MARILYN A. KINSELLA
I loved my childhood. At night sometimes I still walk down those sunny paths in my dreams. Afterall, my two brothers were quite a bit older than I was. They were in school and my father at work while I had my mother and my Grandpa to myself during the day. It was the perfect set-up...until the day my parents decided to send me to Kindergarten. Back in the fifties, kindergarten was not mandatory, but my mother thought that getting a head start on my education was a grand idea.
At first I thought I'd like it. My mother built it up to the hilt. "Oh, you'll love it. Kids your own age, new friends, and Donny, your cousin, will be going too - it will be fun."
My idea of "fun" was running around doing as I pleased. It did not take me long to discover that was not my teacher's idea of "fun."
The first day of school I got all dressed up. My mother took extra pains to get my unruly brown hair into two long braids. My Grandpa Joe was the chauffeur. We went around to pick up Donny and two new friends, Mary Beth Baricevic and Roger Downey. We traveled around the back roads till we drove up to St. Stephen's in Caseyville. Then we piled out of the car and headed for the kindergarten room. It was brightly decorated, and the teacher pinned name tags on to our clothes. But, I could tell right away that I was not going to like it. All the kids were sitting at tables - just sitting there. All this neat stuff around that you could see and touch were placed in boxes and bins, and those silly kids were just sitting there.
My teacher's name was Mrs. Stevens which was easy to remember because it was also the name of the school. After Mrs. Stevens settled me down, she started to ask me questions. I guess I was more interested in watching the fly on the ceiling fan wondering why it didn't fall off or if it ever got dizzy. I certainly was not interested in sitting there answering questions. After the questions, my friends Donny, Mary Beth and Roger, were put at the smart table. You knew they were smart because they always finished their papers first and got to take a puzzle to their desk. I never got to take a puzzle to my desk. I was placed at the dumb table.
At the dummy table there was Zelda who hid under tables, Frank who ate the paint off the tables and Earl who didn't say anything but always had a big toothy grin on his face, and me. What humiliation! I think it put my education back about three years.
As the days marched by, things did not get any better. All my teacher was interested in were squiggly things called letters and numbers. Every so often she handed us a coloring page. Our table was right next to the radiator, however, and my crayons always ended up half melted. Then, I ended up smearing my coloring pages. They were never put up on top of the chalk board where Donny, Mary Beth and Roger's pictures were hanging.
Then something happened around the first of December. Mrs. Stevens announced that the school was putting on a Christmas pageant and that the kindergarten would participate. My ears perked up immediately - Stage? Lights? Acting? I was ready. For once kindergarten would be fun! I finally understood what school was all about. It was....Showtime!
Each day we went down to the auditorium and we sang around the piano. Mrs. Bierbaum was the music teacher, and she told us that she had to take time from her busy day just to practice with us kindergartners. She was a rather large woman whose bottom completely covered the piano bench. She could make "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" sound like a piano concerto. Our talent for this Christmas extravaganza was to sing "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" - with actions no less. A couple of days before the big event, Mrs. Stevens got out some brown and red construction paper so we could make antlers and noses - Costumes! This was getting better and better. I carefully cut out my set of antlers and sprinkled them generously with silver and gold glitter. But my nose was a true masterpiece. After cutting it out, I globbed it with glue and a whole bottle of red glitter. It was a nose that put Rudolph's to shame. I was in doggie heaven. Surely, Mrs. Stevens would see the terrible mistake that she had made by putting me at the dummy table. I was meant for bigger things. I was really just a diamond in the rough - a little polish and I'd shine like the rest of them.
Every day at 10:30 a.m., we went to practice, and we practiced... and we practiced. Always around the piano - so our ears could get use to the music. The day before the performance we were to practice on stage, but I was sick that day and missed the big dress rehearsal.
Well, the big evening arrived. We got to the classroom early that night. The only lights on were those in the classrooms. I remember how weird it felt to be walking down darkened hallways and into my room. Everyone was real excited. Even the smart table was not sitting. Mrs. Stevens had on a dress that I never saw her wear before. It had a big fake Christmas corsage pinned to her shoulder. When the parents weren't looking she had a grimace on her face. When they were, she smiled - sort of.
Our costumes were laid out on our tables. Frank, the paint eater, tried to take mine, but I let him have it with a fist to his left shoulder and got mine back. Mrs. Stevens had sent a note home with us asking the parents to please bring in a pair of mittens for the show. I didn't have mittens only gloves. So my mom and I went shopping. I found the perfect pair of red mittens. They were huge, but they matched my nose.
