Josh Shaffer

August 24, 2014

Shaffer: First-day memories of school unfaded

It doesn’t take long for Triangle adults to recall their worst first day of school moment, positioned at the front of their memories.

This morning will launch a thousand snapshots in a thousand driveways, all portraits of kids with forced smiles, fussed-over hair and new shoes if they’re lucky – frozen moments of apprentice adults toting lunchboxes, clarinets and stomachs full of dread.

I think we take these pictures with a little vengeance buried in our bliss. We remember standing at the bus stop, pigtails in ribbons, buttoned-up shirts tucked into tan corduroys, dreaming about Popsicles, day camp and Atari while our mothers ordered us to smile.

We remember those pictures framed in living rooms where, years later, friends pointed and laughed at our braces, our bowl cuts, our shirts with foxes and dragons stitched over the heart – never alligators.

So while we stifle sobs and click the shutters at our own children today, The First Day of School, remember that we’re actually photographing tiny humans grappling with psychological turmoil.

At least, that’s how I remember it. And in that spirit I offer these first-school-day recollections from the people in my neighborhood, all of them proof that the strong survive.

“My first-grade teacher’s name was Mr. Bigford,” said Liz Maznik, who owns The Borough in downtown Raleigh, “but I remember thinking it was Mr. Bigfoot, and that I was going to be heading into class with Sasquatch as my teacher.”

There’s no shame in lamenting summer’s pass. My father taught history in public schools for 30 years, and every August, a little patch of leaves in the driveway would start to turn yellow – an omen of coming toil that rang like a homeroom bell.

Farewell bare feet.

“We wore ties in the first grade,” said Mike Phillips, who owns Men at Work carwash on West South Street in Raleigh. “First grade! There I was with a tie, a V-neck sweater, a little skinny neck and a big ol’ head.”

With great learning comes great chaos.

“All I remember is two pictures,” said Sean Lilly Wilson, owner of Fullsteam Brewery in Durham. “One of me getting on the bus for the first day of kindergarten with a jacket, and a second picture of me getting off the bus sans jacket. Comedy gold!”

Even in the more advanced grades, confusion lurks.

“It was the first day of ninth grade,” said Mikhail Jannick, who owns coffee and ice cream shop Crema on Fayetteville. “They mixed up my schedule with my brother’s, and the thing was, my brother was really good in science and math. I’m sitting in AP geometry, and I’m supposed to be in regular (old) algebra. For two days, they just refused to accept what’s going on.”

I cast a wide net over Raleigh. Jayne Kirkpatrick, the city’s spokeswoman, only remembers a strong desire to be somewhere else. Greg Hatem, downtown developer, remembers it raining buckets on his cardboard-stiff dungarees. (He got a toy spaceship and Coke afterward, though.)


I don’t remember any firsts until the sixth grade. I can tell you how Mrs. Metcalf came up with a list of rules to regulate yo-yo use, or how Mrs. McKenna would mark your spelling test answers wrong if you started your letters from the bottom, or how Mr. Maselli gave an A+++ grade to his pets even though he knew their parents did all the work.

But I don’t remember the firsts. Maybe it’s because the middle days felt better and the final days felt like parole. I liked school, but I can remember the last days better than the firsts.

So I guess when I take Sam’s picture this morning, on his way to second grade, it’s like the shot of him I took this summer, starting out at the bottom of the Daniel Boone Scout Trail, not knowing how long it would take to get to the top of Grandfather Mountain. That shot didn’t even get uploaded after I took it.

The best pictures all came at the top.

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