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Prompted By Kindergarten

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September 1954.  At long last I finally got to join my sisters to walk to school.  For real. I was a new kindergartener.  No need for mom.  I was ready.  I guess that’s the benefit of having older siblings, especially when they are just one and two years older.*  I don’t remember being at all upset the previous year, when they went off without me.  I had a great time in nursery school, even when, for the nursery school version of show and tell, I brought my favorite stuffed animal, a large panda bear, and dropped him in a puddle as I exited the car. We hung him up to dry by his ears and eventually all was right with the world.  But I digress.

HER kindergarten teacher had taught the class the wonders of white-bread-and-French's-mustard sandwiches. Blecch.

My kindergarten teacher was Miss Vill.  My next older sister, Suzie, had been in her class the previous year, and Miss Vill knew something about me.  God knows what.  I don’t have a clear memory of Miss Vill’s appearance; she was quite tall, I’m pretty sure, and she had very light-colored hair.  I think at the time I thought it was white but more likely it was a very light shade of blonde, but who knows. Like all of the other teachers at my elementary school, K-6, she was ancient.  At least ninety, or so it seemed.

I remember sitting on the floor.  A lot. Miss Vill was a gifted pianist and had a great voice, so we did a lot of singing.  And accompaniment with primitive percussion instruments – sticks and the like.   And there were age appropriate jigsaw puzzles, typically with about three pieces each.  And big easels where we could draw with our crayons.  I think crayons were provided.  Remember the book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?” Things like “play fair”, “clean up your own mess”, etc.?  Not in our curriculum.  But we were pretty well behaved, for the most part.  I think I had to “stay after school” once for something, but I don’t remember specifics other than endless tears.  And I never learned anything truly revolutionary, as my two-years older sister, Barbara, had learned in kindergarten (at a different school in the city; we moved after that school year.)  HER kindergarten teacher had taught the class the wonders of white-bread-and-French’s-mustard sandwiches.  Blecch.  Guess I was not destined to be an omnivore.

My son Charlie’s experience, thirty years removed, was quite different.  First, the local school system segmented elementary grades so that only K-3 were in the same school.  That made for somewhat smaller schools overall and a more homogeneous grouping of ages.  And all students rode the school bus, an experience I never had.  Charlie’s mom and I were a little concerned about Charlie’s matriculation.  He was a September baby and we started him just before his fifth birthday.  Charlie was bright, and nursery school had taught him social skills.  But still. The day before classes began we all went to the school and peered in the window of the kindergarten classroom.  We could see all manner of equipment – easels and chests of toys and rudimentary musical instruments.  And on a wall, a display featuring shout-outs to those students celebrating birthdays in September.  Charlie was not truly reading at that age but he recognized his name when he saw it, and he beamed when he saw “his” display.  Somehow, we all knew then that everything would be all right.

His grandfather and namesake, my father, also had a different experience in kindergarten.  No such thing.  Students went directly into first grade.  My dad had a brother, my namesake, who was almost exactly twelve months older than Dad.  The fall that Tom was to turn six off he went to school.  Now Tom and my dad were very, very close.  The sudden departure of his brother and best friend was unbearable to Dad. He wailed and carried on throughout the morning.  “Why can’t I go to school?”  “It’s not fair!”   And so forth.  Finally, by midday my grandmother had had enough and off they went to the schoolhouse. My grandmother explained the situation to Miss Margery, the teacher, who responded “Charles will be fine.”  And he was, just as his son and grandson would be, too.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*  Barbara, the elder, never suffers fools, or inequities, silently. At a very young age, struck by the fact that she had to do things that I didn’t, she was repeatedly told by Mom, “but he’s two years younger.”  Now at the outset when we were all quite young that might have been a reasonable explanation.  But it continued through the years well past the point of making any sense whatsoever ultimately to become a standing family joke.

Profile photo of Tom Steenburg Tom Steenburg
Retired attorney and investment management executive. I believe in life, liberty with accountability and the relentless pursuit of whimsy.


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Very nice to hear the stories of the generations; all so different, Tom. From the small schoolhouse of your parents’ generation, to going to school with your sisters, to, once again, the small environment for your son (but quite different than your father’s). So interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Marian says:

    Tom, I love your description of Miss Vill. Seems like every kindergarten teacher in the 1950s was the same woman!

  3. Laurie Levy says:

    Tom, I love the illustration and your details about Miss Vill. Sounds like she did a pretty good job, as did your son’s teacher. As to your father, well I guess things were much less formal back then. No way would that happen today!

  4. Suzy says:

    I never get tired of hearing about your sisters Suzie and Barbara! If only I had had a brother named Tom. But we had no boys in our family for several generations (except the ones who came in by marriage, of course). Glad to learn that your teacher played the piano too and you did lots of singing. I wonder if Miss Vill used bluing in her hair the way both my teacher and Marian’s did.

    • I’m flattered, Suzy, thanks. But I’m sure Suzie and Barbara would be quick to tell you, “Be careful what you wish for.” About Suzie: she’s a Suzanne, formally. Growing up and for a long time afterward, we all – parents and siblings – called her “Sue”. Don’t know what her friends did. It was only in the last, maybe 15-20 years or so that I learned that she always hated “Sue”, so Suzie it was. This was a total shock to me. We are exactly 363 days apart in age. Barbara long has said that we had such a special closeness that it seemed we speak our own language. Most likely true.

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