Memories are inherently unreliable. We change and distort our memories to suit our own needs and create compelling narratives that help us make sense of our lives. My memories of kindergarten are at best hazy and fragmented. Thinking back on kindergarten it is difficult for me to distinguish between things that really happened and things I may have imagined or dreamed. I doubt the memories of kindergarten I carry with me bear much relation to events as they actually happened at time.
I vaguely remember feeling nervous on my first day of kindergarten. When I got to school, my teacher, Mrs. Tolson, mispronounced my name and I had to correct her (a ritual that would be repeated for the next twelve years of my life). My Elementary School (which housed grades K-6) seemed enormous, and so did most of the other children in comparison with myself. At first, everything about kindergarten was intimidating and unfamiliar. Even the word “kindergarten” sounded strange to me. I had misheard it as “kindergarden.” If this was a garden where were all the plants? Not much about the experience made sense to me initially. But once I had been in school for a few days, it was hard to remember what I had been so apprehensive about in the first place.
Mostly, I remember having fun in kindergarten. I remember playing a lot. The boys in the class favored wooden building blocks that we would use to construct tall fortresses, which we would proceed to knock down with great fanfare. The girls were always doing something else, but I never knew what. I don’t recall the class doing much in the way of academics, although I’m sure there must have been some of that.
I didn’t find everything about kindergarten fun though. One unpleasant thing that sticks in my mind these many years later is the fact that whenever the class had to go somewhere, we were forced to line up by height, shortest to tallest. I can still faintly recall my perpetual embarrassment at having to be first in line. I realize now that this arrangement made it easier for our teacher to keep an eye on all of her students, but at the time it seemed arbitrary and cruel to me.
These are the things I think I remember about kindergarten, but it’s impossible to know how closely they reflect reality without some immutable record like a photograph or video recording. Fortunately, I do have one such record, our class photograph.
Looking at the photo of my kindergarten class drives home just how many of my memories from that time are lost to me now. There are two adults in the picture, one Caucasian, the other African American. I literally have no idea which one is my teacher, Mrs. Tolson. I had expected to find the face of someone I am still friends with in this photograph, but he isn’t there. My good friend Peter Hennig doesn’t show up in my class photos until first grade. I do recognize a few of my classmates’ faces (or at least I think I do): Peter Munch, Jennifer Rucker, Dwayne Redding, Danita Chase, Kerry French, Holly Pearmon, Lisa Debord, Laura Hughes, Sonya Atkinson, Alan Rourke and Sharonda Maynard. I haven’t seen most of these people in decades, but remarkably I can still put names to their five and six year old faces. Other faces tease the limits of my memory, while still others are completely unfamiliar to me.
The photo also stirs memories of the time period in which it was taken. I can recall some of the popular songs that were being played on the radio at the time: “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas, “The Streak” by Ray Stevens (streaking was a briefly popular pastime in 1974), “Band On The Run” by Wings, “Mandy” by Barry Manilow and “The Hustle” by Van McCoy (which kicked off the disco craze). By far my favorite song at the time was “Rhinestone Cowboy” by Glen Campbell. I remember trying to sing along to it in front of my father’s KLH Model Twenty-One transistor radio.
Looking at the photograph it is clear that our parents had as questionable taste in fashion as they did in music. It would be unusual today to see so much plaid in one place outside of a family reunion in Scotland. I wonder if Will will find similar fault with the way we now dress him someday. I suspect so, and I’d like to apologize to him in advance.
Fashion aside, the mid-seventies were a different time in many respects. Few of my classmates’ mothers worked outside of the home. When not in school, children rarely participated in organized activities. Instead, we were generally set free to play as we wished around our neighborhoods, and were only expected to return home for meals. I remember playing kickball, tag and games with lurid names like “Ghost in the Graveyard” and “Smear the Queer” with the other children who lived in my neighborhood. In my memory, childhood was a freer and less structured affair than it is today.
But I think it would be a mistake to fall victim to nostalgia and conclude that I grew up during a “simpler” or “more innocent” time than today. In fact, it strikes me that there are a number of historical parallels between the time I was in kindergarten (1974-75) and Will’s kindergarten years (2007-08). Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, and having sunk to public approval ratings almost as low as the current occupant of the White House, had been forced to resign from office just before I began kindergarten in September of 1974. The earliest thing I can remember watching on television was Nixon’s resignation speech, followed by a helicopter carrying him into the void of history.
Helicopters would again be in the news in April of 1975 as the last American military forces were airlifted out of Saigon, ending an unpopular war with too many parallels to the one the United States is currently ensnared in. Due to an OPEC embargo, gasoline prices skyrocketed, and just like this summer, families were forced to adjust or cancel their summer vacation plans.
As a child, these events were never more than on the periphery of my consciousness, but I’m sure they had an effect on me. More generally, I recall there was a pervasive sense of pessimism about the future. I remember being told on more than one occasion (perhaps in kindergarten, perhaps later) that I belonged to the first generation of Americans that would have less than their parents’ generation. We were constantly being told, in ways subtle and obvious, to adjust our expectations downward. I trust that this is not a mistake that will be repeated on Will’s generation.
Robyn Hitchcock - Kung Fu Fighting
Robyn Hitchcock - 1974