The tall gray-haired man wearing a gray suit pointed something toward my face that looked like a metal golf ball on a stick. The stick was attached by an electrical cord to a sort of leather briefcase which hung from the man’s shoulder by a wide leather strap. “Go ahead, son,” the man said. “Don’t be shy. Talk into the microphone and tell us your name.”
It was my first day of kindergarten. The gray-haired man with the pleasant smile—whom I would later learn was the principal at John McLaren Elementary School—was circulating through the crowd of incoming students and their parents in the school cafeteria, asking each of us new kids to say something into his fancy portable tape recorder.
I chewed my lip and regarded the microphone suspiciously. I’d never seen a tape recorder, and in fact had no idea that was what the man had in his leather case. I was completely ignorant of such things as recordings. My parents didn’t own a record player, so I’d never even seen vinyl records (as far as I knew, songs I heard on the radio were always live music sessions broadcast from the radio station).
“Billy?” Mama said, prodding me with a slight pinch on my shoulder. “Say something to the nice man.”
I chewed my lip some more and stared down at my shoes, ashamed of my fear. Suddenly I was glad Daddy wasn’t with us. He certainly would have had something to say to me.
Mama clucked her tongue impatiently. “Sorry,” she said to the man finally. “Normally I can’t get him to shut up.”
“That’s quite alright,” the man said. I looked up and watched as he moved away from us, to a petite black girl with tight pigtails standing nearby who was more than glad to grab hold of the microphone and spout out her full name and complete address, including city, zone, and state, then glance over at me smugly.
I still wasn’t quite sure how I felt about going to school, even before this inauspicious beginning. I’d never been around so many other kids. And I didn’t know what to expect from the teachers—although I had seen enough of them in movies and on television to know that corporal punishment was generally their most effective and oft-employed teaching tool. Mama, however, was plainly happy. With three kids under foot at home, and the obvious fact that I was more difficult to handle than my sisters, Karen and Debby, any opportunity to foist me off onto someone else, even for just a few hours a day, was cause to celebrate. She’d barely been able to wait for the big day, eying through our back door window the low-set brown stucco buildings across the street the entire summer, expectantly, the way a kid will ogle the toy display in a department store window at Christmas time.
When the day finally arrived, she’d swung into exuberant activity so efficient that she had to have rehearsed it repeatedly in her mind. She stormed into my bedroom precisely at seven a.m. like a cheerful tornado and dropped a small stack of folded clothes—a single outfit referred to thereafter as my “school clothes”—at the foot of my bed then flung open the blinds and ordered me to get up. “We don’t want to be late for your first day of school,” she said merrily. I lay hunched on my stomach with my knees drawn up under me. Luckily, I hadn’t peed the bed, which would have been a bad beginning to an otherwise promising day. “Move it, mister!” Mama persisted. I groaned and rolled off the bed and she gave me a little shove toward the bedroom door—and the bathroom beyond it—and told me to go do my business.
By the time I had finished, Mama had laid out my new school clothes on my bed and had gone downstairs, presumably to fix breakfast. There were new brown corduroy pants, a thin brown leather belt, a white long-sleeve shirt, and new plain black leather shoes, as well as new underwear and white socks. Mama and Daddy had bought the clothes for me earlier in the summer, and had kept them in their bedroom closet so they wouldn’t be ruined. I dressed myself carefully. Everything was stiff and creased and had that new-clothes smell about them. The shirt itched. And the shoes, which Daddy had made sure were a little big when I’d first tried them on at the beginning of summer, were already pinching my toes. I hoped they would feel better after I’d worn them for awhile.
After breakfast, Mama pulled a comb through my stubborn, cowlick-riddled hair, and told Karen and Debbie—whom I now looked upon as pitiful creatures condemned to live at least another year in the dark cavern of ignorance—to stay put at the breakfast table until she got back (Daddy was gone, though I don’t recall where or how long he'd been gone). Then she lit a cigarette and marched me up the hill and across the street to the school office, thence to the school cafeteria for orientation. She was happier I think than I’d ever seen her before, smiling as we walked through the open cafeteria doors and discovered the huge room filled to capacity with other kids and their parents, everyone looking some combination of startled, excited, and dismayed.
