We were living in Morgantown, West Virginia, where my dad was working on his PhD at West Virginia University. My mom was teaching seventh grade that year at the junior high. So on the first day she was going to drop me off at the kindergarten and then go on to teach her classes.
The street here—where it curves up around the hill in the Google Streets photo—is US 119, and back in the day it was the main route between Morgantown and Pittsburgh. Seriously heavy traffic—big trucks, cars, everything careening around that big curve. Looks pretty small now, but it was busy then. Those now-brush-covered steps in the photo below led up to where the kindergarten was.
My mom was dressed nice—including shoes with heels.
She took my hand and yanked me along and we took off running. And of course she didn’t go three or four steps before she lost her footing on the cracked West Virginia asphalt and fell and dragged me down, too, and I don’t remember if there was a giant truck barreling down on us but I imagine there probably was. She skinned the fuck out of her knee. Ripped her hose, of course, and blood everywhere. I got skinned up too but not as bad.
We managed to hobble across the highway and up the steps to school. The kindergarten teacher—whose name I sadly can’t remember—helped clean and bandage my poor mom’s knee, and then my mom went off to teach, still shook up and hurting. That had to suck.
I stayed at the school to do whatever it is they do in kindergarten.
So my first day of education was—traumatic.
I guess the school itself was traumatic in most modern 21st Century ways, too. The teacher lady was big on corporal punishment, and she kept a yardstick handy to smack any kid who got out of line. I don’t think I was so outraged at the basic violence of the yardstick—I was already used to getting yelled at/spanked/shook—as I was at the capricious and unjust way the violence was meted out. I think I once came across a Tolstoy quote where he says something like children are more sensitive to injustice than adults—and, yes, Lev Nikoleivich. Truth!
One time. Still burns in my memory. It was nap time and we were all stretched out on our little cots sleeping or pretending to sleep, and this little boy on the cot across from me reached down and grabbed his shoe and threw it across the room. Boom! Then he collapsed and pretended to be asleep.
Here came the teacher stomping in with her yardstick. And who did she wallop? She walloped me! Smacked me four or five times with the yardstick. I’m still mad about that—I didn’t do anything wrong!
The teacher was harsh in other ways, too. One time a little boy put his foot on a chair while he was pulling on his shoe, and the teacher yelled, “Put your foot down! You look like a hillbilly!”
Another time we were singing—trying to sing, right, it was a room full of little kids making noise while the teacher played the piano—and she stopped and yelled, “You sound like a bunch of Indians!”
The food there was, I don’t know, slop of some sort, usually. I had a rep for being a finicky eater as a kid, but in truth the food put in front of me at school or at home was often not very good. At school we had juice breaks a couple of times a day, and the orange juice and apple juice were drinkable but often we got tomato juice—and, ugh. (Years later I hooked up with a woman and after we whatevered in the backyard she got us something to drink—tomato juice! I said, “Wow, this reminds me of kindergarten,” and she looked at me like I was a nut).
I was usually the last kid to get picked up. I would wait by the window and look for our car to come around the bend. There was a little store down there in the bend and sometimes we’d go inside and get a fudgesicle. (The building is still there—now looks like a bar/restaurant of some sort.
On cold days/rainy days we played inside. It was mostly gendered—the girls played with dolls and whatever. Boys played with these colorful cardboard boxes—blocks. We’d build forts and castles with the blocks. The blocks had seen much use—they were kind of tattered around the corners. Then the school then got a new set of blocks, and one day we were building something with the new blocks and the teacher came into the room and said “Children, the president is dead.” And I still remember how my stomach just--dropped—and that’s the beginning of a different story.
Burnt House is a darkly comic, gothic exploration of a West Virginia town and the people who live there. "Tragedies," one character reports. "Screw-ups. Cruelties. Bad, bad, sad things that nobody ever forgot, things people never talked about openly but only sometimes related in whispered hinting halfstories after dark."
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