Shy Little Girl by
(361 Stories)

Prompted By Kindergarten

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Because the Detroit public schools were already overcrowded in 1958, I began kindergarten in February of 1959, as did everyone whose birthday fell between December 1 and February 28. Semesters were separate entities and I was always half way through with a grade when summer came until we moved to the suburbs, when I was tutored in math for four weeks and skipped ahead. So I was the youngest in my class, starting in 6th grade.

I attended the Louis Pasteur Elementary School on Livernois and 7 Mile Road. It was a large school, encompassing grades K-8. I had the same teacher that my brother had five years earlier, though now she was married and named Mrs. Wolf. She seemed nice enough, but I was exceptionally shy, a real skirt-hugger. I hated leaving my mother’s side. We only attended half day, first afternoons, then in the second semester, mornings.

I remember the classroom quite well. It had a paneled area with window seats where we gathered for story time, which was my favorite time of day. We sat in that alcove while stories were read to us. Of course, girls had to wear skirts, which limited our ability to run around and play. We had an area for arts and crafts. I am not talented in that way and could never think of what I wanted to draw. We would go outside to run around, but in winter, it was somewhat difficult to get our boots and leggings on, then coats and hats and mittens. I liked the jungle gym, but had to be careful that no one could see up my skirt.

I remember one incident quite well. A little blonde boy liked me, but I didn’t return his affection. He kept bothering me. To get my attention, he’d chase me around the room, which was forbidden. Nevertheless, he would do it. I didn’t know I could “just say no”. One day, he gave chase; I tripped and cut my lip, which bled profusely. I remember we were making Easter bonnets from paper plates. The teacher stemmed the bleeding, but I couldn’t stop crying. She finally got my brother out of his class to comfort me. She was very annoyed with me (notice, the culprit – the boy who chased me – got away scott free; some things never change). I thought the incident was over until my report card came home. Years later my mother divulged that Mrs. Wolf thought I was an immature cry baby! That has stayed with me these 60 years. I thought that was really unfair. I really didn’t care much for kindergarten. I looked forward to more structure and actual learning in first grade.

Though this is primarily my story, both my children had stories of their own. My older son was also painfully shy. A therapist we worked with thought he wasn’t ready for kindergarten and should do a transition year. But David already loved books and other academic pursuits better than pure play, so we didn’t see the wisdom of keeping him in a setting where nothing but play was rewarded, even though he was a late August baby, so young for the peer group. We compromised and put him in a private school for kindergarten, with a small class size. He made a few friends; it was a very nurturing environment and he did well enough that we brought him into our public school for the rest of elementary and middle schooling. It was only when he reached our very large high school that we again sought private school. He flourished in the intense, small academic environment of that private school and went on to Stanford, a PhD in computational neuroscience at Columbia, followed by a career as a Senior Scientist at Google DeepMind in London, where he remains.

Jeffrey had other issues. By the age of four he was diagnosed with ADHD. He went to our public school and was in a mixed K/1 with a very structured teacher. She was one of the few people who really “got” Jeffrey. She and I remain in touch and she still laughs when she tells the story of his kindergarten screening. A large cut-out clock with the hands clipped on was set up to see if the kids could tell time. Evidently Jeffrey spun the hands around and said,  “time flies”. The teacher laughed and laughed. She thought he was a hoot! She asked for loads of parent volunteers and I volunteered three days a week, every other week in that class (for two years, as Jeffrey also had Mrs. Roberts for First Grade). I helped on Journal Day, Reading Day and Library Day (I just stacked books, while the kids were read to by the Librarian). I didn’t work exclusively with Jeffrey, but could observe his behavior first-hand, stay in close touch with the teacher, and have a free-flow of information. Within a few years, my child also had an Asperger’s diagnosis, followed by Child-onset Bipolar Disorder (which was really a mood disorder, mostly deep depression). He had trouble making any sort of decision, whether with word choices in writing, or what colors to use in drawing. It could often lead to a tantrum of frustration, so we learned to limit choices. He was literal, couldn’t infer; all hallmarks of Asperger’s. He is also brilliant at anything to do with numbers, computing, solving puzzles.

