What Not To Do On Your First Day of Elementary School
Don’t wear a neck kerchief
Next week was my going to be my first day of First Grade. This was the summer of 1976, and my family had moved into a new house, in a new neighborhood. In the kitchen, my mom was reading a letter from the new school.
“Oh, how exciting! Your new school is having a Bicentennial Celebration the first week back. They’re having a costume contest on the first day. You can wear your George Washington outfit that Grandma Clune made for you!”
An electric current shot through my body, and my face got red and hot.
“I’m not sure about that one, Mom. I don’t think I want to wear that on the first day to a new elementary school,” I said.
“Oh God, are you kidding me? You have to wear it. Everyone will love it.”
. . .
On the first day of school, we pulled up to Avocado Elementary School in Mom’s white Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Low flat buildings sat squat with a listless American flag hanging in the front. Yellow school buses pulled up and dropped kids off. I scanned the crowd, desperate to find someone in a costume. I did not see a single costume.
I was wearing a replica George Washington Revolutionary War outfit. I had a filigree neck kerchief, a vest, and a long coat with lace wrist cuffs. Grandma Clune made me the outfit when I was on a Revolutionary War kick. I used to wear it when I played ‘war’ with the kids in the street in the old neighborhood. That seemed like a very long time ago on this sweltering morning.
“Mom, nobody else is wearing costumes,” I said.
“Sure they are, look at that girl over there.”
A girl stepping off the bus was wearing some sort of Little House on the Prairie outfit, with a scarf around her head. One or two other girls, dressed similarly, climbed out of their mother’s cars or appeared walking along the dirt shoulder of the road from their houses nearby. No boys had dressed up. I sat frozen in the car.
“Yeah, see. There’s plenty of costumes,” said my little brother from the back seat.
“Shut up, Brian!” I shouted. “Mom, I wanna go home and change clothes,” I pleaded.
“Stop it. Get out. I have to get your brother to Kindercare.”
“Mom, I’m serious. I wanna go home,” I begged.
“Get out of the car, now! I don’t have time for this!” said my Mom, reaching over and undoing my seatbelt. “I’ll come back to the school with a bag of clothes for you, and I’ll leave it at the principal’s office.”
I climbed out of the car like a pilot getting out of a fighter plane that had crashed behind enemy lines. I closed the door, and looking through the car window, I saw my brother grinning like the kid in The Omen in the back seat.
. . .
First day at a new school and I’m dressed in a Revolutionary War jacket with gold buttons, cravat, tri-corner hat, wrist kerchiefs, and buckled shoes, I thought. I’m basically asking to be bullied for the next six years at this elementary school.
I gulped and, carrying my Mead notebook and lunch sack, I walked away from the car into the fray. At first, the kids did not notice me, as they were too busy greeting each other after a long hot summer. Slowly, however, I felt the bright glare of kids staring at me.
“My what a wonderful outfit!” said a little old lady, as I walked by her near the Principal’s office.
“You’ll be in the running for best costume for sure,” the lady said. She looked like my Grandma McHugh, not the one who made my outfit, but the other Grandma. Then it dawned on me, this ancient lady was a teacher at the school.
Two or three boys and girls standing near her looked at me in complete bewilderment and horror. They were not in costumes.
Inside the school, I reported to my First Grade class with Mrs. Sanders. She too seemed very old to me, with her white hair. But her eyes sparkled with youth, and she smiled warmly when she did attendance roll call, and she saw me sitting there in my outfit, with my hat still on.
“Andy Bloom, there you are, . . . . John Clune, oh, there you are… .what a wonderful costume John!” said Mrs. Sanders.
“John, I have a note here that you like to go by the name ‘Jack’ is that correct ‘Honey?”
A couple of the boys sniggered.
“‘Jack Off, Jack’. ‘Jack Me-Off’ . . .” I heard them whisper.
“Yes, M’am,” I said.
“Well ‘Jack’ you are then!” said Mrs. Saunders.
All the boys laughed. Mrs. Sanders looked around with slight confusion. Even my name causes me grief. And now I’m sitting here in this costume, I thought.
Why do my parents torture me like this? Why is it my fate to endure things no other kid does?
“Charles Schmit . . . Charles, please take off your baseball hat,” said Mrs. Sanders.
“Why does he get to keep his hat on?” asked Charles Schmit, pointing at me, in my tri-corner hat.
“Charles, I am not going to argue with you Sweetie, take off your hat,” said Mrs. Sanders.
Charles Schmit looked at me with contempt. Charles was shorter and smaller than me.
I’ll call him ‘Charles Shit’ if he keeps this up, I thought to myself. I’d have to get the lay of the land first, as this was a new school to me.
. . .
