The garage where the the author spent part of his first day of school. (Provided)

It was September of 1959. With Mom’s help, I got ready for the beginning of first grade. After breakfast, I said goodbye to her, walked out of the back door in my blue shirt and blue tie — the school uniform — and headed toward St. Mary’s, about a half-block from our Clarence Avenue home. 

I opened the back gate to the alley, closed it, took a few steps to my right, stopped behind our garage, and went no further. I hadn’t planned to do it, but staying there felt more right than the prospect of exiting the alley, turning left on 15th Street and finishing the trek to school.

Over the course of my life, I’ve pulled back from other expectations or seeming obligations that didn’t sit right in my gut. But in this case, I was 5 years old, going on six. My parents had never hinted that I had any choice in the matter. Everything that morning was pointed toward St. Mary’s: the flow of kid traffic was all in one direction.

I avoided that traffic as I stood in the shadow of our garage.

About eight months prior, we had moved to the neighborhood in Berwyn from Brookfield. In Brookfield, although we had been parishioners at St. Barbara’s, I had been going to kindergarten at Lincoln Elementary, a public school.

When we moved to Berwyn mid-year, my parents chose to not enroll me in kindergarten. Rather, they decided to wait until the next school year and start me as a first-grader in the local Catholic school, St. Mary of Celle.

During those months when I was not in school, from our alley or along 15th Street, I would see kids at St. Mary’s in their blue uniforms, walking in disciplined lines between the church and the school, led by mysterious women in black veils and robes.

After school and on weekends, some of the kids at St. Mary’s who lived on my block told me that the nuns were mean, especially Sister Mary Fortunata, who would become my first-grade teacher.

The aura of the nuns, the lines, and the uniformed kids made me wary about what kind of place that Catholic school really was. What did they do with the kids in there? It looked awfully controlling.

On opening day, Mom trusted me to get there on my own. It was a short walk. She had three little girls at home to take care of, including a newborn. Mom had just given birth to Annie a week before.

I guess I took advantage of the loose reins. No one was there to move me along — until the neighborhood got involved. I stood in the alley for at least an hour until Mrs. Bland, who lived next door, spotted me through her back window and called Mom on the phone: “Jean, I think Richard’s being sick out behind your garage.”

Mom hung up the phone and ran out of the house, through the yard and into the alley. She found me standing behind the garage, alone: “Richard, why aren’t you at school?” I told her I didn’t want to go to the school because I didn’t like the nun who would be teaching us.

Shocked, Mom gathered up my little sisters, and took me to the first-grade classroom that morning, a couple of hours late. At the classroom entrance, she said something privately to Sister Fortunata about my being afraid of her. Sister then walked me up to the front of the class, beaming, and said, “Boys and girls, how many of you like me?”

The kids were eager to please. Almost 50 hands shot up; a multitude of smiles broke forth. Sister showed me my desk. Feeling embarrassed, I sat down.

With Maureen, I’ve raised my own kids since then. None of ours dodged the first day. Three of them rode to their beginning class in their Episcopal school’s van. A few years later, Maureen walked Greg, our fourth, to his opening morning at Longfellow in Oak Park.

But we had days when our kids just didn’t want to go. It was hard to tell at times what part anxiety, physical ailments and/or just plain boredom were in play. It wasn’t just us. The phenomenon now gets broad attention in the education field. There’s a formally recognized disorder, “school refusal” (Elizabeth Chang, “What to do, and not to do, when your child won’t go to school,” Washington Post, September 22, 2022).

But in 1959, I was just a little guy needing an extra nudge out of the alley. Gripped by a 5-year-old’s foreboding based on bad information, I balked. The intervention initiated by our neighbor got me moving. It all worked out. I graduated from St. Mary’s in 1967.

Mom, Dad, the community, my fellow students, and some dedicated, black-veiled teachers teamed up over the years to get me through.

Rich Kordesh grew up in in Berwyn and is a longtime resident of Oak Park.

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