Theatre was born from the Greeks, or so claimed the first sentence in my high school drama class textbook, but my personal introduction to it came quite surreptitiously in the spring of first grade. Mrs. Young was my teacher and I adored her. How could you do anything short of worship the person who taught you how to read? My parents both had been reading to me since birth and I recognized many familiar words and could already even sound out simple ones on my own before starting school. Somehow, while passing on to us the astounding ability to read, Mrs. Young had instilled in me a real passion for words.
Our class of probably just under thirty students was divided into three groups for reading: Red Birds, Blue Birds and Yellow Birds. Immediately upon being separated that first day, I easily deduced that Yellow Birds were the slow group, because it was obvious these kids really needed help. They were light years behind the rest of us in everything we attempted. It wasn’t as easy to differentiate between Red and Blue Birds, but I was praying that we Red Birds were the smartest. I didn’t want to be thought of as one of the dummies. The irony of our reading group names was that Mrs. Young looked very avian herself. She wasn’t very tall and was super thin with skinny legs, a pointy beak of a nose and tiny dark eyes set far apart.
I loved the Red Birds’s book, which was entitled TAKE OFF, with the characters Kim, Wendy and Tike (their dog) and Mother and Father surnamed either Smith or Jones. That tidbit has slipped from my memory. I listened intently each day when the Blue Birds had their turn and by the time we Reds got to compound words, (something was our first example), I was positive I was in the smart group and breathed a huge sigh of relief. I so wanted to be one of the best in the school.
Mrs. Christianson was the first grade teacher next door to our classroom. A big lady with dyed dark hair and lots of red-red lipstick on her over-sized mouth, she drawled a slight southern accent. She wore colorful clothes – long full skirts like we had seen on Mexican women in our social studies book and oversized noisy jewelry to match. She was very out-going and quite popular. On the playground at recess, if someone got hurt or upset, they would run to Mrs. C and she would hug them like their mom might. Mrs. Young reminded me of a secretary on a TV show because she dressed smartly, in suits most days. That’s why I liked her, because she was quiet and very business-like in a first grade teacher sort of way.
The elementary school I attended in West Buttfok was brand new the year I started first grade. It was a two-story sprawling modern building with a gorgeous library filled with brand new books right across the hall from our classroom, a music room, well equipped art room, and a combination cafeteria/gymnasium/auditorium. I loved how clean and new our school always smelled, even when I left it after sixth grade. My attendance was near perfect. I hated the thought of not being there, in case I missed learning anything that might set me behind everybody else. It frightened me when Mrs. Young told us that there would be a school vacation of nearly two weeks for the Christmas holidays. What in the world would I do at home without my desk and all our books? I worried that after so long I might possibly forget everything I had already learned and would need to start all over again.
Once we got back to school in the new year 1957, our class started an activity together with Mrs. Christianson’s that I understood to be called simply “play”. We would get together for an hour or so a couple of afternoons each week in the empty cafeteria. It was very much like how we played in my neighborhood, which we called “pretend”. At home I was the one who usually created the situation, but here at school, Mrs. Young and Mrs. C told us how the story would go. In my neighborhood, being the only boy and quite didactic as well, I gave the girls orders as to who they would be in our pretending time and what we all would say and do. Of course our home version of the game revolved almost solely around me. I picked the best clothes to wear and created the most important role to portray.
But at school we were doing the exact same thing every time we played. I would sit in a big metal folding chair in the center of the stage in the cafeteria/auditorium. Two boys from Mrs. C’s class stood on either side of me. I was called King Winter and the boys were named Helter and Skelter. They were told to behave silly, making believe that the floor under us was icy so they would fall and slide around and I would have to reprimand them. Sharon Collins, the prettiest and one of the smartest girls in Mrs. C’s class was Queen Spring. She would come in and eventually sit next to me. All the while we were on the stage playing with Mrs. C the other first grade boys from both classes would be marching around to music in one corner, while the girls, in the opposite corner, would be learning a dance with Mrs. Young directing traffic. I felt sorry for all of them, because it didn’t look like they had as much to do as we did up on the stage. They didn’t get to say anything at all! It seemed like they all were just Yellow Birds.
