Unlike many of today’s kindergarten students who often spend a full day in school, are assigned nightly homework, and finish the year having read the complete works of William Shakespeare, kindergarten students in the late 1960’s were allowed to be dumb and immature for just one more year before the realities of reading, writing, and arithmetic set in. School was a half-day and the expectations were pretty low. Yet even without the academic pressures, kindergarten back then still carried its own set of challenges.
My kindergarten teachers were Miss Poyer and Mrs. Pentel or maybe it was Mrs. Poyer and Miss Pentel; I just remember one was a Mrs. and one was a Miss. Going to school for the first time was quite daunting, particularly because the number of students in the class was outrageous. In my memory, there were 50 kids in the class and that was when 10 of them were out sick. While I know the class was not that large, I’m pretty sure there were more kids in the class than what you’d typically see in a kindergarten class today. Perhaps they figured, “What’s the difference; it’s not like we’re teaching them anything,” but even at five, I suspected there were some serious funding issues at the Board of Education.
The classroom was welcoming and exciting. It had a section with dolls and carriages and a kitchen with a play toaster. There was a huge block area as well. While technically you could play where you wanted, the girls always ended up in the kitchen and the boys always ended up at the blocks. If there had been a pretend flat screen TV showing a football game and a few fake beer cans alongside the blocks, we girls in the kitchen with the babies would have had an even more realistic view of how the lives we were pretending to have would actually play out. There was also a piano and an area where the kids would sit for song time and story time. The trick was to get a spot on the floor as far away as possible from the kid who smelled like farts. That was stressful and I was not always successful in this endeavor, yet it proved to be a valuable lesson that has come in handy throughout my life.
The teachers were given enormous license with what they did in the classroom since they weren’t really accountable for teaching us anything other than not to spit at each other. They came up with some strange activities that even a complacent mother of any other generation would have questioned. There was a boy and a girl in the class who were best friends and attached at the hip and the teachers decided we should have an in-class wedding for them. Another one of their hair-brained ideas was to stage a kindergarten production of Carmen, because an opera about immorality, lawlessness, and tragic death is absolutely appropriate for a kindergarten audience.
The highlight of the morning for many, was snack time. Snack was always milk and cookies. No fruit, yogurt cups, or cheese sticks here; just good old fashioned sugar and preservatives. Surely this was something I could handle. After all, my family dinners had prepared me for milk and cookie time for several years already. But something happened to me every day during snack time. I would get sick. The milk they served in school came in those little single serving cartons and they always smelled sour. After a few sips, I’d be tossing my cookies, frequently into the teacher’s lap. Each day I would return home and tell my mother I didn’t want to drink the milk at school anymore. But I always left out the part about throwing up. So when I asked her if I could stop drinking the milk, my three ring ding mother all of a sudden became health conscious and told me I needed to drink the milk because it was good for me. Several days and dry cleaning bills later, the teachers sent me home with a note saying, “Please don’t give Barbara any more milk money.” Problem solved.
The mothers were each assigned certain days they were responsible for supplying the cookies for snack time. Whenever it was my turn, my mom always bought Chips Ahoy. It was a fine selection, but I didn’t understand why she never threw in a box of Oreos or Mallomars. But I kept my mouth shut because I feared that the alternative to Chips Ahoy might be “really bad cookies” and no five year old could endure the bullying that could come from that.
Clothing selection was another cause for kindergarten stress. In the late 1960’s all the girls wore dresses to school. This was what was considered appropriate back then. But the dresses were incredibly short and very impractical for sitting on the floor during music or story time in the mandatory legs crossed “Indian style” position or when running and climbing in the yard. The first frost was a blessing because it meant you could finally wear tights and stop flashing your underwear at everyone. I often reminisce about those clothes, which I affectionately refer to as “the little hooker collection.”
In addition to the dresses being short, many of my dresses were monogrammed. I’m not sure why my mother was so into this. Was she afraid I might get lost and did she take comfort in the fact that if I did, someone would be able to identify me by my initials and return me to my rightful owner? Did she purchase the dresses thinking they were bath towels or his and her bathrobes? Did she need to monogram my clothes to tell me apart from my brothers? This is still a mystery to me. Years later, I got her back for all the monogrammed clothing. When I took the name Safani, my initials became BS and mom was done purchasing anything with my initials on it…ever.
Probably the biggest conundrum for mom and a great source of stress on school days was what to do with my hair. When I woke up in the morning, my hair was generally a hot mess and there was little time to do anything about it. Mom’s go-to hairstyle for me was the ponytail. But she pulled the hair back on my head so tightly that my face resembled Kenny Rogers after a botched Botox procedure… definitely not my best look.
Even birthdays were stressful in kindergarten. The events leading up to the celebration were wonderful. It was one of the few times a year that you could go to the Jay-Dee bakery and select cupcakes that didn’t have a shelf-life of 3,000 years. You could pick cupcakes with pink icing for the girls and blue icing for the boys. And everyone would be extra nice to you on that day because it was your birthday and you had free food and it wasn’t a Chips Ahoy cookie. The birthday child was allowed to select a helper to assist in the cupcake distribution process. But I had two really good friends and didn’t know who to pick. I struggled with the decision for a few seconds, then realized that both these kids had already had their in-class birthday celebrations, so I was at no risk of being de-selected for future cupcake distribution duties because by the time their next birthday rolled around, we would be in first grade and in-class birthdays would no longer be any fun. So I picked one of them and lived with my decision.
Despite all these challenges, I managed to muddle my way through kindergarten and into the big leagues of first grade. My mind began to expand, but my tight ponytail and short dress never did.