I was anxious to get everything right. So, I was the first in line to put on our "costumes". Mrs. Stevens struggled and dug deep into my scalp with sharp bobby pins to get my antlers on straight. I didn't even wince. I would suffer in silence for my art. Next she took a glob of smelly paste from her huge paste jar and plopped it on my nose. She took my red nose and stuck it on. Then she told me to sit down. For once I did as I was told. I didn't want anything to spoil my "look."
But, like I said, the dummy table was right next to the radiator. Before long my nose began to itch as the paste dried. I tried to carefully itch it, but as I did I knocked my nose off in the process. I got in line to have my nose reattached. Mrs. Stevens clucked when I handed her my nose. She wiped off my nose with a tissue, glopped on more paste, fastened on my nose, and told me to sit down. I sat down again to wait. The heat from the radiator made me uncomfortable. I could feel the glue rapidly drying. I resisted the itch. I tried sitting on my hands, but the itch got worse. I tried to think about something else, but when your five years old and you have an itch, you've got to scratch. The moment my big red glove bumped up against my nose it came off again.
I retrieved my errant nose and brought it back to my teacher. Now, she just glared at me - she acted as if I were asking her for the Hope diamond. She didn't even wipe my nose this time - just plopped the paste and smooshed my nose as she put it on once more.
After that, she told us it was time to line up. Our table was first since we were line leader for the week. I hurried to the door so I could be first. What a fine entrance I would make with the Kindergarten trailing behind. We walked down to the auditorium and waited in the wings while the first grade finished singing "Silent Night." They even had a little play with individual parts and real costumes - the boys wore robes with gold crowns and the girls wore nighties with angel wings and haloes. But it was Mary who stole the show. She didn't even speak - but, when she put the Baby Jesus in the crib, the audience sighed. I knew right then and there that I was going to like first grade.
Finally, they left the stage. Mrs. Bierbaum fired away on the piano in a crescendo of chords, glissandos and heavy pedal pushing. I wasn't sure when we were supposed to go on stage. Suddenly, the piano quieted as Mrs. Bierbaum looked around to see if the Kindergartners were on stage. She sighed and started the intro all over. This time I felt a heavy hand on my back pushing me out on stage. I stumbled on stage. I had never seen bright lights before. They flooded the stage and my eyesight. I couldn't see a thing and I didn't know where to go or where to stand. I had always practiced around the piano before. The other students, however, acted like they knew what they were doing and came stampeding behind me pushing me to the far corner of the stage. Wait a minute! I wanted to be downstage so everyone could see me - what was I doing in the corner? I elbowed my way into the middle of the stage and stood a step or two in front of everyone else. I could see Mrs. Stevens waving her arms frantically off stage, but I pretended no to see her. This was my dramatic debut and nobody was going to stop me!
The music got softer and I knew the show was about to begin. We began in our whispering voices, "You remember Dasher and Dancer; Prancer and Vixon; Comet and Cupid; Donder and Blitzen. But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?" (piano forte; a flurry of chords) Then in our best outdoor voices we belted, "Rudolph the Re-Nosed Reindeer - had a very shiny nose." The idea was that twenty-five little mittened hands would point to their - very shiny noses. But my giant red mitten hit my red nose and it went flying into the orchestra pit where Mrs. Bierbaum was playing. It shot forward like a red comet leaving a trail of red glitter in its path. It landed on the back of Mrs. Bierbaum. The audience was now in a fit of hysterics. But I was a true professional, a real trooper. I wouldn't let anything like a lost nose stop me. I didn't miss a beat - just kept right on singing and posing with each lyric. The rest of the show was rather anti-climatic. We finished Rudolph in due course and it was soon time to troop off. However, if I didn't know when to get on stage, I certainly didn't know when to get off. And since everyone was behind me, they left the stage while I was still bowing and curtsying to the thunderous applause. Finally, I felt that same heavy hand grab me around the shoulders and lead me off stage - still bowing and curtsying as I went.
As I thought - my performance was, as my father so aptly put it, was "unforgettable". My mom said that I was a "real show stopper". But strangely enough, my teacher never said a word. Perhaps, my performance was so stellar that she was at a loss for words. Whatever, it didn't change a thing. I was still stuck at the dummy table until the end of year. But, that was okay. I kind of got use to it. And whenever my teacher would get exasperated at me because I couldn't count to one hundred or know my alphabet by heart, I'd think, "Yeah, well just wait till next year. I'm a shoo in for the part of Mary. I even have my costume all planned."
Epilogue: It is with great regret that I must admit that I wasn't cast as Mary the next year. They said she had to be a student who exemplified the Mary-spirit. I think that meant she made no less than a B-plus on her report card. However, my attitude about school was completely changed, because I knew that sooner or later that year (whether it was the spring play or Father Schindlerís talent show)...sooner or later it was SHOWTIME!