Sunday, May 14, 2006


I remember my first day of school. As I think back, this was a year before my brother was born, yet I am unsure whether we had moved into my Grandmother`s house.

My first memory of living in my Grandmother`s house was the day that my father brought my mother and brother home from the hospital after his birth. My sister and I were at the top of the stairs on the second floor, looking down into the living room. We must have been living there for some months or my sister and I were quick learners; it`s clear to me now that we had already learned the first rule of living with my Grandmother and Aunt Mary, “Children are to be quiet, unobtrusive.”

I remember bending down, peering through the newels at the top of the staircase. I could feel the excitement in the adults, the very fact that a bassinet was set up in the parlor signalled the importance of this day. I could feel the impatience in my older sister. She was squirming, smiling, unable to control her agitation. Yet she knew the rules; we were not allowed in the parlor unless we were walking through to reach the kitchen and the unheated shed behind it, where she and I ate our meals. My Aunt Mary did not like to be disturbed by children at mealtimes and in this house, her word was law.

Finally, all of the adults had taken turns holding the baby and my mother put him down in the bassinet. She looked up to us and told us to come down and meet our new brother. My sister raced down the stairs to our mother, “Can I hold him, can I, Please!”

“Yes, Dolores, but you must be very careful. Babies are fragile and can be hurt easily.”

“Yes, Mom, I`ll be very careful. Please!”

My mother told Dolores to sit on the chair next to the bassinet and she picked up my brother and put him in her arms. “Oh, Mom, Dad. He`s beautiful! Such a baby!”

I slowly walked over to my sister and looked at the bundle in her arms. So small, and with blonde hair! And so important! Even my Aunt Mary stood over him, smiling down at him. My father stood further back, silent but happy. The next thing I remember is being on the stairs, looking down on the scene. Had I done something wrong? Or was I just nervous being in the parlor?

On my first day of school my mother brought me behind the church we attended to a large brown building, squared, many windows. I was carrying a schoolbag with pencils, an eraser and a notebook. My sister wished me good luck and ran off to the schoolyard to be with her friends and my mother led me to the entrance to the first grade schoolroom. She bent down and kissed me, saying that she would be back at noon to bring me home.

“Vinnie, be a good boy and do what the Sister says.”

“Yes, Mom. See you later.”

I entered the classroom, saw that the desks were nearly full with kids. Near the back of the room there were two empty desks and I slid into the closest one. I noticed that the other kids had their pencils and notebooks open on their desks so I did the same, just finishing putting my schoolbag behind me when the Sister in front of the room spoke.

“Good morning, students.”

“Good morning Sister”, the class replied.

“Welcome to your first day of class at Our Lady of the Holy Souls School. We will start each morning with a prayer to Our Blessed Mother. How many of you have learned to say the ‘Hail Mary’? Please raise your hand.” Most of the children waved their hands, some saying “I do, Sister, I do!”

“Please children, the first rule of my class. Children do not speak until spoken to. It`s sufficient to raise your hand. I`m very happy that so many of you have learned the ‘Hail Mary’. Let us pray.”

As we recited the words as best we could, I looked around the room. Behind Sister`s desk was a large blackboard, something I had only seen in pictures. Encircling the room were what I knew to be the letters of the alphabet. I could see A, B, C, then a jumble. I knew they were letters, had seen my sister`s books and my father`s newspaper, but I hadn`t been taught their meaning. I felt something inside, a nervousness. Suppose the rest of the kids knew their letters?

After the prayer was completed Sister turned to the blackboard and wrote letters in white chalk. “Children, my name is Sister Bernadine. I have written it here on the blackboard. In a few short weeks, you will have memorized its spelling. I will leave it here on the blackboard next to these two words, which you will also know by heart.” Sister wrote more letters on the board and said “These letters spell the words ‘Live Jesus’. They will be the words that will always be closest to your hearts. Learn them well and you will live them.”

I noticed when Sister Bernadine said the word Jesus, she slightly bowed her head, just as we were taught to do in church. I waited for her to repeat His Name so that I could show that I learned my first lesson. Instead she told us to open our notebooks and pick up a pencil. We were going to do our first schoolwork!

Sister asked the class “How many of you know your numbers? Raise your hands.”

I could feel the nervousness in my belly as I saw the room full of upraised hands. Not mine. I didn`t know my numbers, hadn`t ever been taught. Sister told us our first assignment was to write a page of the number 1, being careful to keep inside the lines. Most of the children bent to the task and I followed their example, bowing my head over my notebook. I tried to see what the girl sitting next to me was writing, maybe I could see how to write 1 without drawing attention to myself. I could feel tears in my eyes, couldn`t see what she was writing. What a dummy I was!

At this point, I felt Sister bending down to me, gently saying, “Let me write the first one for you. Then you can finish the page like the others.” I was so relieved.

Following her example, I copied the 1, filling the page with numbers overflowing the lines. No matter, I had finished my first schoolwork and could hardly wait for my mother to pick me up after class.