Kindergarten: first steps in a grown-up world. All dressed up and ready to go -- `They look so new'

THE first day of anything is tough, particularly when you're only five years old. The kids who had come here to the Hennigan School on their first day of kindergarten lined up in the main hall with their mothers; they were as wide-eyed as if their eyelids had been pulled back with tape.

``They look so new. . . . She has on her little pink coat. She looks so new,'' said Principal Eleanor Perry, smiling toward a young lady wearing three bows and a pink parka in honor of the occasion.

Mrs. Williams, a kindergarten teacher, was admiring another little girl's Pound Puppy: ``He has a scrunched up face,'' she said.

``He's just scared,'' explained the little girl in a matter of fact and condescending tone, as one who is personally above being scared herself.

``I got peanut butter and jelly in my backpack; my daddy made it,'' announced a small boy, who wanted to elaborate on this theme, but no one was listening.

Mrs. Williams went around smiling at the children. ``Are you ready?'' she asked. ``Are you ready?''

On the outside, the Hennigan School here in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury is a large, unappealing concrete building defaced by grafitti. Bits of paper huddle at the base of the stairs, an occasional courageous weed pierces the sidewalk: It looks like a warehouse flanked on three sides by a vacant lot. Inside, it is like a fortress, its own world of airy cleanliness and order.

And, yes, everything here was ready. If you looked inside Mrs. Potter's kindergarten class, you'd see that the large wooden airplane was ready. The pictures of absurdly beaming snails, with dots on their shells to help you learn to count to 10 -- they were ready. The dolls, the telephones, the pop-up dinosaur and monster riddle books, the letters a-e-i-o-u, and the posters offering general hints on gracious behavior, they were all ready. It is a rich, enclosed, and amusing environment for anybody five years old.

But as the mothers brought their children in, it became clear that one small person, a tiny, delicate-featured boy named Calvin, was not ready. ``I want my Mommy,'' he kept screaming, in the belief that in life if you continue yelling long enough and hard enough for something, it will cause the unrelenting heart to melt.

His mother was ready to take the boy home. ``Shut up. NOW!'' she barked forcefully from the other side of the room, starting toward the boy.

``No, Mom; stay right there. Seriously,'' Mrs. Potter said firmly, holding the boy in her lap.

Mrs. Potter has taught kindergarten for 20 years and she knows how to deal with temper tantrums. ``This is school,'' she said calmly to the screaming little boy. ``This Is The Way It's Going To Be.''

The parents ebbed out the door, leaving things the way they ought to be, just Mrs. Potter and her students.

The motif of the day, it appeared, was going to be apples. Mrs. Potter wore earrings shaped like little apples, and all the children, except for the unfortunate Calvin, who was still howling like a steam whistle, got a red paper apple with their names written on it.

``You look so handsome; look at all my beautiful children today,'' said Mrs. Potter.

Mrs. Potter played the alphabet song to the tune of ``Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star'' on the golden wood piano, which was somewhat out of tune, as all the children sat cross-legged on the floor around her. And then she sang a song about two apples in a tree, and another about all the colors in the rainbow.

``Sit up straight and take a deep breath,'' she said. ``This is the very beginning of one of the most important days in your life. (Would you fold your legs, Christopher, please.)

``Now these are a couple of Mrs. Potter's rules. We have to remember: We put our hands in our laps and keep them away from our face. Another thing that we have to remember -- James! -- when we're in a group like this, we raise our hands. And when you yawn, you put your hand over your mouth and say, `Excuse me.' ''

And for a few moments, the kids sat there with an elegance and grace that was a joy to behold. (You notice, however, that all this decorum needed to be shored up continually; it had a tendency to kind of melt, like an ice cream cone on a hot day.)

After some discussion of what we had done this summer and what people do in summer as portrayed by the posters on the wall, and several people had been asked to keep their hands out of their hair, and away from their feet, and out of their mouths, and to sit up straight please, Mrs. Potter produced a box of shells.

All the kids held the conch shell to their ears to hear the sound of the sea; little Calvin started paying attention and began to listen to all the shells, even to the most plainly non-audible, with a look of wandering interest.

Mrs. Potter called him over and asked him to apologize to the class. He looked around with a doleful little face and said, in the tiniest possible whisper: ``Sorry.''

She pinned on his apple. And then the year really could begin.

