The first day of kindergarten, I had to ride the bus. This was not that unusual at the time; fewer parents regarded the inaugural public school launch as an occasion to take the morning off, drive the maiden voyager to school, take 50 photographs and go into the classroom full of tiny chairs and naptime rugs for a tearful adieu. My parents worked, they went to work that day (as far as I know) and I got on the noisy yellow bus in front of our house on Hamilton Road, clutching my braided rug and wearing a corduroy jumper appliqued with a satin apple.
The bus was intimidating for a small person, but the driver knew a greenhorn when she saw one. “Good morning,” she said as I climbed up the high, black steps towards her seat. “Why don’t you sit right behind me, with Mary Sue. She’s new, too.” I regarded Mary Sue with no small amount of suspicion; she was also quite small, and had striped tights and red shoes. I wanted them immediately, and I was sure I had seen them at the Buster Brown store where I had been convinced that brown Mary Janes were my best option.
“Okay,” I said, sliding onto the dark green vinyl bench seat.
“Hi,” said Mary Sue.
“Hi” I said back. We lapsed into a philosophical silence, and the bus began to move again with an enormous cough.
“My name is Miss Eva,” said the driver. “Are you ladies starting kindergarten today?” We both nodded. “Would you like to sing a song while we pick up the other children?” This seemed reasonable to me; people were always singing songs in nursery school, and this bus trip seemed, logically, to be a part of School as a general principle.
“Okay” said Mary Sue.
“Good,” said Miss Eva, “we’ll start right after this next stop. We have a long time after that one.” As she braked to a stop in front of a small group of children standing in front of a farm house, Mary Sue slid towards me.
“My dad has a glass eye,” she said. Unsure of the proper response, I waited to see if there was more. There was. “Sometimes he takes it out and puts it in his mouth to clean it off.” She had my full attention. I pictured a dad, somebody big with glasses and a beard like my dad, reaching up to pull his eye out of the socket and popping it into his mouth like a gumball. “Do you want to come over to my house and play?” I did, but a terrible thought occurred to me.
“Will your dad be there?” I inquired as the group of older kids bumped and joggled each other past us and towards the back of the bus.
“Prolly not. He goes to work. Does your dad go to work?” As far as I knew, all dads went to work.
“Yes. He’s a professor.”
“A professor. It’s a kind of teacher. At his office he has a wood thing with tobacco for his pipe, and the ladies give me gum.” It was no glass eye, but I had to work with the material I’d been given.
“Alright, girls, let’s sing – do you know ‘White Coral Bells?’” I wasn’t going to be the first to say I didn’t.
“Uh uh” said Mary Sue.
“No” I allowed.
“Okay. I’ll sing it for you, then we’ll sing it together, then we can sing it as a round. Do you know what that is?” My heart sped up; I knew this one.
“It’s when you sing it at different times” I said proudly. Mary Sue looked skeptical.
“That’s right!” said Miss Eva. “You must be a musician, Miss Apple Dress. What’s your name?”
“Annie” I said, warm with pleasure at having been right. Mary Sue remained impassive. Miss Eva began to sing, then, in a thin, sweet soprano voice. It was an easy song, and after we heard it once we were able to sing most of it. By the time we picked up a lone boy in front of an apartment building, we were taking turns starting, and growing the simple melody into something richer and more complex.
We pulled up in front of the school, and my heart sped up again, but it was going to be okay. I knew Mary Sue now, although I wasn’t really sure I liked her yet, and I could go to her house but not have to see her one-eyed father. I knew what a round was, and I was only five. I was pretty sure Miss Eva liked me. “Have a good day!” she called as we slid off the seat and began our ascent down to the curb. I could see Mrs. McKinley, the kindergarten teacher, waiting for us with a group of kids. I had met her at something called Kindergarten Roundup, and that was how I knew who she was, and that I was going to learn, among other things, my left from my right and how to skip.
“That’s Mrs. McKinley,” Mary Sue told me as we walked towards her.
“I know,” I said. “But it’s okay that you told me.” She stuck out her hand, surprising me. I took it in my own, and we sailed, on small, Buster Brown shoes, into the unknown seas of elementary school.