My memory of that first day fades rapidly after my botched interview with the school principal. I recall that a few of the kids started crying when it came time for the parents to leave, even though their parents had hugged them tight and promised emphatically they’d be back to pick them up in time for lunch. I don’t remember my mother leaving, or how I reacted to her departure.
Nor do I remember much about my kindergarten class. A couple of things stand out, however. The first is the room itself. I recall the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with deep pine cabinets which, together with a large area of the tile floor, were filled to overflowing with a treasure trove of toys and other wonderful things to play with: wood blocks, colorful puzzles, dolls, crayons and reams of blank paper to color on, paints and brushes, construction paper of every conceivable color, tricycles and toy wagons—an abundance of fun made even more poignant by what little of these things I had in my own house. The second thing was the dread I felt at having to go home, dread which seemed to grow as the school year ground on—that, and how the sound of the bell signaling the end of class always seemed to startle me.
The first Saturday after I’d begun kindergarten, Daddy came home late at night after having been gone for what seemed months. Mama had had to let him in: he was drunk, and he’d lost his keys somewhere. Then Mama happened to mention to him I had started school, and he got it into his head that he had to teach me a few things; things he thought would be useful. He stomped up the stairs and into my room and shook me awake and told me to come with him, we had important work to do. At first I was scared. But I soon could tell he was in one of his happy-drunk moods. I liked being with him when he was like that. He rarely got angry, as if he just didn’t have the energy or the presence of mind for it.
Mama tried to argue with him about how late it was, but he would hear nothing of it. He brushed her aside and made his way unsteadily back down the stairs, with me in precarious tow. She finally gave up and went up to bed, muttering something about how she had to be the one to deal with the messes he left behind.
He stopped at the last step and sat down and motioned me to sit next to him.
“I never graduated high school,” he said. “Dropped out to go into the Army Air Corps, back before it was the Air Force, back before you were even a glimmer in my eye. I’ve always regretted it.”
He told me to run back upstairs for my shoes. When I got back with them he spent the next half hour or so showing me how to tie the laces into a bow. “Wow,” I said to him. “Thanks, Daddy!” He raised his hand to signal he wasn’t finished, and told me to go to his office—actually, the little utility closet by the kitchen he was using as an office—for some paper and a pencil, which he immediately dropped on the small square of floor at his feet. He pulled my hand roughly and together we got down on our haunches over the paper. Then he took the pencil and arranged my fingers around it, clamped his own hand over mine, and jabbed the pencil at the paper and started to write, in cursive: Billy Campbell, Billy Campbell, Billy Campbell, over and over. After a few minutes, he told me to do it without his help. I did. The result was slow and crude, but definitely readable. I looked up from the name I’d written by myself and beamed at Daddy. He beamed back. “God damn, you’re good!” he said, growling playfully and hugging me close to him. He smelled like a mixture of onions and stale beer and cigarettes, but right then I didn’t care. "Yessir. Damn good. But I want you to be better.” He winked at me. “Smarter. Smarter than anyone else in the class. Smarter than me, even." He took another blank piece of paper from my hands and dropped it on the floor in front of him, then regarded it thoughtfully in the dim light. Slowly and carefully, he began to write columns of numbers on the paper. I looked into his face, awed by the intensity of his concentration, and thought about what he’d said.
We were up until dawn, working the numbers until Daddy finally couldn’t keep his eyes open any more and he lay down right there on the paper and went to sleep. I sat there with him for a couple of minutes. Then I tiptoed up the stairs to my room and got into bed and pulled the covers up to my chin. Light had started to come in the window. I could hear Daddy snoring, all the way up the stairs. And I smiled to think of what he’d taught me. Still, many years would pass before I finally understood the real lesson, and that it had nothing at all to do with arithmetic or tying my shoelaces or writing my name.