My first day of school, I must have been about 4, was Head Start (a kind of pre-school) in Palo Alto, California. It was so traumatic, as I recall, I had the first of what was to become several emotional breakdowns in my life. Part of this was my isolation from the real world, and the resulting separation anxiety that led to. Up to this point, I clung to my mother, and what friends I had were awkward and coerced. It was the start of becoming “that Larson boy.” I didn’t have a lot in common with other children; by age 5 I was already reading, thanks to my mother who had the patience to teach me. Kindergarten in Palo Alto was less stressful, partly because my mother volunteered at the school.
When we moved to the DC area, the tune soured even more when there was a snafu trying to determine what grade I belonged in. I had already done Kindergarten at age 5, but the minimum age in Virginia was 6. So they had me start Kindergarten again, and tried to move me into 1st grade. That lasted... about a week. The teacher was so mean, and the bullies were so cruel (they were all a year older than I was), I had another nervous breakdown. Back to Kindergarten I went, and most of my life I wondered how different things might have been had I graduated in high school in 1986 instead. I would have had different friends, different teachers, and my mother might not have killed herself if I was already in college. While the path my life took was rough, I still wouldn’t trade it, because all the good times I had back then were with those friends and teachers. And the woman I married, which led to my son... who started his junior year in high school this week and his first foray into vocational training (vet tech).
Most “first days” were filled with nervous excitement. In our area, as I have said so many times that I am sick of explaining it, we lived with a lot of transitory families; military brats, kids of state department families, and the children of senators, representatives, lobbyists, and beltway bandits. So your class might start with at least half of people completely new to the area, plus some kids you knew from last year were gone. But most of the time, I recall taking inventory of kids I knew; you never got the same mix from last year. I would go, “Oh, Susan King and Mike Ehrmart is in my class this year. I haven’t ever had Susan, and I wonder if Mike has changed in the last two years?” Then there was the issue with new teachers.
I recall my second grade teacher, Mrs. Kusmuck. Man, did she have an evil reputation. In the years leading up to getting her, I feared her as all the kids did. Looking back at the school photos, she didn’t see all that bad. She was thin, angular, with a soft, long face and Sandy Duncan haircut. But the second I got the form in the mail that said I got her... oh, man. I almost shit myself where I stood. I was so terrified. Her anger and cruel treatment of kids was legendary in that way grammar school kids exaggerate, added to the fact she was such a hard-ass on the playground. The first day of school, I nearly fainted with nervous fear, and I figured it was only a matter of time before I collapsed with another nervous breakdown. But for some reason, something had either happened to her over the summer, or she did what she could to foster the illusion she was mean to younger students, because the whole year I had her, I would say she was no meaner than any other teacher I had been with up to that point. In fact, she was quiet nice. I recall one day, an older student came in, and she said, “This was a student of mine from a few years ago. She remembers how awful I was.” “Yeah,” said the student nervously. “You’ve really changed since I had you.” Maybe that was true, or maybe it was part of the illusion, because I thought I saw them wink at one another.
Things changed in Junior High. Both the teachers and students became more unstable. I would say my days at Longfellow Junior High were a mixture of hell and torture, but it wasn’t just school, my home life was equally as bad if not worse. I was nervous enough of the whole “six periods, six teachers, you have 4 minutes to get from one class to another” thing. Elementary school was usually one teacher, or maybe one teacher with another teacher you had math with, but that was the exception rather than the rule. But now I had gym, and when I first learned I had to change in front of other kids? I think part of me wanted to stand up and go, “Oh, HELL no!” (or whatever the Valley Girl lingo was at the time, maybe “Totally bogus!”). PE sucked, but gym was a nightmare.
High school was somewhat better in comparison. Although when I started as a Senior, I had no idea what lay in store for me for the rest of the year. I has assumed at the same time the next year, I’d be starting college along with the rest of my high school, which I was told had an impressive over 95% “goes to directly college” rate. I had no idea I was going to be the other 5%, especially since I had been accepted to two colleges (and picked GMU).
My college experience is very weird. Yes, I enrolled in GMU. No, I did not graduate from there, or any other place. Up until my college days, I had taken “college credit” classes through a program Fairfax County had for students, and since I assumed I’d being going into astrophysics, most of it was math. I took calculus BEFORE I went to college, for example, because my physics path was still weak, due in part to the year I wanted to take it, they had cancelled physics, so I took Oceanography instead (which, honestly, was a fair trade, I liked that class). I also took various “under the table” classes at UMD, which was sort of trade that might get certain people in trouble, so I won’t go into it. But I learned UNIX at UMD, along with a lot of other computer science. To me, UMD is the campus I know... or at least around where CFAR used to be.
Some day, I hope to be rich enough to go to college. I am still considering taking an astrophysics degree as I planned so many years ago, if anything, for closure. This time, I suspect I won’t get as many people saying, “Don’t go into astrophysics, there’s no money in it,” because I can say, “Oh, I *have* money... I just want telescope time.” (astrophysics in-joke).