The following article was first published on April 26, 2016.
In the fall of 1952, my mom carefully dressed me in my yellow raingear, kissed me on the cheek, and sent me down the long road that would take me to Larrabee Elementary School. There, far from Mother’s focused tutelage, my first year of grade school unfolded at a pace that was so unbearably slow, I feared I would burst into flames out of utter frustration. At home, things moved along nicely. At school, we spent three days studying the letter A. It was if the very fabric of time had been altered.
To measure the rate at which time was passing at school, I set up a test. I decided to stare intently at our classroom clock during our fifteen-minute afternoon nap. I would lay my head on my desk (as required), stare at the clock, and not look away for even a moment as the second-hand slowly marked time. This would give me a feel for the speed at which school life was actually passing. It would not be an easy feat, given that I ate Sugar Corn Pops for breakfast each morning and my lunch always ended with two Twinkies. Under normal conditions, I gave chipmunks the jitters.
As naptime began and my classmates settled into a pleasant respite, I settled into a fixed stare. Not good. It wasn’t long until my body began to vibrate as my skeleton writhed inside my skin. My extremities began to itch as tiny sprites wearing feather slippers skipped across my arms and legs. My eyes bugged as they fought to hold focus on the clock’s plodding second hand.
But I didn’t give up. I hung on until the very last tic of the clock and learned that time in Miss McCloud’s classroom moved at about 1/4 MST (Mom’s Standard Time). It was official. The first grade was going to take four years.
Suffering the slow passage of time was a problem, but it paled in comparison to the challenge of being exposed to foreign thoughts and traditions. The way other people celebrated holidays was particularly unnerving. Wreaths were different. Mom hadn’t made them. Songs were weird. Mom hadn’t sung them. And worst of all, some of the school holidays were completely new to me. Mom hadn’t celebrated them.
For instance, Miss McCloud asked us to pull out our white paste and blunt-nosed scissors one day while she passed out colored construction paper and pipe cleaners. “You can use these materials,” she explained, “to make something special. I’ll teach you how to cut strips of colored construction paper and weave and paste them into a beautiful May basket”—which we faithfully did for the next two days.
When May Day finally arrived, an overzealous PE teacher herded us onto the playground and forced us to weave and careen off one another as we reenacted the pagan ritual of decorating a Maypole. After several false starts, we managed to wrap colored material tightly around a ten-foot pole in one of the least festive and most unattractive holiday productions ever attempted. Teachers declared our Maypole a failure and we kids solemnly marched back to our classrooms.
“I’ve left the best for last,” Miss M. blurted in an effort to lift our spirits. “At the end of today’s class you get to take home your beautiful May basket. And then guess what—you and your parents will fill your basket with candy or flowers and secretly hang it on a neighbor’s front door. It’s a May Day tradition.”
What? I had made my basket for my mother, not strangers. Plus, We didn’t have flowers or candy hanging around the house. Even if we did, I wasn’t about to give any of it away. The plan Miss McCloud was suggesting was heretical—kids giving candy to adults? It was like anti-Halloween.
As the school day came to a close, those children who had bought into the give-candy-to-a-neighbor tradition (meaning, everyone but me) disgorged from the school and raced home in hopes of surprising someone. I hung back because I had my eye on Mrs. Green’s house just up the block. There, right out front for everyone to see, were two rows of dazzling daffodils and tulips. I army-crawled my way across a pinecone-pocked front yard to a bush next to the flowerbed where I kept a keen lookout for anyone who might tattle on me. Finally, as the last student ran off, I bolted to the flowerbed, plucked a dozen flowers, put them in my basket, and made a beeline for home.
Twenty minutes later, I burst through our front door and presented my mother with the most beautiful May basket ever woven, pasted together, and filled with flowers by a seven-year-old boy. Mom smiled weakly and asked me where I found the flowers. Of course, she already knew. Mrs. Green had phoned her and ratted me out. Mom explained that giving her flowers was a lovely gesture, but stealing them from Mrs. Green wasn’t right. What a crummy holiday. The Maypole had been a train wreck and the fact that I had made a stunning May basket had been totally overshadowed by the minor detail that I had pilfered the flowers from an eighty-year-old widow. Never again.
As May Day approached the following year, I vowed to avoid the previous year’s misstep. But then I discovered that there would be no more celebrating May Day at Larrabee Elementary School. Walter, the ex-Boatswain’s mate who lived across the street from us, offered his opinion as to why. It turns out that May Day was becoming known as the Russian holiday for celebrating the imminent downfall of capitalism, and now that Nikita Khrushchev was rattling his saber, May Day was more his holiday than ours.
What? I wasn’t going to be able to redeem myself from last year’s May Day flower filching fiasco because . . . well, I didn’t fully understand what Walter had told me, although I did recognize the name Nikita. By that point in the history of the cold war, every kid knew it was wise to stay clear of Nikita.
So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I secretly made a May basket in our basement. Then, when the first day of May rolled around, I ran straight into the woods behind our house and scampered from one logging site to another. If I got lucky, I’d avoid burrs, thorns, and nettles and find a rare wild flower in full bloom. Of course, nature’s flowers weren’t as large or vibrant as Mrs. Green’s hybrid beauties, but nobody with a phone and the will to use it owned nature’s flowers. Finally I returned home, snuck into the basement, filled my basket with the wild flowers I had worked so hard to collect, and presented it to my mom.
“Oh my!” Mom whispered as a tear rolled down her cheek. “These wild flowers are absolutely beautiful. What a perfect May basket.”
It turns out, I didn’t need Miss McCloud to give me an opportunity to get it right. I realized that trying again and working toward the results I wanted was totally up to me. As confusing as May Day had been to me, I did know what to do about the cancelled celebration. I turned May the first into a second Mother’s day by giving my mom (not a stranger) wild flowers, while everyone else gave up on the holiday altogether. It would take more than the likes of Nikita Khrushchev to keep me from giving my beloved mother a basket of flowers. A lot more.