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  Dad came home in the Spring of ’45 and I went to Kindergarten in September. I had no real desire to go; Mom was the one who was all excited about it. For weeks before, she had been telling me about it, saying how much I was going to enjoy it; I would make a lot of friends, and the teacher, Mrs. Horvey, was very nice, and so on and so on. It meant nothing to me. What did I know? She might as well have been telling me about life on Mars, which, as it turned out, probably would have been a more pleasant experience.

  I had adjusted to Dad’s presence in the house and the new routines that came along with it. I saw no reason to change, but Mom was hell-bent on getting me to kindergarten. I don’t know if it was a desire to see me gone, at least for a part of the day, or a genuine desire to launch me on the long and winding path to adulthood.

    Mom was a great believer in education. She read big books with lots of words to herself, and small books with lots of pictures to me. She taught me my ABC’s so I could read along with her. She belonged to a Book-of-the-Month club. Every so often, the mailman would ring the bell down in the foyer to let Mom know that a package had arrived. Mom would excitedly go downstairs, retrieve the package, tear off its cardboard packaging, and sit down on the couch to examine her new possession. If nothing intervened, she would spend the next hour or so reading.

  Mom graduated from Dickinson High School in 1936. She had a book with a picture of her in it, wearing a white cap. All of her girlfriends’ pictures were in it too, and once in a while, on “Girl’s night,” when her friends came over for cake and gossip, they would take out the book, look at all the pictures in it and laugh. She studied to be a secretary, not that she really wanted to be a secretary; she wanted to be a teacher, but that would have meant going to a teacher’s college, and this was the mid-1930’s, the depth of the Great Depression. There was no money for college, so Mom became a secretary.

  Good thing, too, because Dad was having trouble finding work, so the money Mom earned from her secretarial work helped carry us through our own personal Great Depression.

  Working as a secretary didn’t dampen Mom’s desire to teach. Deprived of a chance to teach a classroom full of children, Mom poured all her efforts into teaching me.  She learned all she could about raising and educating children. She read Dr. Spock; she read Good Houskeeping; she read Ladies’ Home Journal. There wasn’t a theory or method of child rearing that Mom was not familiar with. The result was that I was raised not with a single, consistent plan, but with an ever-changing potpourri of theories and techniques, which meant, in actuality, that there was neither rhyme nor reason to my upbringing.

  Mom’s method could best be described as “kind-hearted confusion,” while Dad was consistent with his “benign neglect” parenting technique. Rules shifted by the moment, and discipline, while often threatened, was never administered. Dr. Spock wouldn’t allow it. He and his theories had come along just in time to save me from the heretofore traditional ‘spare the rod and spoil the child” upbringing. I was never hit. The worst punishment I received was to be confined to my room—with my books, toys, and over active imagination. In other words, I wasn’t punished at all.

  The one constant in my upbringing was Mom’s never-ending attempts to educate me. Not satisfied with teaching me my ABC’s, she introduced me to Flash Cards, the most diabolic of all teaching tools. Dad didn’t take much notice of my reading abilities, but once he found out that I knew my numbers and could add and subtract simple sums, he tried to teach me Gin Rummy. The project was unsuccessful; I got the basic concept, but strategy was beyond me and my hands were too small to hold the cards, so after a few attempts he gave me up as a lost cause.

Mom meant well, but she ruined any chance I had at winning friends in kindergarten by teaching me to read. Mrs. Horvey, who had taught kindergarten for the previous 25 years, had lost all ability to communicate on an adult level, but she was accustomed to being superior to her class of five-year olds. Dealing with a not-quite-five-year-old who could sing his ABC’s and read Dick, Jane and Sally books drove her mad.

  I never set out to drive her mad, although I will admit I started out with a bad attitude, having no desire whatsoever to leave my comfortable life for the inconveniences I was to find in kindergarten.  For one thing, it became immediately apparent that Miss Horvey had no beer, and secondly, she reminded me of my Fake Nana, with whom I shared a mutual dislike.

  Miss Horvey, like my Fake Nana, was short, overweight, buxom, and gray-haired. Perhaps it was this physical similarity that set me against her, but there were other things as well. Like my Fake Nana, Miss Horvey seemed to be uncomfortable in my presence. I could sense it even if I couldn’t understand it. Even today, I don’t really understand it. Miss Horvey could endure the most absurd events with a smile, but I never saw a smile, not one.

  Every day, like clockwork, at precisely the same time, we would lay our blankets on the floor, sit down, and have our milk and cookies prior to taking a nap. And every day, exactly five minutes after snack, like clockwork, Lena Martina Wojiwitzki would vomit up her entire allotment of milk and cookies. The sight, sound and smells of Lena Martina’s demonstration never failed to frighten Gerard Michael Finks so much that he would burst into tears and voluminously wet his pants.   This inevitably caused a mad rush to the place in the room farthest from the cascading fluids. Only Miss Horvey remained calm. She quietly and efficiently gathered Lena Martina and Gerard Michael into her arms, and cradling them under her ample breasts, carried them away from the scene of their crimes and soothed them while we all waited for the elderly Mr. Jerks, the janitor, to arrive with the bucket of sawdust, pail, and mop.  This scene was played out every day until, eventually, we all became so used to it that we stopped running away and instead we simply gave Lena Martina Wojiwitzki and Gerard Michael Finks extra space while we waited and watched for the inevitable to occur.

