Methailade. That’s what I remember about kindergarten. The single memory I have that can be conjured up in my mind’s eye at the most surprising moments is screaming at the top of my lungs on the corner across from my kindergarten school as my mom held up my dress and dabbed bright orange methailade all over my skinned legs with that sponge-like, or hair-like applicator that came in a threatening dark brown bottle. I don’t remember where my brother was while I jumped around on my toes, my mom yelling at me to stand still getting more frustrated by the minute. But I know that he was sitting next to me when we were still in the car. The story has been told many different ways and two go like this: 1) I was too excited and anxious about getting to school and I opened the door and fell out before the car stopped; 2) I was excited about getting to school and I unlocked the car then my brother opened it up and gave me a shove. Each version of the story has something about me being “excited” to get to school and every story ends with me holding onto the car door for dear life as my mom slowed the car to a stop. And then the methailade. And the screaming.
My mom calmly walked me into my classroom that morning, my face tangled and wet, my legs missing skin and stained orange. She kissed me goodbye and left me standing there silent. I don’t know what happened between that time and when she later came back to get me. She has told me that her “nerves were shot” after I fell out of the car and she was just moving through the motions of the morning routine when suddenly it occurred to her that she left me at school skinless and silent. Jumping in her blue Pontiac LeMans and speeding back to Sharpsburg Elementary School in Norwood, Ohio, she signed me out and took me home.
I’m not sure where home was, somewhere in Norwood I imagine – maybe living with my great grandmother “Granny” who had the tallest bed with the softest feather ticking you’ve ever seen. We stayed with her some, I do remember that. Maybe home was the apartment on Montgomery Road where my grandmother recently told me she forced my mother to move out of when she came to visit one Saturday morning in the winter and the hallway floors were covered with ice and all of us were cold because the building didn’t have any heat. My mom was a single mother of two. I was four. John was two. She did everything she could to be independent, including working two full-time jobs and dropping me off at school with orange-dyed legs and tear-swollen eyes. She probably had to go to work that morning and the frustration grew as she thought about missing a day’s pay and what would have to be left unpaid as a result.
The year was 1976 and children had to be five years old before entering kindergarten unless they were able to pass a qualifying “test” to enter as a four-year-old. I was four until my birthday in October. I passed the test. Maybe because public school was cheaper than childcare, maybe because my mom thought I was anxious to get to school and that I was (of course) brilliant, maybe because of a complex combination of these two and other reasons. Anyway, I entered kindergarten at age four in a tiny building that was made especially for kindergarteners. The child’s garden. Separate from the other children, separate playgrounds, separate entryways, separate hallways, separate principals. Separate. Protected. A place to grow into a person who might enter the institution of school and manage to climb up the social class ladder – the one missing rungs near the bottom – the one with oil-slopped rungs toward the middle – the one with prickly-thorned rungs on the top.