Skip to main content
Monthly Memoirs Monday, 08/01/2022

"My Very Humble Beginnings"

August 2022 Monthly Memoir
If I squint hard I can vividly recall my first brush with life on the fast track. After all, who can ever forget those halcyon days when we first entered a “grownup school” as I referred to Collegiate School, hidden away on Kent Court in my hometown of Passaic, New Jersey?  When viewed through my childhood lens, Collegiate seemed the perfect stomping grounds of my formative years.

When I arrived at Collegiate, I wasn’t entirely a novice, having come from the sheltering arms of Mrs. Roop’s kindergarten, which groomed me for the larger Collegiate experience looming ahead, and where I would happily flourish for many years to come.

But first there was Mrs. Roop, the Grande Dame, whose kindergarten classes were held in a large white Victorian house on Aycrigg Avenue, where a life-sized rocking horse stood inside the vestibule to greet us when we entered.  It was the first thing I saw when I arrived and the last, when my mom or dad came to pick me up.  

Getting to sit on this mammoth horse, and rock, was by invitation only, Mrs. Ford - Mrs. Roop’s assistant – only granted us that privilege if we first proved to be well-behaved and mannerly children.  
It was this kindergarten, which provided my earliest education - where my stick-figure family came alive as I drew them on sheets of cream-colored paper.  It was where we gathered in a circle on our little wooden chairs to hear stories read, and songs sung, in our squeaky voices. The place with the big life-sized block house we could enter, and where my first whiff of claustrophobia took hold when a boy named Roland pushed a block across the makeshift front door, imprisoning me inside until I screamed for someone to come and rescue me.  After that, I never got inside the block house again. Even now, on random days, that horrific scene still occasionally grips me with enough power to temporarily jolt my mood.  

When spring arrived, we were released into the backyard with its jungle gym and sliding ponds, aka, see-saws.  Flower beds punctuated the grounds, and playtime became merry diversions. We played tag and hide-and-seek while the innocence of childhood washed over us as if there were no tomorrows.

I had grown an inch taller by the time I bade my final farewell to kindergarten, to Mrs. Roop and Mrs. Ford, and the rocking horse I sadly would never see again. I said my good byes, while I held my parents’ hands, scampering off to new adventures looming ahead.

The next September, along with other Mrs. Roop graduates, I entered Collegiate, where on the first day, our teacher, Mrs. Ruth Worsley, told me I was holding my stubby yellow pencil incorrectly, which she added, would interfere with my penmanship. That evening I told my parents I wouldn’t be returning to school again to which my dad said: “see how you feel tomorrow.” When tomorrow came, there I was back under Mrs. Worsley’s tutelage, when, at age six I was already bemoaning my fate, as I sat at my little desk with the silver inkwell, staring up at the gigantic blackboard, and dusty chalk erasers.

First grade was serious business.  No more rocking horses to ride. It was now all about books featuring Ned and Nancy and their dog, Spot, as the first tremors of literature were being sown.  Fortunately, now, Ned, Nancy and Spot have given way to more erudite reading material for the first-grade literati.

Mrs. Worsley’s daughter, Wendy Worsley, who pouted continuously, was one of the students.  Her long blonde curls were draped over her plaid jumper while she sucked on her middle finger, and had an air of contempt for the rest of us because of her familial status. Many years later, I saw a girl at Saks who looked exactly like Wendy as I imagined her grownup self to be, still pouting and looking like she owned the world, the result of first grade nepotism. It wasn’t she, but merely a doppelgänger with no callous on her right middle finger.

Collegiate’s first-grade room was spacious and airy. It housed a large walk-in dollhouse with stuffed dolls who emulated real people so as to allow us to role play our respective versions of family life. My make-believe doll mother had red hair as opposed to my real mom’s jet-black tresses. Dad was the doll in a navy suit and tie, whom I figured was a lawyer, as was my authentic father.  Billy Richardson was my husband, and my sisters were little Jane Englehardt and tall Susan Steelman.  There was even a toy dog named “Buck,” who barked when his stomach was pushed. We cooked fake meals on unheated stoves, and slept in twin beds with mini clock radios on the night tables.

Looking back all these years later, I never knew those days would serve as the gold standard for some of the best times of my life. as Mrs. Roop and Mrs. Worsley, equipped with their zealous enthusiasm, gently catapulted us into the world. I think of them now with bittersweet longing for what once was and can never be again. But the montage of memories linger on for posterity.

One afternoon, just as the first-grade school year ended, I wrote a poem and gave it to Mrs. Worsley as a farewell gesture.  She said she would keep it close to her heart. In the end, despite holding my pencil wrong, Mrs. Worsley, in her gray gaberdine suit with the padded shoulders, had made a dent in my life. She personified all that was professorial to a kid, who was hooked on learning.

After first grade was over, I moved on to more challenging times, and nothing was quite the same.  But oh, as those school days unravel now, they are tucked away for safe-keeping. They are the gifts to treasure when the present and bleak world bites us hard, and we need to remember our humble beginnings, when a well-worn rocking horse was all I needed to make me happy.

Judith Marks-White
Stubby yellow pencil
Passaic Collegiate Graduates
Passaic Collegiate School
Passaic Collegiate Entrance