  You would think that Lena Martina Wojiwitzki and Gerard Michael Finks would be persona non gratia in kindergarten, but just the opposite happened. The sainted Miss Horvey, with her infinite capacity for compassion, took the poor troubled children to her bosom, permanently sitting Lena Martina Wojiwitzki on her left and Gerard Michael Finks on her right and lavishing her very best smiles on them at every opportunity.  

  Children aren’t stupid. Pretty soon, every kid in the class was either regurgitating or urinating in a valiant attempt to gain Miss Horvey’s approval. Every kid that is, except me. While Anna Maria Spadafario stuck her fingers down her throat and Francis Xavier Reilly strained mightily to urinate, I took myself to a quiet corner where I could observe the scene without participating in it. At first, my absence went unnoticed, but it wasn’t long before Miss Horvey saw that I wasn’t voiding any liquids.

  “Why are you sitting over here by yourself?” she asked. “Why aren’t you playing with the other children?”

  “Because they smell really bad,” I told her, which was the truth. In fact, not only did the kids smell, but the whole place smelled pretty bad. However, my honesty was neither appreciated nor rewarded. Miss Horvey was horrified. My odd behavior, she told me, had not gone unnoticed, and I had a vision—I saw the Hand of God writing my name in the Book of Days. “You are a weird child,” she said with malice, pitching her voice so that all could hear and forever coloring the rest of my schooldays.

  “This is not the first time that you have caused a disturbance,” she pronounced in stentorian tones. I was aghast, if a not-quite-five-year-old can be said to be aghast. I was at least surprised, and not a little bit frightened. I was sitting in a little chair in the corner of the room, staring up at an enormous pair of breasts and two hate-filled eyes. What had I done to deserve this? How had I caused a disturbance?

  It was true I wouldn’t lie down nicely like the other children and take a nap upon demand, as if all one had to do was say “sleep” and I would drop off. I guess in that regard I was different than the other children who seemed go have no problem dozing on command. And where the other children dutifully brought their dimes to purchase milk and cookies every day, I brought my own milk and a bologna sandwich because Mom couldn’t afford the dimes. Even at the tender age of not-quite-five-years-old, I knew money was tight, so I did my bit by not drinking my milk (no great sacrifice) so I could bring it home each day for Mom to put into the refrigerator overnight and back into my Mickey Mouse lunch pail the next day. I enjoyed this little trick Mom and I were playing on Miss Horvey, and it went unnoticed until one day when I let my heart rule my head.Mary Louise Murray was a shy, quiet girl with curly blond hair and a mild manner very unlike the fledging Yahoos in the rest of the class. I took to her. I liked her. I fell for her. So when she politely asked me if, since I wasn’t drinking it, “could she have my milk?” I gladly offered it to her with a trembling hand. She to ok the container with her eyes cast demurely down. My heart fluttered. She popped the container open and brought it up to her rose colored lips in one single, unbroken movement. But my gift never made it to those lovely lips. The foul odor of curdled milk reached her nostrils before I realized what I had done. She shrieked, gagged and feinted dead away, spilling milk curds all over her pretty cotton dress. 

  Miss Horvey swung into action. She sent for the Mr. Jerks; she sent for the nurse; she notified the principal who sent for Mrs. Murray. She lavished smiles and words of comfort on Mary Louise who broke into tears and screamed as soon as she awoke and saw me looking at her.  Miss Horvey ordered me away—far away. 

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Mom, Dickenson HS,

class of 1934


The Bible

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Mom and me

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Remember this?


This is how I remember        Miss Horvey

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Aint she cute?

  Perhaps it was my fault after all. Following the Mary Louise episode, I became morose. I didn’t like Miss Horvey; I didn’t like kindergarten, and neither liked me. When the other children would gather around in an adoring circle to listen to Miss Horvey read to them, I would take myself off to a quiet corner to read to myself. This annoyed Miss Horvey immensely. And when I realized that it annoyed her, I began absenting myself from class activities more often. Pretty soon, I had a permanent chair in a corner all to myself. At first Miss Horvey ignored me, but eventually she caved.

  One day, she walked up to me, and feigning a smile—I knew it wasn’t a real smile because it’s hard to smile through clenched teeth—said using her soothing voice, “Neil, you really shouldn’t be sitting here all by yourself. It’s not healthy. Why don’t you come over and play with the rest of the children. I’m sure they would be happy to have you join them.”

  I looked over at the others, who had stopped what they had been doing and were now staring at me. They didn’t look like they would be happy to have me join them, and I had no real desire to do so.

  “No thank you, Miss Horvey,” I said trying to smile, and probably failing as miserably as she had. 

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My Kindergarten class picture. Can you find me?

  Mom and Dad had been angry with me at times, but I had never seen anything like this! Miss Horvey turned bright red; her eyes bulged, and she clenched and unclenched her fists several times before she finally stuttered, “You, you are—incorrigible!

  So, there it was. I was officially incorrigible and weird—and would remain so for the rest of my elementary school days. In the history of St. Paul of the Cross there were a lot of kids who were incorrigible or weird, although I believe I was the only one to hold both titles simultaneously—I'm kind of proud of that.

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