This special play time must have gone on for nearly a month I would guess. It got to the point where Sharon, the two boys and I could do and say everything Mrs. Christianson wanted us to automatically. Sharon might have been smart and pretty, but she had such a soft, quiet voice, Mrs. C said she was afraid that nobody would be able to hear her. I could hear her fine and so could Helter and Skelter. None of us knew what Mrs. C. was talking about. Mrs. Young gave me a paper to take home to give my mother. It had all the things we said when we played on the stage. I had no idea why my mom would be interested in playing our school pretend at home with me. In fact, I was sure she would say she was way too busy and had no time for playing pretend.
One day soon after, my Gramma was at our house when I had gotten home from school. This was a big thing, because she had to take three buses to get there. She was the first person to actually come clean and explain this whole thing to me. She was a seamstress by trade and had this incredible king’s cape she’d made for me to try on. It was pale ice blue satin with a huge stand-up collar encrusted with mother-of-pearl colored sequins that came down into broad panels on either side with a healthy sprinkling of rhinestones for good measure. I don’t know that I ever had a more sumptuous costume to rival this first one in my entire theatrical career. As she measured to mark the hem, she told me I was going to be in a show and that I had ”the most important part” and kids from the school and mommies and grammas would come to see me and she would be there too. Suddenly it hit me, and rather than being apprehensive or frightened, I was totally jazzed to do this thing. Being a Little Rascals aficionado, I had seen Spanky, Alfalfa and Darla do enough shows to know what the business was all about.
Now that I understood it was not just a game of pretend, I studied until I knew my lines flawlessly and made sure everyone would be able to hear me when I spoke, not like quiet Queen Spring. I now remember only one line which was: “Helter! Skelter! Fetch me some ice. Quickly!”. My older brother explained to me that they were like my slaves, so I barked the line imperiously. That last week the marching boys and dancing girls left their corners in the cafeteria and joined us onstage. The boys were Snow and Ice and would wear silver foil collars and march in formation in rows behind my throne to Mrs. C banging on the piano in the wings. The girls were Tulips and Daffodils. They would wear ingenious crepe paper costume creations of red and yellow petaled collars and leaf green skirts. They danced around both Sharon and myself to an insipid English gavot that Mrs. Young was responsible for playing on a record player. I can still hum the tune to this day. Queen Spring had a dark green dress and matching short cape her mother had sewn for her – nowhere near as nice as my Gramma’s costume I proudly strutted about in.
The afternoon of the performance I remember everyone getting ready. The boys were in my classroom, every one of us in white shirts and dark pants. Mrs. Young and some of the mothers were arranging foil collars on each one, instructing them to not horse around or they might tear. The girls were next door in Mrs. C’s room, white blouses and dark skirts and loads of mothers to dress them in their paper floral gowns. They were excited because they were also getting lipstick and rouge. I remember thinking how lucky they were because they did look like flowers – sort of. The boys just looked kind of dumb with tin foil wrapped around their necks. Helter and Skelter were in some variation of white long underwear with clown white on their faces.
They took the boys down to the stage first, then the girls. That left Sharon and me. She was scared and shaking. Mrs. Christianson talked to her quietly and said she could sit in her desk chair while she waited. She asked me if I was nervous. I wasn’t savvy enough to be scared. Then she said she’d better put some lipstick on me too. I told her I didn’t think my mother would want me to wear lipstick and Mrs. C. laughed hysterically as she smeared the dark red tube around my tiny mouth. I was sure I must have looked just like her now. She told Sharon she would come back for her when it was her time and then she walked me down the hall to the stage. She said “You’re going to do just fine. You’re our King!” – all the pep talk I needed.
I remember the sound of the heavy curtains opening slowly, exposing the big cafeteria lined with bleachers in the front and all the second and third graders filling them. I saw the rows of metal folding chairs with moms and grammas I didn’t know behind them. I recall the sound of my own voice echoing back at me as I shouted to Helter and Skelter to fetch my ice. There were the stomping foot steps keeping rhythm to Mrs. C’s piano march, then the crunching, swooshing noise the crepe paper tulips and daffodils made as they danced around Queen Spring and me. And I can still remember the screechy, nervous squeaking that came out of Sharon Collin’s mouth, trying to speak loud enough so everyone could hear, and now I could barely understand what she tried to say. Most of all I remember the sensation that came over me from performing to a sea of dark and strange faces and the odd power I was feeling that I was unable to name. It was a kind of magic I had never felt before. I only knew it felt absolutely wonderful being King Winter and a Red Bird.