myra. Mr. Rosen asked Mrs. Cohen and Denise to step outside. That was the last time I saw Denise.

The next morning, Myra took my hand and we walked to school. “Where were you yesterday at lunch time?” I asked.

“I had a talk with Mrs. Gayrod and then I had something special to do,” she replied. Mrs. Gayrod was Myra’s teacher. Sometimes when Mommy wasn’t at home for lunch, Myra took me to Mrs. Gayrod’s room, and we ate there with her. She wasn’t as pretty as Mrs. Cohen or Mrs. Rubinstein, but she sure was kind and understanding.

“I have a surprise for you,” Myra added. She brought me to the schoolyard and let go of my hand. This time she didn’t say good-bye. She stood in front of the line and said, “I’m Myra, and I’m your new monitor. Now line up quietly boys and girls.” She walked over to me and said, “I won’t let anything else happen to you, Beni. Just remember, if you need me, I’m in Room 402.” Then she led us up the stairs.

Benita Glickman

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