I watched and worked with him throughout his life. He went to a Special Ed school from Eighth Grade forward, where I would help every January as they devoted the month to performing a full-length musical. Jeffrey got into Brown as a Computer Science major, early decision, and now works for Cerebras Systems as a software engineer. He transitioned to Vicki about four years ago. She lives in Silicon Valley and has been self-sufficient since graduating from Brown more than six years ago.

Kindergarten has evolved from various forms of playtime for children to academic prep. In this Sesame Street, screen-driven world, are we pushing our kids too hard, too early? Who can say? I am no longer an educator and have no young children. I am not up-to-date on current theories of education, but I believe that children should be given the time and space to explore and freedom to just have some fun. They are only youngsters once.



Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: Louis Pasteur Elementary, K-8, half day, big brother
Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    What a sad memory of kindergarten, Betsy. And, as you noted, you were essentially punished twice — something that is still pretty common for girls and women.
    Can we at least hope that something terrible happened to the boy, like he was fragged in ‘Nam by his fellow soldiers (a la Niedermeyer in “Animal House.)? Actually, to be fair to your pursuer, I recall the common practice at the time by boys who liked girls to chase them. Not much evolution from the caveman, I’m afraid.

    That said, I am glad you survived to first grade and have soared and roared since then!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I have no idea what happened to that little boy. Yes, I think this chasing thing was common practice.

      Things got better the older I got. My teacher in 2A/3B (weird, I know), I absolutely adored. She was the person who encouraged my love of theater and acting, which of course I pursued all the way through college. We stayed in touch for the rest of her life, as her birthday was two days before mine and we always exchanged birthday cards (we also were friendly enough that she came to dinner to my house, I was at her house once, and she came to see me in one of my high school plays). I knew something was wrong when I didn’t hear from her in December, 1969, my senior year of HS. She died of stomach cancer two months later, aged 42.

      BTW, thanks for reading early. I just added several more paragraphs about my children’s kindergarten experiences, so if you have a chance, take another look.

  2. Marian says:

    Sorry you had such a bad experience, Betsy, but not surprising given the norms and expectations of the time. I think our kindergarten times overemphasized social skills (read extroversion), while now academics are overemphasized. At least some teachers recognized your children as individuals and understood their needs.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, Marian, I think the pendulum has swung too far from our days of all play to these days of too much academics at too young an age. We sought specifics for our kids, as they needed something special along the way. Perhaps today I’d be called a helicopter mom, but I don’t apologize for taking care of my kids the best way I knew how.

  3. Suzy says:

    I echo John and Marian in feeling sad about your bad kindergarten experience. Odd that Mrs. Wolf thought you were an immature crybaby based on that one event. That seems completely inappropriate to me.

    Your stories about your two children are encouraging in that they had good experiences in kindergarten. Maybe if your parents had been able to interact with Mrs. Wolf, the way you did with your kids’ teachers, you would have had a better time back then.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I don’t think it would have occurred to my mother to intervene, or defend me, as I did for my children, Suzy. I think I have always been my own children’s defender because my mother wasn’t mine. I’ve often thought that I took my parenting cues from mother…think about what she did, then do the opposite! That is overstating it a bit. I did learn a lot about the arts and culture from her, just not much about empathy and caring for other individuals. She was an anxious, depressed individual, who used her energy to get through each day.

  4. Laurie Levy says:

    Betsy, I think we were both shy little girls in the Detroit school system for kindergarten. While it is hard to remember all of the details, the emotional aspect of that experience is still there. For you, it was the boy who tormented and hurt you and got off scott free. In those days, people tended to blame the victim for being bullied. Thus, the cry baby label. So sad. Your sons’ different paths point out the importance of recognizing and respecting individual differences. I hate the concept of one-size-fits-all education.

  5. Betsy I’ll just “ditto” the comments that others have already made. That’s a very sweet picture: makes your sad tale all the more touching. Have to ask about the grade “numbering/lettering”: we had the same arrangement of February and September starts. For us, the first semester, regardless of when we started, was “B” and the second was “A”. No real rhyme or reason, I suspect, I do remember in, I think it was third grade, we had a new boy who had moved from, I think, the Philadelphia area at the start of our second semester (“A”) in February. His former school also had the February/September split but they, sensibly, called the first semester “A” and the second one “B”. As a consequence, it turned out that he should have been placed in 3B, not our 3A. And isn’t that a wonderfully fascinating tidbit?

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