“The First Day,” Friend, May 1982, 44
Anderson School was a tall and dark redbrick building, and Jenny knew she wouldn’t like it. She remembered the low cream-colored school she had attended in California, also the modern one in Maryland before that where one wall was built completely of glass.
Clutching her mother’s hand, Jenny walked into the principal’s office. A woman behind a desk stood up to meet them and introduced herself. Jenny heard her mother’s meeting-new-people voice, telling of their arrival in Grant’s Valley two days before. Jenny knew the sentences by heart: “Our daughter has gone to five different schools and has never had any trouble adjusting.”
The lady smiled and said kindly, “I’m sure you’ll enjoy the fourth grade here, Jenny. Miss Sorenson is a wonderful teacher!”
Jenny’s mother said again that she knew Jenny would fit right in as she always had in the other schools.
But Jenny wasn’t sure that she would. She just twisted her pink handkerchief around her little finger and stared hard at the bouquet of lilacs on the principal’s desk, until the two women rose to go to the fourth grade classroom. Then she followed them down the hall, glancing at the boys and girls who sat at the old desks in the rooms she passed.
When they arrived at Room 12, Miss Sorenson was showing a movie about Washington, D.C. The teacher stopped the movie and turned on the lights so she could talk with the principal. The children turned around in their seats and looked at Jenny. The room smelled like blackboard erasers, and there were narrow windows at the side with dark green blinds pulled down for the movie. Jenny wished that her mother would stop talking to Miss Sorenson and go home. A girl with brown hair and a red-checked dress whispered something to the girl across the aisle, who giggled and whispered back, their eyes on Jenny.
At last Jenny’s mother left. Miss Sorenson said, “Class, this is Jenny Martin, who just moved here from California. Now, Jenny, why don’t you take that seat there in the second row and we’ll finish watching the movie.”
Gratefully, Jenny slid into the seat just as someone switched off the light. She watched as the scenes flashed by on the screen, showing the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument during cherry blossom time. Jenny wanted to say, “I’ve been to those places!” But she was sure no one cared about that.
Recess followed the movie. Everyone had to wait in line and march down the long halls together. In California, the playground had been right next to the classroom. Jenny reached the end of the line and slowly walked outside, wondering what they would play.
There were swings, a slide, and climbing bars on the playground. In California, the playground was an area of black asphalt without play equipment, but with painted white lines for hopscotch and dodge ball. Jenny kicked at the dirt that comprised most of the playground and watched the other children. They played noisily in their own private groups. The girls looked at her as she walked past them, but no one smiled or asked her to join them. She walked on until she went around a corner of the building and just kept going. Soon she had walked past the end of the school property and crossed the street at the corner.
Jenny continued walking. The weather was cool and, even though it was early May, she wished she’d worn a coat instead of her light sweater. Between the sidewalk and the street a stream of sparkling water rushed through the new grass. Jenny noticed how beautiful the trees were, with tiny leaves of the softest green, just the color of a dress her mother sometimes wore to parties.
At the end of the block Jenny came to a small park. It was empty except for a man picking up litter with a pointed stick. The lonely girl sat down in a swing and pushed herself slowly. It made a squeaking noise, and for a moment she was afraid someone would come to ask why she wasn’t in school. But soon the rhythm of the swing and the sound of the wind moving through the trees made her forget her fear. She closed her eyes and swung higher, pretending she was back in California playing on the beach.
When she opened her eyes, she saw the principal was standing there. Jenny almost fell out of the swing.
“Hello, Jenny,” said the principal in a kind voice. “Did you decide to come here for recess today?”
She didn’t sound angry, and for a minute Jenny almost smiled.
“I saw you walking away from the playground and wondered if you thought school was over for the day,” the principal added.
Then Jenny did a strange thing. She started to cry. She hardly ever cried, but she cried now because she was thinking of how the girl in the red-checked dress would probably laugh and whisper about her tardiness. And she was crying because she knew that she couldn’t hunt for shells and rocks on the beach anymore. But mostly she was crying because the principal was very kind and Jenny thought somehow she should be quite cross.
The principal didn’t put her arms around the sobbing girl, although she wanted to very much, to help her stop crying. She stood quietly and said, “Jenny, I imagine you noticed a lot of things about Grant’s Valley on your little walk, didn’t you? I used to live in San Francisco, and when I came here I was surprised to find that spring in Grant’s Valley is like a miracle. When we walk back to school, I’ll show you the place where I got the lilacs on my desk, and perhaps the lady who lives there will give you some to take to your mother.”
The principal took Jenny’s hand in hers and continued, “You will soon see that the children in Grant’s Valley have a good time, especially in the spring and summer. They don’t ride ferryboats across the bay, and they can’t go to the beach and find seashells. But they play games outside on warm summer evenings, and wade in these refreshing irrigation ditches. And do you know, I’ll bet if you told the class some afternoon about all the things you’ve seen and done in the places you’ve lived, they’d be glad to share with you some of the wonderful things in their lives!”
Together she and Jenny walked back to Anderson School—the friendly redbrick building.