The rest of the morning went okay, as the kids in my own class got bored staring at me. There was a 15-minute break, however, where we had to go out on the playground and that was a different story. I tried to hang out in the classroom, but it did not work.
“Jack, Dear, you have to go outside. The janitor is coming by to vacuum the class, and he needs all students outside,” said Mrs. Sanders.
This school was weird and different from my old school. All the classrooms had moving walls that the teachers could push around and reconfigure. The moveable “walls” were like thick vinyl drapes that moved on tracks.
I heard the janitor’s vacuum coming closer. Then he came around the corner, and he was scary looking. Dressed in a dark green work outfit, like a military man or car repair mechanic, the janitor had a flat top haircut and he wore big black boots. Tall and menacing, the janitor had a permanent scowl on his face. The overall impression on me was that he was Michael Myers from Halloween, without the mask on.
I willingly ran outside after I saw him.
. . .
Standing in the prison yard now, I hugged the wall and ate the cheese and crackers snack my Mom packed for me. I was digging the cheese out with the red plastic stick when Charles Shit and the two or three other boys approached me.
“This is Jack Meoff,” said Charles, seemingly introducing me to the other kid next to him.
“Where the hell did you get this costume Jack Meoff?” said the tough-looking kid.
“My grandmother made it for me. I didn’t want to wear it, but my mom forced me to,” I said, regretting the words the moment I uttered them.
“Actually, the costume is pretty cool. Do you have a gun?” said the tough kid.
“Yeah, I have a musket but I left it home,” I said.
“Do you like Led Zeppelin?” said the tough kid.
He had a shock of black hair, twinkling light blue eyes, and a crooked smile like Mr. MaGoo. He reminded me of Charles Bronson.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What’s your favorite song?” he asked.
“That’s hard because they’re all my favorite songs. “Kashmir,” “The Ocean” “Trampled Under Foot.” But right now, ‘Dancing Days’ is my favorite.”
“Cool. That’s a good one. You know a lot of Zeppelin.”
The bell rang, and we went back to class. Knowledge of Led Zeppelin songs and trivia had saved the day for me for the first of many times. I had no idea that Chuck and the tough kid Paul Otis would become my good friends for the next eight years.
. . .
Back in the classroom, Mrs. Sanders was teaching us something, when a woman came around the corner holding a brown paper grocery bag.
The woman approached Mrs. Sanders and whispered in her ear. Mrs. Sanders pulled back and looked shocked at the woman. Then both the women talked under their breath to each other and then turned to stare at me.
“Jack, would you please come up here, Dear,’” said Mrs. Sanders.
I got up and walked up the row of kids to see Mrs. Sanders.
“Jack, your mother dropped off these clothes for you,” said Mrs. Sanders pointing at the bag.
Thank God, I thought, reaching for the bag.
“But I simply will not allow you to change out of that wonderful George Washington outfit until after the Bicentennial celebration. I am in charge of the ceremony, and it would disappoint me so very much if you changed now, do you understand me?” said Mrs. Sanders, looking deep into my eyes.
She looked and talked like the old lady in the Sylvester and Tweetie cartoons.
“Can I change after it’s over?” I asked.
“Well, yes. After the costume contest is over, you can change in the boy’s bathroom if you still want to, after all the wonderful attention you are going to receive.”
“Can I have my bag now?” I asked.
“Yes, but do not change your clothes until after, do you understand?”
“Yes. I promise,” I said.
I clutched the bag to my chest, like Linus from Peanuts gripping his safety blanket.
. . .
At lunch, all the classes gathered in the open-air courtyard for the Bicentennial celebration, and the costume contest.
My teacher, Mrs. Sanders was the master of ceremonies, and she approached the microphone.
“Students and teachers, welcome back to the Avocado Elementary School, welcome to a new school year, and welcome to our 200 Year Bicentennial celebration!”
Everyone clapped politely.
“We are going to have a few speeches from some of our Sixth Grade students on the meaning, and importance of the Bicentennial of our great country. But first, please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, and if you are wearing a hat please take it off.”
Chuck Shit leaned over and made sure I took my tri-corner hat off. I put my hand up to my heart, still holding tight to my grocery bag full of clothes.
“Thank you, students. Now, before we start the speeches, I would like everyone who wore costumes to please stand up and be recognized,” said Mrs. Sanders.
I stood up and looked around. Five or six girls stood up, and they were all dressed the same, in their Melissa Gilbert Little House outfits.
“Would those students now please come up here to the stage, so they may be properly recognized,” said Mrs. Sanders.
There was no use trying to run and hide. I just had to go face the firing squad.
. . .
The girls and I filed onto the “stage” which was really just the sidewalk in front of the cafeteria. We climbed a few steps up from the open-air courtyard where all the kids were seated on plastic chairs and picnic benches. I still hugged my grocery bag with the clothes in it like it was a parachute.
