I was happy when my little ESL students went out of their way to be nice to the new boy or girl. I was sad and disappointed when they did not, I tried to explain how important it is to make a new person feel comfortable.
I wrote a true story for them to read about my first day at Veterans Memorial Junior High School in Cramer Hill. I rewrote it every year and it would differ a little depending on the level of English of my students. But, they loved it every year. I called it, “Three Donnas and One Kathy.”
I was sad to leave John S. Read Elementary School in North Camden and my classmates who had been my friends since kindergarten. But, our North Camden row house was tiny and my mother was in love with the new split-level townhouses that were built in Cramer Hill. We moved in that October of 1961. I dreaded the first day in a new school where I knew no one.
My dad had to go to work at Magnetic Metals and my mom had to care for my two-week old brother, Kenny. My other brother, Billy, was going to go to Sharp School and someone took him there. So, who was going to walk me to school on the first day? It wasn’t going to be one of those children’s books where parents take the little girl to school and introduce her to her school and loving classmates. My mother had arranged for Read School to send my report card and records to Vets and she had called Vets to tell them that someone would bring me to school the first day.
My mom’s friend had moved across the street from us, another North Camden to Cramer Hill move, and it was agreed that one of her sons would walk me to Vets. I didn’t know him very well. He was a year older than me and he’d gone to Read School, too. All I knew was that he was supposed to be very smart.
He knocked on the front door, grinning widely, and I reluctantly started on my walk to Vets with him. I was wearing a blue plaid jumper that I hated, but the rest of my clothing was packed and if I had complained, my mom would have to take out something that was wrinkled and iron it. I knew better than to ask her to dig through the boxes, much less to iron it. (No permanent press in those days.) We’d moved the day before that and there was that tiny new baby. I also knew that I would have to wear my new blue, plastic-framed glasses. They made me feel homely.
The neighbor boy walked fast and I had to hurry to keep up with him. He enjoyed his role as advisor.
“There are five sixth grades. Six-One is the smartest kids and Six-Five is for the kids who are not too smart. You will probably be in Six-Five.”
I felt that he was right. After all, he was older than I was and had experience in a junior high school. I was feeling not only ugly, but stupid.
He went on and on about how strict the school was and how hard it was to be new. He had been new in Grade Seven.
By the time, we got to Vets, I was trembling, but grateful that my neighbor would be there to introduce me. I wasn’t totally alone.
He took me to the front door and we walked into the junior high, teeming with students. Vets looked huge after having gone to a small school. My neighbor pointed to the office and said, “See ya!”
He walked away–fast.
I took a deep breath, entered the office and told the secretary that I was the new girl. She found my name on a piece of paper and took me to my class.
We walked briskly down the hall and I hated my plaid jumper and I really hated wearing my new blue glasses.
The secretary rapped on the door and the young, red-lipsticked teacher opened the door and welcomed me to the class. I felt the eyes of the students on me. The teacher put me next to a girl named Margaret. I thought that was funny, Margaret and Marguerite. Margaret whispered to me, “Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, no, I don’t,” I said, but I was thrilled that she thought that there was such a possibility.
“What grade is this?” I asked her.
“Six-Two,” she said. What a relief. I probably wasn’t as stupid as the neighbor boy had thought.
When the bell rang for lunch, four girls approached me. The blonde girl with short curly hair said, “We’re here to take you to lunch with us. This is Donna Rott. That’s Donna Brooks and I’m Donna Turner. Three Donnas. And, this is Kathy Stanton. We wanted to welcome you.”
I’ll always remember how happy I was to meet Kathy and the three Donnas. I couldn’t have been happier than if they had been four winged-angels in white robes and golden halos. They walked me up to the cafeteria and with the money that my mother had given me, I bought a tomato and lunch sandwich on a hamburger roll. It’s funny what you remember.
Thanks to the Donnas and the Kathy. I bet they’re just as kind now as they were fifty-three years ago.
Marguerite Ferra, writing from Cramer Hill