Recalling my first year at the Lynnewood Elementary School fails to bring a warm glow to my heart. An unwilling New York transplant to a Philadelphia suburb in 1952, I began my new academic career in sixth grade hating the hellhole that had usurped Manhattan's beloved Public School 9. That was where I belonged, with my gang. Fresh as I was from the traditional comfort of Manhattan's solid Upper West Side, the stark rawness of the school building gave me a sinking sensation in my chest. It looked as unfamiliar and unfinished as the housing development we had settled into down the street from my only friends, twin boys who attended school elsewhere. Life appeared bleak.
Low profile, I took notice of no one except for Mr. White who seemed good natured and was nice to me. To relieve the awful boredom I developed a crush on my lanky, boyish geography teacher. He would make a good friend, I thought, and decided that treating him as a peer was my best strategy.
When I strolled over to his desk with a cheerful, "Hi, George," he scowled, rose, and sharply warned me never to address him or any other teacher by their first name again. His hostile reaction was startling. I was just being friendly, not intending to question his position of authority.
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From then on he ignored me in class. The strategy had backfired.
My reasoning had led me astray before, like the time in New York in the third grade on my way to school when I got a lecture from a startled cop whose handgun I had tried to grab. Fortunately it was strapped in its holster. "You really scared me!" he scolded. That the officer would be angry never occurred to me, let alone the possibility of being shot.
Life still had plenty more to teach me, but I detested being expected to learn it at the Lynnewood School with kids who knew nothing and who cared less, and from teachers who were no different. I couldn't wait for the day to end so I could jump off the bus, dash home and flip on the radio in time for Backstage Wife and Stella Dallas. The radio was my salvation. Henry Morgan broadcast phony commercials on his program, like the one about a woman who fell out of a window while drying her hair after washing it with a particular shampoo, so Henry warned not to buy that shampoo. Henry, and broadcasters Bob & Ray loved to poke fun at authority and I loved them for it.
I missed my New York pals, especially my former best friend Mike, but when he came for a visit we were shy with each other, finding little basis for a friendship.
I kept track of the Dodgers, but only occasionally listened to a game. School never even began to get interesting, but my free time did. More and more independent, I was adjusting to my neighborhood, and by the end of sixth grade, I was actually looking forward to the summer.
Explorations had drawn me and my current best buddies Steve and Eliot, to a modest clearing in the woods past the field backing our street. Logs were dragged from the thickets and arranged around a circle of rocks we'd arranged for fires. The site's main attraction was the tree at its eastern edge, the wide limbs ideal for climbing and lounging. A dozen feet up perfectly suited the construction of a platform and we built one, improving on it throughout the year. Laboring after school and on weekends, we added walls with two windows and a doorway, a roof, a bench and a table, perfectly suited to reading comics and sharing dirty jokes.
Everyone in the small gang that developed around our headquarters was expected to work on the treehouse but we three, as the original builders, maintained core positions. I knew how to be with boys, demanding and taking my peer status for granted. Used to being treated as an equal, I enjoyed being the female exception. But unlike my gang on 83rd Street, these new boys were strangers and I wasn't sure if I trusted them. When other kids started coming around I was cordial, but my true hand of friendship extended no further than Steve and Eliot.