“Now please stand on the chairs if you would children. Thank you to Janitor Bruce, and the Sixth Grade boys for providing the chairs.”
Bruce, the Michael Myers janitor, and a few Sixth Grade boys dragged seven or eight plastic chairs behind us to stand on. I heard one of the boys behind me whisper “Pussy” in my ear as they pulled the chair up behind me.
“Initially, we were going to have a costume contest, but so few of you dressed up, and the costumes were all so good, we simply want to recognize everyone who dressed up, ” explained Mrs. Sanders.
I stared out at all the faces and realized the worst-case scenario had come true. I was the only boy in the whole school who was dumb enough to wear a costume.
“The only boy who wore a costume is Jack Clune, and what fine costume it is. Jack please stand on the chair and be recognized.”
I heard the crowd laugh at my name ‘Jack.’ I put my grocery bag down, and I climbed up and stood on the chair. I felt like “Carrie,” under the gaze of every child, teacher, and administrative person. I looked out and saw Bruce the janitor staring at me, chewing on a toothpick.
“Now girls, would you please stand on the chairs as I call your name . . . Suzanne Coke . . . Melody James . . . .”
Soon it was me and all girls standing there. Like Bob Barker and the Price is Right girls.
“Let’s give these students a big round of applause,” said Mrs. Sanders.
The sea of kids applauded very weakly.
“Okay, thank you, students, you may return to your seats.”
I dropped to the ground, grabbed the grocery bag, and ran for the boy’s bathroom.
. . .
In the bathroom, I saw myself in the mirror as I ran to one of the empty stalls.
Jesus Christ. Why did I ever have this suit made?
I bounded into the stall and began taking off the hat, jacket, the cravat, and the vest first. Afraid the floor might be wet with pee, I started removing the costume from top to bottom.
I stood in a dry corner of the stall and got my corduroy pants on. Next came my favorite terrycloth shirt. I threw the buckled shoes in the paper bag and got my sneakers on. I felt relieved.
Then I heard the bathroom door slam open against the wall, and someone entered clearing their throat with grotesque sounds.
. . .
The intruder walked over to the sink, then it scraped up from its throat a big loogie and spit it out, retching. Then it turned on the water.
“Urgh. Urgh. Oh! Ooomph,” the creature was making guttural humanoid noises. Then it finally spoke.
“Urgh. Someone’s in here already taking a shit huh?” said the Klingon.
Whatever had just walked into the bathroom, it was talking to itself. I felt like I was in Jack and the Beanstalk, hiding from the giant.
“Hey how long you gonna be? I gotta take a shit too!” said the monster.
There’s another stall in here. Why is this happening to me? I don’t dare say anything, I thought.
“Hurry up! I want that stall!” said the beast.
Using two fingers, I turned the disc opening the stall and I stepped out tentatively.
Standing in front of me was a big kid twice my size, with an ugly face, narrow forehead, with strangely receding stringy hair. He looked like Ben Franklin, except he was dressed like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. He wore maroon corduroy pants and a puke green T-shirt. The boy’s eyes seemed to droop, and it looked like his red face had been scalded- recently. His mouth hung open.
“You’re the kid that was in the costume . . .” said the Toxic Avenger.
I gave up lying after the incident in Georgia when I got caught for breaking into my father’s car and stealing his doctor’s stuff- tongue depressors and penlights. I was on the spot here. I did not know what to say, but I instinctively knew to deny I was ‘costume boy.’
“No. No, no, no, that was not me,” I said, trying to buy time to think of what to say next.
“Yeah, it was you. And your costume’s in that bag,” said Quasimodo.
“No. No. No, there’s no costume in here,” I said, stupidly.
“Then what’s in there?” asked The Hills Have Eyes.
“This is my lunch bag. I have my lunch in here,” I said.
It was partially true. I had thrown my lunch bag in with the clothes.
“Let me see,” said the inbred from Deliverance as he reached over to grab my bag.
The bathroom door slammed open, even harder than when The Goonies came in.
“David!!! What did I tell you before, David! Are you ever allowed to go into the bathrooms without a teacher David?! No, no, no, you’re not!” shouted some angry man who looked like Neil Sedaka from the album cover Greatest Hits.
‘David’ cowered in fear and made whimpering noises like Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein. It would not have surprised me if Neil Sedaka started whipping him. I ran out of the bathroom without even washing my hands.
. . .
That night I had my mother zip my George Washington outfit in a plastic garment bag in a permanent retirement ceremony.
Thankfully, within a day or two, Patty Hearst was captured by the police, and everyone forgot about me and my costume.
P.S. This story is an excerpt from an upcoming Novel which will be edited by someone who knows what they are doing.
Copyright © 2020 Jack Clune