St. Joseph’s school in Nashua, NH, no longer exists. Today it’s a Catholic Charities office building, and back in 1958 it wasn’t much to look at, either. But it was just six blocks from my home in the back of Hebert’s Market at 189 Kinsley Street, just two blocks from my Mom’s birthplace at 9 Wason Ave., and only a few more blocks away from Jack Kerouac’s childhood home, deep in the French Canadian ghetto of Nashua.
Back in those days, the concept of kindergarten didn’t exist (at least in my experience), and so I guess my Mom homeschooled me through the kindergarten year. My first language was (Canadian) French [“mon pauvre ‘tit gosse”], but from hanging out with the neighborhood kids, by the time first grade came around, my English was primary. And so, St. Joseph’s School taught in English to perhaps 90% French Canadian kids from the neighborhood.
The first day of school has long been a dreamy snippet of anxious sweet memory. Mom walked me the six blocks to the school yard, and after hearing the black-petticoated nun ring the bell, kissed me off into the line. I vaguely recall marching up one flight of stairs to the first room on the left–Sister Yvette’s class. She was no spring chicken, and as you might imagine, did not smile easily. My tilted desk top held a cigar box (no doubt donated by Mr. Duhamel, the local tobacconist), containing a pair of “chop sticks” (for music making), and a few fat pencils with huge erasers at the end. Above the black chalkboard were large flashcards pinned to a cork board and arranged in the first French sentence of the year: “Le cheval noir tire la voiture rouge.”
We stood beside our chairs, and our first duty as a class was to pledge allegiance to the flag (which I knew how to do, thankfully, from years of watching Big Brother Bob Emery on black and white TV). During that first group act, I summoned my courage to peer around the room a bit. As I peeked behind me, I made eye contact with Diane Lavoie, complete with pigtails, a gleam in her eye, and a wide smile aimed right at me.
That sweet moment made everything OK.
While Diane Lavoie never became a childhood sweetheart, our paths intertwined. Years later her dad bought Hebert’s market from my dad, and it became Lavoie’s market. That little market still stands today, though the old apple tree behind it, full of nails, birds nests and broken limbs, has long since passed. And my Mom, turning 90 in a few months, still lives happily just two blocks away…
40 years in the enterprise software industry in Silicon Valley, with a lot of non-profit arts board experience. French Canadian New England roots, distantly related (I'm guessing) to Jack Kerouac, and inspired by his free spirit.
A sweet memory, gracefully told. Hats off to Diane who saved your day!
‘Dreamy snippet of anxious sweet memory.’ Lovely phrase. You reminded me of the cigar boxes we were each issued at the beginning of the year in elementary school. With thanks, from another person raised in the era before kindergarten.
Thanks sincerely for your encouragement…
I especially enjoyed your choice of words and style of phrasing. The cigar boxes reminded me of my grandfather and the fact that we used cigar boxes instead of the store bought ones for our colors and pencils and erasers.
You had different schooling than I did and I found yours, intriguing because it was different. Your details were good for creating mind pictures.
I love that your mother “kissed me off into the line”. Great phrase!