By Corinne H. Smith
1962: I turned five years old, and my birthday fell on Thanksgiving. I went to kindergarten at Landisville Elementary School. Daddy was 33, and he worked as a research chemist at Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster, Penna. Mom was a stay-at-home Mom. We lived on Hathaway Street in West Hempfield Township. The #1 song on the radio on my fifth birthday was “Big Girls Don't Cry” by The Four Seasons. Mom snapped this photograph.
OK, so Big Girls Don’t Cry. That would have been good musical advice for my first week of kindergarten. It didn’t begin well for me. I was one of the kids who cried and resisted initial involvement. (Yes, I guess my tendency toward nonconformity came early.)
On the first day of school, I spent most of the time in a corner by the door with at least one other classmate: a boy whose name and face I’ve forgotten. Neither one of us /wanted to participate in any of the activities or lessons. The teacher wisely left us alone, after she saw that she couldn’t entice us into the main part of the room. By the second or third day, I finally left the corner and joined in. The boy stood his ground for a whole week.
I’ve given thought to those first days, in the years that have passed. Did my discomfort come from being an only child, and from not having been previously exposed to a larger group of kids? Or really, to any other kids? Was it because I’m a natural introvert? Or was it a casualty of being younger? On the first day of kindergarten, I was four years old. I wouldn’t turn five until November. Nowadays, I’d be held back until the following year, or even longer. But in the early 1960s, this rule wasn’t yet in effect.
It wasn’t until I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008), that a light bulb came on, for me. This passage appears in the chapter where he debates the differences a birthday can make.
“Parents with a child born at the end of the calendar year often think about
holding their child back before the start of kindergarten: it’s hard for a five-year-old
to keep up with a child born many months earlier. But most parents, one suspects, think
that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away.
But it doesn’t. … The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year
has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of
achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch
on and on for years.” (p. 28)
Yikes! Is this why I always lagged behind my classmates in math in junior high and high school? Simply because my mother put me in kindergarten when I was four? For now, I’ll accept this explanation. Of course, it doesn’t cover how another classmate, just one day younger than me, became a successful medical doctor.
Danny Rutledge, who is standing next to me in this photo, used to make fun of my name. Instead of pronouncing it “ca-REEN,” the way I preferred it, he always embellished it to “ca-reamy mashed potatoes.”
What did we do in those half-days of school? A look at our “Kindergarten Report of Progress” offers some clues. Here are the attributes we were judged on. Today some of them seem pretty silly. I got a “needs improvement” mark on one of them, during the first term. Can you guess which one?
- I keep materials from my mouth.
- I use a handkerchief properly.
- I put on and take off my own wraps.
- I follow directions accurately.
- I express myself with art materials.
- I finish my work promptly.
- I work and play well with others.
- I speak clearly in a pleasing voice.
- I keep my hands to myself.
- I sing songs in tune.
- I respond well to music.
- I share my ideas and evaluate results.
- I listen when others are speaking.
- I enjoy stories, books and poetry.
- I take responsibility.
- I bring in worthwhile material.
- I obey quickly and cheerfully.
- I relax at rest time.
- I come neat and clean.
- I attack simple problems.
- I get weighed and measured.
Today I don’t understand why I didn’t pass muster at first on speaking clearly and in a pleasing voice. Maybe I just wasn’t used to talking, since I lived in a house with a very vocal and chatty mother. Nevertheless, I improved enough to get an “S” for “Satisfactory” as a final grade for speech. A good move, since I now occasionally get paid to speak.
This year, 1962, was also the first time that my birthday fell on Thanksgiving Day. From this point on, we often combined the occasions. Turkey and stuffing, mashed sweet potatoes with browned marshmallows on top, pumpkin pie and birthday cake. Eventually Thanksgiving meant a partial family reunion for my mother’s Banzhoff clan. My Grandma, Aunt Bert, Uncle John and Aunt Marian would visit us for the day and the dinner. Then we’d play a spirited game of UNO afterward. It was my favorite holiday and meal of the year.