I had spent the last six months sleeping on floors wrapped in a single thin blanket amidst a platoon of thumb-sucking bed-wetters whose idea of social grace was to shove first, ask your name later. Now I looked forward to my first full year of real education with an anticipation usually reserved for Christmas.
But as the doorway shut behind me leaving me incomprehensibly alone, standing there with my lunch pail in my hand, I felt a deep apprehension as I surveyed the room. It was a world I had never seen, one I had only dreamed of, one that was filled with tiny desks and peopled by unknown personality types. It was infused with bright colors and overflowed with variety. Its inhabitants were all similarly attired and all my age and they were all staring at me in wide eyed wonder.
A very old woman with strands of gray in her otherwise shoulder length red hair turned to me and made a presentation gesture with her hand.
“Class,” she said to the thirty or so strangers abruptly silent looking up at me from their seats. “This is Jeremy. Jeremy is going to be in our classroom this year. Would someone like to share their desk with Jeremy?”
An array of hands immediately shot up. It seemed almost everyone wanted to be my friend.
“Please, class. You may share only if you are not already sharing your seat. Everyone who has a seatmate, please put your hand down.”
Ninety percent of the hands dropped. From those still raised I realized I had to select carefully for from among this mob into which I was about to be thrust, a group would emerge who would be fast friends or ardent enemies, bosom buddies or feared bullies, lovers and haters, outsiders, intellectual superiors and inferiors. In short, these were the people with whom I anticipated spending the next dozen years.
“Anderson,” the ancient woman said as I pointed out a black kid. His head and shoulders rode above the sea of others because he was already taller than almost everyone else in the room except the grande dame. She strode with me to his double seated bench. I took my place beside him as she said, “Show Jeremy where rulers and pencils belong.”
Anderson Johnson had a big wide smile and a slender part in his hair that ran along his scalp from front to back. He shifted in his seat to give me room, then lifted the desk top to demonstrate how it operated. He pointed inside. On the right side in front of him was a collection of utensils, a few pieces of notebook paper rudely torn from their spiral bindings and a box of crayons which I immediately coveted. I had a box just like it at home only it was half the size of his and nowhere near as pristine.
“You can share my crayons with me,” he said humbly. And by this one act of generosity I knew a friendship had been born which went beyond that which I had with my siblings from whom I withheld all things that were mine. Anderson could have half my lunch any time.
It was the beginning of the school year, early fall, and the outlook appeared brighter than I had a right to hope. Still, I had no idea kindergarten would be a year of crisis for me.
* * *
It had been bruited about for some time, but I paid no attention to the rumors. With my lunch pail in hand, I settled in at the picnic table beside Anderson, Kelly, Rebecca and Marion who were examining the contents of their lunch boxes with the anticipation of treasure hunters. Candy bars were always consumed first. I discovered an apple, a small bag of potato chips, a plastic bag with a hot dog bun inside. My thermos was filled with hot tomato soup and a white string hung just below the twist top.
I carefully unwound the thermos cap holding the string against the thermos with my thumb. Dangling within the thermos was a warm hot dog which I retrieved. I placed the dog in the bun and untied the thin string’s bow. I found a mustard packet and some relish in another plastic sandwich bag.
“I never believed that junk,” Anderson said as he bit into his peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “It’s all a fake.”
“Well, I knew right away,” Rebecca explained. “The card read from Mom, Dad and Santa. I mean, come on. That’s a dead giveaway.”
“We’re Jewish,” Marion said. “We don’t believe in that crap. And we don’t go to church on Sunday, we go to synagogue on the Sabbath.”
“What day is the Sabbath?” I asked innocently.
“Sundown Friday to sundown Saturday,” she replied with evident glee. She was teaching me something I did not know.
“So you don’t go to church on Sunday?” My curiosity was piqued.
“Different cultures have venerated deities on different days of the week throughout history,” Kelly remarked between popping slices of an orange in his mouth. Kelly was retarded due to congenital hydrocephalus. His head was too large and his brain atrophied. Although the condition was diagnosed in the second trimester, it was already too late. His brain was damaged and draining the water in vitro did nothing to increase his capacity. He would forever have the intelligence of a third grader. But that was years away, and to us he was articulate and insightful even if he had a big head.
Yet this was totally stunning news to me. Sunday was when Mom took us to church. Dad stayed home and one day I hoped to grow up and do the same. Furthermore, learning there were those who worshiped on a different day meant they were not Christian. This beautiful raven haired girl with her lovely smile and incredible figure sitting beside me, and with whom I wanted to share my apple, did not worship the same god I had been taught to venerate. She was not like me!