First Grade, First Day by
(7 Stories)

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Riverhills Elementary School was a pale yellow sandstone sprawl, a nice new building surrounded by green grass, bushes, and trees. It was on the Hillsborough River, a wide black snake that also flowed behind my own house just around the corner. I think I was happy enough to go to my first day of school there, and I’m sure my mother made sure I was wearing something nice — probably a red-checked dress with a white collar, or a “pants suit” with a floral design. She would have brushed my hair that morning and made sure I looked all right. She probably walked me to school the first day, but as far as I can recall she didn’t come in the classroom with me — none of the parents did.

No one had prepared me for a darkened classroom.

Mrs. Hudson, a sweet-faced woman with a large halo of dark brown hair, showed me my place. I was seated on the right side of a group of about 21 students, all of us sharing little flat desks, two people to a desk. Not long after everyone was in his or her chair and our names had all been called for “roll,” whatever that was, Mrs. Hudson did something dramatic. She walked to the doorway and flicked off the lights. The long overhead fluorescents went off, and the room became dimmer, though it was still lit by a bank of windows on the left. I was surprised — no one had told me the teachers would turn off the lights! — and listened with great interest as Mrs. Hudson explained that if ever again she turned off the lights, we must all immediately stop talking and pay careful attention to her. I don’t think she used the word “emergency” but the Cuban missile crisis had happened during her teacher training, and I felt her sense of urgency. I made a mental note of what she said: if the lights went out, I must immediately attend to whatever instruction she gave. In fact I was so impressed that I have remembered it to this day, nearly 50 years later.

Mrs. Hudson never again turned off the lights, and neither did any other teacher for the rest of my school career. I guess we were lucky.



Gillian Kendall could read well before first grade, which may be why she became a writer.

Profile photo of Gillian Kendall Gillian Kendall
Gillian Kendall is an American-Australian writer who has lived in five countries and eight states. She has been a barmaid, editorial assistant, English professor, tech writer, and parliamentary reporter. She’s called herself a feminist ever since she heard the term at Douglass College, the women’s branch of Rutgers University. The label has gotten her into a few arguments and once landed her a job at "Mademoiselle." She lives in Florida and does all sorts of writing: travel and nonfiction journalism, as well as fiction, essays, and memoirs.

Tags: school, Florida, education, Cuban missile crisis, teachers
Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Zussman says:

    What a wise teacher, to avoid scaring you with “duck and cover” and instead find a way of getting your attention when needed. Nice details.

  2. Betsy Pfau says:

    You certainly had a memorable first day of school! Those were critical times in our county’s history and they made quite an impression on you too. It was a good thing that your teacher handled everything calmly, yet got your attention. Nicely written, you got our attention too.

  3. Great capture of time and place, Gillian! Sweet story, right amongst the fear and politics.

  4. rosie says:

    I can only concur with what Betsy and John said. In addition I liked the precision of your use of words. The picture was so clear it felt as if I was there looking over your shoulder at your experience.

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