Usually Jean Shepherd simplifies his early schooling by beginning it at Hammond, Indiana’s Warren G. Harding grammar school, named, he more than once declares, “after America’s worst president.” Yet, in the opening stories he’s going to the William McKinley School because only after the first years of his schooling did the family cross the border from East Chicago to Hammond with its Harding School. There, Shep’s grammar-school life will be firmly affixed to the disreputable Harding name while colluding with humor, truth, and irony in his cooked-up kidhood stew.
Here is Jean Shepherd’s early life as a grammar school kid. Shepherd reminds us of the power of all our memories and the significance of kindergarten as the beginning of a lifelong and near-universal human experience in the larger world of which we are a part. He probably would not have blushed to hear the opening story described as a metaphor and one of his masterpieces.
Even in its first days, kindergarten is not what little Jeanie envisions. Life among organized humanity is a struggle between the carrot held out and authority’s reins. He is restricted from expressing his true being, even at this young age—in his first encounter with school he is committed to indentured servitude in a sand box. Despite his inclination, he will be forced to join the right-handed majority, and in his first performance on-stage, he will embody dental recidivism.
First Day of Kindergarten
I was a little bit nervous a couple of days ago. The first week in September, right after Labor Day. It’s a kind of trepidation. Do you feel this? The other day I was walking through Woolworth’s and I see these signs all over: BACK TO SCHOOL SPECIALS. And it hit me. Just a tiny tingle. It’s one thing that binds us all, regardless of sex, race, you name it. We all had a first day of school.
Most of us, no matter who we are, spent probably a good third of our lives in school. A very important time of our life. From about the time we were five or six to roughly our late teens or early twenties. Now that is the formative time of your life. When you’re molded and formed. Not only formally in the sense of being taught geography or how to read or being taught formal education. You’re also formed of strange little, almost unspoken, unconscious things deep down inside your gut.
So what always started a week after Labor Day? School started. That was a whole nervous moment. Most of us were going from one grade to the next. And we had a new teacher. A whole new ballgame. You were going to see kids that you had not seen all summer. Maybe some of them had moved away and other kids would come. It was a time of real transition and you were both nervous and excited at the same time. Because we’re always drawn toward these things and at the same time we’re scared of change.
MORE FIRST DAY COMING