At this time of year, when the school year is beginning, my thoughts turn to memories of my own school days, beginning with kindergarten when we lived in Lake Charles.
At that time, kindergartens were held in private homes; usually a retired teacher offered classes from 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. My mother enrolled me in one such kindergarten. After the first day, she came to walk me home and asked how I liked it.
I replied that it was ‘quite the silliest place I’d ever been’. A boy was playing the piano and everyone pretended he played real music, not just a mishmash of keys. To add insult to injury, the teacher wanted to teach us how to tell time. She had us lie on the floor in a circle, each representing one time on the clock, while two students stood in the middle representing the two hands. The teacher would call out a time, and the “hands” would move appropriately.
“There was a perfectly good clock on the wall,” I said.
“Do you want to go back?”
And I didn’t.
I began elementary school in Lake Charles whose school system required students to be six by June 30th in order to start school the following fall. I wasn’t six until October 26th, however they would allow students who were not eligible in June to enter the following January. And so I did.
This was all well and good until we moved to Baton Rouge the next April. I entered first grade at Bernard Terrace, then the newest elementary school. I could only print up to the letter H, but my classmates could not only print, but they could write in script. I had no idea this deficit would threaten my promotion to second grade until I heard my mother and our principal, Mrs. Daniels, talking in the hall. Mrs. Daniels was telling my mother that I was well qualified for second grade, but could not be promoted unless I learned to write in script. (It took many years for the penny to drop that Mrs. Daniels meant for me to hear this.) At any rate, I spent every spare minute learning to write script and was promoted to second grade.
However, the haste which I toiled has resulted in handwriting that can vary from excellent to adequate to poor. For many years friends have told me that when they received a note or letter addressed in what looked like the handwriting of a third grade boy, they knew I had to be the writer.
When we moved to Lafayette at the end of my fifth grade year, a friendless summer stretched ahead of me. Fortunately one of my parent’s friends with a daughter my age had also moved to Lafayette only blocks away. We both had large collections of movie star paper dolls and spent the hottest part of the days dressing them and making up lives.
Friends told my parents that they should enroll my sister Kathryn and me at Mount Carmel, and my brother at Cathedral School, which they did. I knew nothing about Lafayette. My ideas about its culture were based on a book titled “Bayou Suzette” which my father had given me. Suzette and a Native American friend went barefoot, fished off the bank of the bayou, picked wild blackberries, killed snakes, and lived in a small house with a long pier to the bayou. Their English was a patois that I had to learn to understand. Still, it was a fascinating book, introducing me to a way of life as opposite from mine as possible.
My first day at Mount Carmel, I braced myself for a classroom filled with girls like Suzette, and wondered how I would be accepted. This assumption was blown to bits that day in the principal’s office. Mother Dolores had arranged for a girl in my new class, Mary Alice Blanchet, to come take me to the classroom. When Mary Alice walked into the room, she was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen with long black curls and fair skin. She was wearing an exquisite dress with embroidery around the neck and sleeves and a blue silk sash around her waist and black patent Mary Janes with white stockings.
As we walked to the sixth grade classroom, I banished all thoughts of there being a room full of Suzettes; instead, there was a class of normal looking girls, all of whom welcomed me. Not only did they welcome me, but the second week of school, in an election for class officers, I was elected president, though there were two other girls they could have chosen.
Some years later, I asked my best friend Gale Dugal why they had done such a thing.
“Well, Dubus, (she always called me Dubus) we could see you were different, but we didn’t know if you were good different or bad different, so we decided to elect you president to find out.”
“But what if I’d messed up?”
I still marvel at the wisdom those sixth grade girls showed, and I am still grateful for their trust. Our class small class of only twenty-three girls stayed together all the way to graduation. My memories of those seven years are among the happiest of my life.
In the flood of 2016, I lost my only yearbook from Mount Carmel. It was the school’s first yearbook, created in my senior year of which I was editor. With that loss, I felt that I had lost many of the classmates I loved.