In 1952, my two older siblings were in grade school, and my sister Nancy had left for kindergarten. My mother must have seen that freedom was just around the corner, when all her kids were finally in school, so she decided I had to go to nursery school -- and I was therefore the only child in my family to enjoy the advantages of early education.
We lived in the New York suburbs, near the College of New Rochelle, and the sisters at this Catholic institution had opened a nursery school. You didn't have to be Catholic to go there, but it helped, and so my mother signed me up.
I was excited about going to school. My brother and two sisters went to school every day, and I didn't want to be left behind. So my mother bought me a new outfit, and a little knapsack, and every day she drove me over to New Rochelle. She'd park the car, walk me by the hand over to the playground and put me in the capable hands of the nuns.
At first I found school a little unsettling. I didn't know any of the kids. I was especially wary of two big Irish kids, Billy and Colin, who swaggered through the playground, throwing sand at the girls. I was also intimidated by the nuns as they swirled around in their big black and white habits. And I didn't want to have to lay my head down on the table and take a nap at 11 a.m. I was never tired. I didn't want to take a nap!
One day my mother decided I could take the bus. She walked with me up the block from our house to the main cross street. I had on a new jacket to ward off the September chill, and a hat with earmuffs. When not in use, which was most of the time, the earmuffs were tied back over the top of the hat, with the fur showing on the outside. It was pretty cool. Already, in nursery school, I was trying to look cool.
However, in my heart I wasn't cool at all. I was kind of shy, and I didn't know if I liked the big uncaring world beyond my neighborhood. When the bus pulled up to our corner, and the door opened, I stared at the three big steps that led into the cavern of the bus -- and burst out crying.
My mother looked in my face, then pulled me close and gave me a warm hug, reassuring me and telling me that everything was going to be fine.
I looked back at her, took a deep breath, then turned back to the bus. I climbed up one step, two steps, and then I peered down the length of the bus -- a big empty space with strange little faces peering out from behind the backs of the seats. I could hear the rumble of the motor, and feel the vibrations in the bus. I looked down at the floor, staring at the little ribs in the black runner that led down the aisle between the seats. Then I turned back to my mom and burst into tears once again. My mom looked over my shoulder at the bus driver and gave a nervous laugh. "I don't understand," she said. "He did fine in school all last week."
My mother finally took me off the bus and walked me back to the house. I missed that day of school. The next day she drove me to school again.
I didn't like nap time at school, but I did like recess. The playground was paved over with asphalt and surrounded by a chain-link fence. A single tree towered over the play area. It provided plenty of shade over the sandbox. And it had several low, spreading branches which were fun to climb. I liked to scramble up to the second or third branch of the tree and survey the playground, pretending the school was my castle and I was king of of the playground. From my perch, Billy and Colin didn't scare me. And I also noticed a girl, Wendy, who had pigtails and lots of teeth and a dirty face, and was clearly tougher than the other girls and seemed to boss them around.
There was a storage shed at one end of the playground where we kept bats and balls and blocks and pirate paraphernalia. And also a step ladder. One day I brought out the ladder "Hey, let's play fireman!" I called.
A couple of boys came over and helped me carry the ladder over to the tree. We looked around at the girls, asking for a volunteer to climb up into the tree and let us rescue her. We needed a damsel in distress.
Most of the girls either ignored us, or shook their heads, indicating there was no way they were climbing into the tree. But then Wendy stepped forward, saying she would volunteer. Before I could even say anything, she jumped up onto the first branch, then scrambled higher and settled onto a branch. Then she started yelling, "Help. Fire! Help! Help!
Billy and Colin ran over and jumped into the sandbox and threw sand around, pretending to douse the flames. I positioned the ladder against the tree, ran up the steps, climbed onto Wendy's branch and helped her climb down to the safety of the sandbox.
We started playing fireman every day at recess. Wendy always volunteered to be our damsel in distress, and I was always the fireman who saved her. Wendy and I became friends, and we climbed the tree together, and played fireman, and then Wendy started to sit next to me in the classroom and she began to call me "Sir."
"You don't have to call me 'Sir,'" I told her.
"I like to," she replied.
"So do you like me?"
"I like your hat," she said.
With Wendy at my side, I became recognized as the fire chief. Other kids, even Billy and Colin, deferred to me in the sandbox. In the classroom, Wendy and I were picked to hand out supplies, or to demonstrate a project. We were pressed to the front of the room for story time, and when I was picked as one of the kickball captains, I always chose Wendy as the first person to be on my team.
Eventually, I came up with enough courage to start taking the bus. I was then instantly qualified to join the elite group of boys -- including Billy and Colin -- who made fun of kids who got a ride to school from their parents because they were too "little" to take the bus.
But one day, Billy and Colin cornered me in the bathroom to challenge my new-found authority at nursery school. I tried to bluff my way through. I reminded them that I was the one who picked kickball players -- and no one wanted to be among the last chosen. I mentioned Wendy, and how the two of us were the prime players in the fireman game. The two boys backed off, but I could tell the challenge wasn't over. I was not the biggest or the baddest kid in nursery school. I had to think of something.
Over the next few days, as the boys kept eying me, I stuck close to Wendy. I knew instinctively that the only reason I was a big shot in nursery school was because Wendy liked me. Nevertheless, I liked being boss -- being called on by the teacher, leading the kids on the playground, having Wendy call me "Sir."
Billy and Colin found me up in the tree, at recess a few days later. They pressed me about why I got to boss people around. Why did I always have to be the fire chief?
I finally thought of my brother, and our little escapade in the playhouse in our backyard. And so I looked Billy in the eye, and gave Colin a cold stare, and then I told them in conspiratorial tones : Okay, you win. You can be bosses.
They nodded in agreement, as though I'd finally seen the light.
So, I told them with as much authority as I could muster, that I was appointing both of them assistant fire chiefs. They both smiled; they'd confronted me and gotten what they wanted. What they didn't realize was that by accepting their appointments as assistants, they were acknowledging that I was the top chief.
And so it happened that my two buddies settled for being little bosses. I took over as the big boss. And Wendy kept calling me "Sir."