I have happy memories of what I’ve often called a Norman Rockwell childhood. A childhood filled with unconditional (and believe me, I had a lot of conditions) familial love fortified with uncomplicated and enduring friendships that set the stage for a lifetime of infinitely adventurous fun.
Last weekend I met two of my sisters and my first friend, Margaret, at Enfield Elementary School in Oreland, Pennsylvania. The building, which I hadn’t been inside for over 50 years, is scheduled to be razed and repurposed and was open for one last walk down Memory Lane.
“Did I even have Mrs. Hillsley for first grade?” I asked my sister, Susan, who remembers everything.
“I did, for sure,” Emily said.
“I know you did,” I glared.
My mind sees Mrs. Hillsley as a woman of ample girth wearing a royal blue dress and a string of pearls; her dark brown hair falling with beauty-parlor waves to her shoulders, thick ankles bulged above two-inch pumps. She was mean. Very, very mean.
I picture my red-headed self sitting in the front row of an asbestos-tiled first-grade classroom on the right-hand side of the hall. It was across from the kindergarten room where Mrs. Dreifus, my favorite teacher ever, built my self-esteem by encouraging me to read books aloud to the rest of the class.
In this first-grade classroom I recall my eyes bugging with horror as another Betsy chirped, “Present!” when attendance was taken, in what I perceived was a direct threat to my individuality.
I’ll never forget the juvenile snickers and pointed fingers when my classmate (whose name I will not divulge on the off chance that she has forgotten her childhood trauma) wet her pants, urine rapidly pooling beneath her chair. In my bulging box of memorabilia, I have a mimeographed copy of my first short story: Pokey the Turtle, by Betsy L. Hunsicker, Age 6, First Grade.
But what is most vivid are Mrs. Hillsley’s words that still echo decades and decades and decades later
“You should be ashamed of yourself! Your sister, Emily, would NEVER act like that!” Mrs. Hillsley bellowed in response to me running down the hall. But there are wafts of unspoken words whirling around my brain whispering something like, “But you don’t even know me,” that lead me to believe that she was not my teacher. Or perhaps it was just wishful thinking.
In the baby book that my mother kept updated with everything from my birth announcement to milestones such as when I switched from Similac to a formula of evaporated milk, sugar and water at five weeks old; first tooth at six months to the day; first steps at 10 months and the dates (spanning a dozen years) of my FIVE polio shots and one booster (take that, Covid!). There’s a record of all the gifts bestowed upon me at birth, including the Rosebud print overalls from my godmother, Aunt Elva, and who gave me the biggest check – Aunt Mary for the win at $18.75. And of course, there’s a carefully preserved lock of my bright red hair.
My height and weight is documented for 12 years after which time annual checkups were pawned off on the creepy school doctor. I remember lining up at the scale in our waist-high Carter’s underpants and sleeveless undershirts; the nurse offering fuel to the bullies as she screamed out our poundage, followed by the old-man doctor tapping his cold, steel stethoscope on our mostly flat chests.
There is a page in my baby book with a heading of School Days, but my mother neglected to fill in the blanks beyond kindergarten. I apparently took over the task in my own adolescent scribble, and for some reason recorded Mrs. Dreifus’s name next to first grade.
Also missing is the name of my third grade teacher, but that was not a mistake because I didn’t have a third grade teacher.
On the last day of second grade as the class stood in line by the coat closet that doubled as a fallout shelter, Johnny Schaeffer flashed me a pansophical look followed by a sing-songy, “Did you open your report card yet?”
Something got me in the gut – perhaps it was fragments of an overheard conversation or just a looming sense of disrupted order. I clutched my report card tightly and refused to look at it until I got home. And when I did, I burst into tears seeing that Mrs. Baker had incorrectly promoted me to Grade Four, rather than Three.
My mother assured me it was not a misprint, but that Johnny, Michael Lachs and I had all skipped third grade. Emily told me I could sit in the way-back of the wood-paneled station wagon with her friends that afternoon, an invitation that was rescinded as soon as Naomi Kaplan got in the car and flashed her a look.
I was told by my mother who was told by the powers that be that I was weak in Math. To keep me from falling behind I was given the third-grade math book so that Steve Simpson could tutor me over the summer. This was a year after I had commanded our Dalmatian, Pongo, to “sic’em,” and he did, biting Steve Simpson in the seat of his pants.
For the rest of my life I have been bad in math.
