It was cold that January morning, much colder than it had been the week before when Mom walked me to school for the starting three days of first grade.
I stopped at an intersection, looked both ways, and stepped off the curb, shivering in a thin jacket.
A wet wind blowing off the New York City harbor turned my breath into a cloud of steam that drifted across the intersection beside me.
That icy cloud looked as cold as I felt.
I didn't mind the cold, though, or that wet, penetrating wind either. I was too excited. I was a proud six-year-old walking to school alone for the very first time. Kindergarten was over.
I had a desk now, a real desk, not a just a place at a table covered with brown paper.
My desk stood in Miss Banke's classroom, right at the top of the staircase in the old building of Public School 16 on Staten Island.
I liked the red brick, old building much better than the square-looking new building where I had attended kindergarten. The old building was three stories tall and had a pointed turret on one side. I loved that turret; it looked like something out of a fairy tale.
It also helped that, like the rest the boys in my class, I was in love with Miss Banke. You can blame that on large, dark eyes, curly chestnut hair and a deep soft voice.
I was lucky to get Miss Banke. The other first-grade teacher was Miss Palmer.
There was nothing soft about Miss Palmer. Her sharp-edged, whip-crack voice scared the pants off me every time I heard it.
Everything about Miss Palmer was sharp-edged: her voice, her temper, her bony body, and a head of tightly waved steel-wool hair that could rasp out a hammer handle in wood shop.
Miss Palmer had been the only upsetting note in an otherwise happy first week.
Down in the basement of the building, as we stood in line at lunchtime, I had watched her pick up some kid by his hair and shake him the way a dog shakes a rag, all the time slicing the air to ribbons with that whip-crack voice of hers.
I stayed away from Miss Palmer.
That first morning on my own, though, I had something other than Miss Palmer on my mind. Just half a block away, right around the next corner, I expected to see a couple of hundred kids playing in the schoolyard.
They would be running around, yelling, screaming, and just generally having the time of their lives as long as they could--until first bell rang. Those minutes before school were precious. I sped up, anxious to join in the fun.
Oddly, as I neared the corner I couldn't hear the usual clamor of happy voices. An eerie silence hung in the air. I sped up again, wondering nervously what could be wrong.
It couldn't be! Could it? I had started out early and hadn't wasted a single second on the way to school. Nah, it couldn't be!
But, as I rounded the corner and caught sight of an empty playground behind an eight-foot tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire, I felt a cold shiver run up my back. It could be! In fact it was! I was late for school on my first day on my own!
And I was also doomed!
On the second day of school, we had suffered through a lecture given by Miss Palmer on what happened to truants and tardies.
"It's my month to handle stay-ins," she had told an audience of dead scared kids. "And believe me, I know how to take care of lazy brats who can't make it to school on time!"
I had believed her then. I believed her even more as I saw that empty schoolyard.
Nobody owned a wristwatch in those days, and neither did I, but I had a feeling that it wasn't very late, yet. I had left home in plenty of time, hadn't I?
And I hadn't stopped anywhere. How late could I be? Maybe only the first bell had rung. If that was true I might still be able to make it up to Miss Banke's third floor classroom before the second bell.
I scurried toward the front door of the old building as fast as I could go, eying two large oak doors more than four times my height, usually open even in cold weather, but closed now. A wide set of slate steps led up to them.
I charged up them like a cat climbing a tree an inch ahead of a pack of dogs, but I stopped in my tracks as a very large girl came out of the shadows.
"Hey you!" she said. "Where do you think you're going?"
She frowned down at me. "Uh-uh!"
"I can't go in?"
"You have to have a pass or teacher's permission."
As scared as I was, I rose to the occasion and lied like a trooper. "I've got teacher's permission," I said, holding my breath as she frowned down at me some more.
"G'wan in," she said, much to my relief.
In I went, through the door and up the first flight of stairs like a mountain goat trying to get out of rifle range on the first day of hunting season.
The heavy door thudded behind me, its dull boom echoing hollowly through the building. I reached the second floor landing, charged down its length, rounded the turn, galloped toward the third flight of stairs, and.......and stopped dead in my tracks.
Something was wrong. Very wrong!
The thudding of the great oak door still echoed through a silent building. I peered into a darkened second grade classroom. Empty. I listened up the stairs. More silence. Tiptoeing, I retreated back to the ground floor and peered into more empty classrooms.
A great surge of relief passed through me as I realized the truth: I wasn't late. I was early.
A smile started to blossom on my face--probably the shortest lived smile in the history of the world, cut off in midstroke by a whip-crack voice.
"Who's down there running on the stairs?"
"Well? Who's down there?"
The sound of high heels echoed down the stairwell. "Come on! Who's down there? Don't make me come down there and get you!"
Don't ask me how I did it. I don't remember. Somehow or other I found my way into the basement of the building, out a side door, across the playground, under the tall gates, and out of the neighborhood, where I stayed until I could blend in with a gaggle of kids making their way to school.
I forgive you, Mom. I really do. And I understand why you sent me off to school early on the first day I was on my own.
But, Mom, you should have told me about it! I'm as bald as a banister knob now, you know, and have been for many years, and I think it all started that morning as I ran across that playground with a vision of Miss Palmer whipping me off my feet and shaking me by my hair until my feet flew off.
I'll bet they even have a fancy scientific name for it some day--alopecia scaredkidicus.