Mrs. Potter handed every child a book. ``Books are our friends. They help us to know the things we need to know when we can't go into the wide world and see for ourselves. We have to treat them kindly. We don't have to shuffle the pages; we read nicely,'' she said.

At lunchtime, all the girls and boys were lined up together in pairs, and you got a little insight as to why adults are always so fanatical on this: There are automatically half as many kids to keep track of, and each functions as a kind of anchor for the other.

We headed down the hall: ``The reason why we have to be so quiet is that there are other children learning. Lawrence, this is not jumping time,'' said Mrs. Potter.

At lunch, the class demonstrated the many ways a five-year-old can think of to occupy himself, such as: Make faces. Twirl your bracelets. Kneel on the seat. Toss an apple up and down. Sit solemnly and politely in your lace collar, as others one inch to your immediate left play push with their Rambo and Princess of Power lunch boxes (a new concept in power lunching).

After lunch, Mrs. Potter led all the children back to the class. ``Mrs. Potter has eyes on all sides of her head. She sees everything,'' the teacher said.

Back in the room, Mrs. Potter showed the kids how to take a puzzle out, put it together, and return it nicely, and she gave each child a puzzle to get started.

``Mrs. Potter, can I go play?'' asked Jessica. ``That's what you are doing,'' Mrs. Potter said. ``That's what it's all about.''

Raphael rubbed a wooden plane about on the floor: ``Er. Er. Er,'' he said. Jessica efficiently and correctly scraped the plastic carrot with a plastic knife, then started scraping the plastic pineapple for good measure. Neith, in a pink ruffled dress, started piling dishes in the sink with a great clatter. Christopher found a plastic bug with some cards in it; in his mind the bug became a mailbox. ``Look, the man bought us some tickets,'' he yelled.

``Children this age are very social,'' said Mrs. Potter, keeping an eye on things from the corner of the room. ``They don't have the same inhibitions that adults do. I go into the Stop & Shop and start talking to people -- they'll think I'm crazy. It's all part of the `fabulous fives,' as we call them.''

Mrs. Potter showed mimeographed pictures of leaves and apples to color in; also stop signs and tomatoes -- ``simple stuff that they see every day, but they don't realize that they do have meaning,'' she explained.

All of a sudden your thoughts jump to the weedy schoolyard outside that probably turns brown in winter and dull green in the summer. But inside Mrs. Potter's class, apples are large and round and bright red (or sometimes green or yellow); summer means sandy beaches and shells, autumn means red and yellow leaves, and the seasons change with the beauty and regularity of an ideal world.

``Some children have never had any outside experiences, because their home has many lacks in it,'' Mrs. Potter said. ``So they don't get a chance to see the outside world. . . .

``Part of what I do is set values. The meaning of `yes' and `no,' `please,' `salute the flag' (we didn't do that today), `don't push,' `don't run.' ''

No naps for the little munchkins these days: ``I figure they get 18 hours at home; I've got six hours. Kids are so used to being entertained -- TV entertains them. My job is to stimulate them -- stimulate their minds, stimulate their senses. They can rest at home. . . .

``Actually, for me, the first day isn't the most tiring, it's the last day. You've reached the mountaintop and you have to say goodbye to the kids. . . .

``The beginning is exhilarating and the end is fatiguing -- emotionally -- rather than being bone weary, because you have to say goodbye and you have to pack up and leave. They know what's expected of them; they know I'm not going to be their teacher anymore. `I still love you but you're going to have another teacher, another world,' '' she said thoughtfully.

Each kid was sitting at a desk with an apple and a pile of toothpicks, raisins, and marshmallows to make ``space apples.''

Catherine and Neith, who gave the impression of being the sort of little girls who know everything, plainly felt that less is more; their creations were subtle and identical, consisting of two antennae of marshmallows with a raisin at the point.

Raphael finished his quickly and started pretending it was a plane: ``Er. Er. Er.'' Little Calvin, smiling in an uncertain and rather unfocused way, industriously produced perhaps the most magnificent creation, a kind of marshmallow-and-raisin sun.

At 3 it was time for the kids to get their coats, pick up their apples, and head toward the big yellow buses snorting outside. One child had forgotten his apple. ``I'll go get it; excuse me, Chris,'' said Steven, with a graciousness that would have passed muster at Buckingham Palace.

What exists today of civilization is the direct result of the Mrs. Potters of this world.

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