Later, much later, my mother confessed that she had agreed to letting me skip a grade under one condition, and one condition only. Now that my best friend, Margaret, and I would be in the same grade, she did not want us in the same class. It was simply a recipe for disaster.
In true 60s fashion, my mother kept her mouth shut when ecstatically, Margaret and I found ourselves together in Mrs. Petersen’s fourth-grade class. And again in Mrs. Lieber’s fifth-grade class. It was about this time in my educational development that report card comments began to decry that I had “come out of my shell.” And that I would be a much better student, and by implication – person – if I would only focus more on my academic endeavors and less on my social life.
“Aren’t you glad you were finally separated?” Mrs. Lieber asked when she stopped Margaret and me in the hall as we walked to our respective sixth-grade classrooms. “You’re sure to become much better friends this way.”
On our tour of Enfield Elementary last week, we made our way down to the cafeteria where Susan pointed out the corner of the room where she, always a model student, was tasked with selling ice-cream sandwiches; a nickel for a half, a dime for a whole. We moseyed around the music room where I had learned to lip sync after being publicly shamed for singing off key. We recalled tooting Hot Cross Buns on our borrowed flutes and Margaret reminded us of her musical superiority which included much coveted violin lessons.
“Remember the day Kennedy was shot?” Margaret exclaimed as we entered the All Purpose Room. “We were called down here for an assembly and then they sent us all home.”
“What I remember is doing those horrible gymnastics routines to Born Free,” Susan said. In unison we belted out, “Born free … As free as the wind blows … As free as the grass grows … Born free to follow your heart.”
“My year the song was Love is Blue,” I said cringing with the sixth-grade memory of Miss Vaché announcing to the entire class that my cardigan sweater was in fact not hiding my budding bosoms and that it was time to ask my mother for a bra.
“How about Go, You Chicken Fat, Go!” Emily chimed in and we roared remembering the silly song to which we did calisthenics. “No wonder we’ve had lifelong body image issues.”
“I don’t,” the still-slim Margaret quipped and the rest of us glared at her.
We laughed about the duck-and-cover drills, the unflattering solid-blue, one-piece gym suits, the time when Mrs. Murray pulled Emily’s dress up and underpants down IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE SECOND GRADE CLASS to check for chickenpox and how years later we retaliated by egging her house on Mischief Night. We talked about running across the huge playground and climbing on the dome-shaped jungle gym, holding our dresses down so the boys wouldn’t see our underwear. We remembered the wooden swings that gave us splinters and how we would jump off the see-saw so the person on the other end would go slamming into the ground, and pointed out where we would line up by classroom to re-enter the building after recess.
Some of us recalled the pride of being chosen for Safety Patrol to serve as a student crossing guard or bus monitor or hallway police. Others of us were never granted such an honor and consequently became the reported rather than the reportee. We chuckled over Mrs. Lieber dragging Clifford White (God rest his soul) by the ear to the front of the classroom where she pronounced him, much to our delight, a Jackass. We peeked out of Mrs. Rosenthal’s window and discovered that though Mark Sharpe had indeed jumped out, it really wasn’t all that far down to the ground.
We remembered sledding at North Hills Country Club on snow days, the thrill of occasionally walking the long mile home, rather than taking the big yellow school bus. We would take the secret pathway behind the church so we could walk past the Maher’s house and then cut across E. Heather Road to avoid Sammy Abrams mother who might write a story about us in the Oreland Sun. We remembered selling cookies and doing overnights at Camp Laughing Waters with Girl Scout Troop 413. We remembered walking to Perkel’s Pharmacy to buy candy bars and calling phony numbers and how once, in her most sultry pre-pubescent voice, Margaret said to a woman on the phone, “Tell your husband that Crystal called. It’s about the baby.”
As we walked out the front door of Enfield Elementary School for the last time, it struck our grown-up selves as how strange a thing memory is. How is it that one person can vividly remember every detail of an event while the person who was right there by their side has zero recollection of it ever happening? How can a traumatic memory for one became a whatever moment for another? How can one person’s stumble be another person’s stepladder?
But, oh how easy it is to jump on the bandwagon of someone else’s memory and rewrite the world as we wish it to be. One of us may not remember who we had as a first-grade teacher, and one day may not remember what was said two minutes ago. But if we continue to walk down Memory Lane hand-in-hand with those who love us best, in the end, that’s really the only memory that matters.