I had one of my earliest and most memorable experiences one beautiful Monday, October 1955. I was about a month into Mrs. Maxwell’s first grade class at Percy Hughes Elementary School, Syracuse, New York.
I’d managed to bridge the hurdle of my daily school schedule expanding from a half day to a full day schedule: originally having complained to my parents that one daily school “service” was enough. But lacking the power to change things, I was tolerating my incarceration for a full day of reading (a huge mystery for me), and writing, and learning to sit in my desk with my hands folded or else. My lack of control over the situation weighed heavily on me, and led to numerous screaming book slamming and ruler cracking fits from Mrs. Maxwell who was determined I would learn the proper demeanor of a docile scholar despite my difficulty “getting it.”
My life was transformed by electronic technology even then. For a few months my weekly sojourn into the miracle communications device, television, enthralled me in the magic kingdom of Disney Land. Thus, I was transformed by my first hero. Davy Crockett, born on a Mountain Top in Tennessee, greenest place in the land of the free, raised in the woods so he knew every tree, kilt him a bar when he was only three…..was my alter ego. I had encountered my first soul mate…..Davy Crockett was in fact the true personification of me.
My parents recognized and even appreciated my identification with my hero. I had accoutrements which would facilitate my full transformation to my new self. I had fringed pants, a fringed shirt, moccasins, and most importantly my coon skin hat. My armamentarium included a rubber hunting knife and tomahawk, as well as a toy flintlock rifle. When I
assumed my Crockett-wear I was not just in costume; I was me for the first time, having shed my daily masquerade as little Tommy the distracted and sad first grader.
Each day my neighbors and I would make the chilly, often damp 6 block trek to Percy Hughes. We all came home for lunch. It was 1955. All mothers, any of us had seen, were housewives, and every child had lunch at home and then returned to school in the afternoon as any good Christian urchin should
This Monday morning I could not rid my mind of my identification with Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Mrs. Maxwell had a number of times noticed, I was not attending to her school drivel in my front row seat. I had not yet mastered the ability to appear attentive on auto-pilot, while thinking “real” thoughts in my mind. I would soon be empowered to develop that vital coping skill.
I could not hide my disinterest for the alphabet, my numbers, and seeing Spot run, run, run run. Finally the morning was over and I joined my friends to head home to my Mother and lunch. I told her that I’d had a fine morning, and was paying attention like a good boy no matter what Mrs. Maxwell wrote her in those scurrilous notes she kept sending home to her. I posited a new strategy to enhance the academic environment of Mrs. Maxwell’s first grade class that afternoon. I announced my intention to return to school in my full Davy Crockett regalia. My mother declared this was not in any way appropriate, sent me back on my way to school full of vegetable soup and dressed in my usual school attire.
My greatest adventure to date was in the offing. I knew Monday was wash day. Following lunch my mother would descend to our cellar and play with the washing machine. I hung out for a while up the street allowing her time to go downstairs and quietly re-entered our house via the front door and then up the hallway to my bedroom. Breathlessly, I cast off my clothes and accomplished the crockettization of my attire and my persona. I left my morning clothes strewn about the bedroom and stealthily began my second departure to school of the afternoon.
I ran back to school. I arrived just before the school room door was to have closed for the afternoon. I approached Mrs. Maxwell in my Crockett-wear. I was proud, strong, and very in charge. Davy Crockett was going to school. Mrs. Maxwell succumbed to my trans-substantiation and even gave me a smile and a pat on my coonskin cap as I walked past her to my desk. Now this was school. My teacher was in fact not the shrew I’d imagined, and I was going to become exactly the man I determined I should be. In my mind trumpets heralded my grand entrance to this new reality: my identity.
The afternoon began swimmingly, but soon Mrs. Maxwell reminded me of one of the very sacrosanct rules of “good” demeanor for children attending Percy Hughes Elementary school. One must never wear a hat in school. She was confused poor thing, misidentifying me as one of my classmates, as the little Tommy who had occupied this same desk that morning. She couldn’t help it. Adults were generally dumb. I took the affront of her suggestion I remove my most important identifier of who I was, my coon skin hat, with sufferance, and politely ignored her. She was ever more insistent I should remove my hat. Davy Crockett was of course not subject to such ridiculous demands from a mere school teacher. Eventually our impasse reached a point of abject conflict. She unceremoniously, and quite rudely, snatched my Davy Crockett coonskin cap from my head. I had no choice. The only reasonable response was immediate action. I leapt from my seat, rapidly drew my rubber tomahawk, and hatcheted the misguided wench…..enthusiastically and with all my might.
This did not go as well as it would have in Disney Land. She was not daunted by my assault, and began her characteristic banshee screaming routine. She was suddenly amazingly physically adept. In fact she grabbed me and rather violently shook me to the door of the class and propelled me across the outer hallway. I recall hitting the wall on the other side and her screaming at me to get home to my mother. Crushing terror collapsed my contentment and pride. I felt shattered.
I ran home. My mother had found my clothes on the bedroom floor not long before Mrs. Maxwell’s phone call reported my terrible infraction. She waited for me on the front porch and if I thought Mrs. Maxwell had lacked the respect Davy Crockett deserved, my mother was far more ruthless and and brutal in her welcoming me home.
I was soon completely without my offending vestments and appreciating just how much a rubber knife could sting a little boy’s bottom. I spent the afternoon crying and in terror of what might ensue when my father got home…..a far worse cataclysm.
The next day we all returned to school and my first close up meeting with Mr. Northrup, Percy Hughes’ Principal, and much discussion of the even more horrible woes that would befall me beyond my loss of television, and my loss of all my Davy Crockett toys and garments. and my staying in from after school play to practice reading, to which I was sentenced if I did not mend my ways.
I realized that the larger world did not see my reality, and I needed to become clandestine to never let “them” catch me in my world again. My educational career began.