The First Day

Originally published in Northern Ohio Live magazine 2002

By Judah Leblang

University Heights/Beachwood, September 1962-1963

On my first day of school, my mother sat in the stuffy classroom with the other parents. The teacher, a prune-faced woman with cat’s-eye glasses, named Mrs. Ulberg, went over a list of dos and don’ts while I nervously scoped out my peers.

After school, I stood on the far side of our street, one I would have to cross each day to get home. I held tightly onto a plastic whistle while my mother explained her plan. Every day, I was to toot my whistle and wait for her (she would be home taking care of my younger brother); she would then come out and usher me to safety. Our trial run began as my mother and her strawberry-red hair vanished behind our front door. I stood alone on the far side, my heart thumping. The whistle hung around my neck, forgotten as I searched for another grownup to guide me home. But the sidewalk was empty, the only sounds the puttering of a far-off lawn mower and the whoosh of afternoon traffic.

Launched by adrenaline, I ran into the street. A green Pontiac ­ complete with fins ­ passed by, and I was halfway home. Then I was flying, spinning, suspended, sinking, as my mind went numb.

I woke in a crib-like bed at Suburban Hospital, my leg hanging skyward at a 45-degree angle. My parents’ faces looked distorted, papery and white. Over the next few days, I pieced the story together. The Pontiac had missed me, but the next car didn’t ­ leaving my hip shattered and my head achy with a concussion.

Over the next few weeks, I gradually gained more freedom, sitting up and watching Tarzan movies on TV. A boy named Roger and I invented jungle games complete with wild adventures in which he shot tigers and rhinos from our imaginary treehouse. I got used to hospital life, happy with my new friend and afraid to leave.

Before I felt ready, my father loaded me into our station wagon like a valuable sack of groceries, as Roger stood in the doorway and waved. I signaled back till he vanished from sight; I missed him already.

My leg, encased in plaster, was finally mending. On October 30, the surgeon removed my cast, exposing my shrunken left limb. The next day, I pushed myself up into a standing position, lurching around our living room like a five-year-old who’d had too much Passover wine, determined not to miss Halloween. My Zorro costume and mask waited expectantly. That night, I proudly limped around the neighborhood, my father carrying me whenever my legs gave out.

Over the next six months, I’d race toward Canterbury School, sniveling with fear, my heart racing like a scared rabbit’s. One spring morning, Mrs. Ulberg chatted with another teacher as I ran into the safety of our classroom. My teacher blinked behind her glasses, regarding me skeptically. “Here’s the boy I was telling you about ­ the crybaby.” She turned to me, her eyebrows knit together. “None of the other boys or girls cry. What’s wrong with you?” I said nothing; it was hard just to breathe. I ate her words like sand, felt them congeal in my stomach.

The following summer, we moved to a new house on a quiet side street in Beachwood. On September 7, I walked to Fairmount Elementary with a few of my new classmates. Our teacher was young, with blond hair and a soft, lilting voice. My stomach still quivered; I could feel tears behind my eyes. But I held them in check. Over time, I adjusted to my new school. The accident and Mrs. Ulberg’s words faded into memory, where I carried them like a scar.