How I Spent My First Day of School

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Labor Day is just around the bend. When I was growing up that meant school was about to commence. Now it means classes have been underway for a couple of weeks, and most students and parents get a three-day weekend. Labor Day also means summer’s days are drawing down. Already, our oak trees are beginning to shed leaves, presaging the arrival of autumn. Eventually, slowly, fall arrives. This is East Texas, after all.

I got to thinking about my first day of public school — Sept. 5, 1961 — 55 years ago. The school district in tiny Allenstown, N.H. did not offer kindergarten at the time, so my first taste of public school was entering first grade in a two-story 19th-century building a couple blocks from our house. My mom, of course, dressed me in a fancy (for us) first-day-of-school outfit. I am pretty sure I walked to school on that first day. It was a different time.

My first-grade teacher was Mrs. Charest (I am dubious that I have spelled this correctly but have no way of finding out.) My classmates included Bruce Courtemanche, whose grandparents lived next door to us. Bruce’s grandfather was the town’s fire chief, a volunteer position. Peter Engel lived around the corner and was considered wealthy because his dad drove a Ford Thunderbird, and Peter had the best collection of Matchbox vehicles. Rebecca Reslock lived in a large home across from the library. I had a crush on her in first grade — and several subsequent grades. A dozen or so of us kids ended up attending first through seventh grade together. Then our family moved to Texas.

I don’t remember a great deal about that first day, except being intimidated by this school thing. I was excited to improve my reading skills; my parents read to me, helped me learn to write, and likely had me better prepared for the rigors of first grade than most of my classmates. I vaguely recall being chastised for a minor infraction, possibly heading to the restroom without permission. But when school ended, my parents took me and brother Scott, who was 3, to my grandparents’ home in the woods outside Hopkinton. Several of us cousins were gathering so the grandparents could see their grandkids in our first-day-of school finery.

After being highly praised — at least for reserved French-Canadian folks — by our grandparents, the cousins and I went outside to play. My grandparents, and their son, Emil, lived on adjoining pieces of land, maybe 2 acres apiece. A brook — what Yankees call a creek — bisected the property. A fairly steep rise descended down to the water, upon which my grandfather — a master carpenter — had built both a covered bridge — a New England symbol — and a regular bridge with rails.

We cousins decided to create a post-Labor Day version of our winter diversion, which was sledding or tobogganing from the hill’s crest down to the brook’s bank, on pieces of cardboard we filched from the basement. The hillside had a thick carpet of spruce needles, which facilitated sliding down the hill. When you’re 6, or 9, or even 61, this is fine fun.

That is, until I overshot and ended up in the brook, wearing my first-day-of-school finery. My cousins thought it hilarious, of course. They were not going to be the subject of parental vengeance. I was doomed. Even at 6, I understood my mom’s wrath when things went awry. My dad, in his passive nature, let my mom dress me down as I undressed and kept quiet.

I was scolded, wrapped in a towel, the wet clothes on the floorboard, me naked beneath the towel as we headed back to Allenstown. Clearly, I have thought about this a lot over the last 55 years. If one of my three daughters had accidentally slid into a creek — since we are now in Texas — and escaped without injury, I would have thought it hilarious. That incident, to me, marks a key difference in an approach to life between mom and me.

A few months later, our old school building caught fire. I walked up from our house and watched the firefighters, likely led by Amedee Courtemanche, try to extinguish the blaze. The damage was extensive. We spent the rest of the school year holding class in the basement of St. John the Baptist’s parochial school next door. A new elementary school was quickly built. Being New Hampshire, the old school building, best as I can tell, was fixed and turned into a municipal headquarters for the town, which has not really grown much in the past 55 years.

And that is how I spent my first day of school.

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