I went to two primary schools, and the switch was traumatic, though it ended up with my being in love for the first time a year later.
Columbia School was a modern, low building three blocks from my house. It had kindergarten and grades 1-6, there being a junior high (a middle school) nearby. Later, the prison-like 19th-century junior high was demolished and the primary schools all had grades 1-8, while the high schools had grades 9-12 by the time I got there.
I have a few stories from Columbia. In kindergarten there was a big blond kid named Hiles Stout, whom I richly despised. (Now that I think about it, the richness of a five-year-old's despising is probably not that great, certainly nothing like so florid as our elaborate adult hates.) Hiles liked to shove people around. His favorite trick was to trip people so they fell down. He would then laugh maniacally. Already by age five (my father's influence) I knew that not being smart was a definite minus. My dad's most acid word of condemnation was "dummy." So I consigned Hiles to the not-so-clever category.
Parenthetically, Hiles and I became friends toward the end of our high-school years. I didn't think academic stuff was his strongest point, but by then I had learned that there were other important things than being smart. What he had talent for was athletics, and he was the star of my high-school class in all three major sports. Success made him humble (he needed that), and to his credit he learned how to conduct himself wisely with sports writers and with his student age-peers.
But to get back to the kindergarten story, one day we were putting away the wooden blocks (boy toys, girls were not encouraged to play with them), which were stored in a large box on rollers. Pushing that heavy box back into the toy storage room was fun (car driving for kids), and we sought Mrs. Murphy's favor so she would elect us for this task. One day I was chosen, oh joy. But suddenly Hiles pushed me down, grabbed the box, and plowed ahead with it at high speed, head down. He was not lined up quite right when he got to the doorway, though, and he rammed his crown into the door latch's striker plate, which produced a deep gash in his skull and knocked him half silly.
Still sitting in a heap on the floor and very pissed off, I was elated by this accident and his injury; I was hoping he'd die. But (evil inspiration) it came to mind just at that point to imitate his crazy laugh, which I did. I was sternly disciplined for this asocial behavior, and Hiles and I became bitter enemies for the rest of the time at Columbia.
Such violence (kids did not pack guns in those days, proving that life has changed) was quite literally an everyday event when I was at Columbia Grade School. Every day at recess it was somebody. Every day after school on the way home it was somebody else. Little knots of very nasty boys.
The roughness of a blue-collar town like Peoria in the 40s was something real. The choices were two: fight or run. Most of the time I fought. Getting beaten up at home was commonplace, so one took it as natural that you had to fight at school. At home I couldn't hit back, but in school I could and certainly did often enough.
When it came time for first grade, the teacher, Maude Murphy, called my mother and announced: "Mrs. Anderson, I'm old enough to retire, and that's exactly what I will do if you put Jess in my class. I had Sandra and I am not having Jess." From this you can see that we had a certain reputation already, despite our tender ages. But she relented, and many years later, whenever I would play the piano in public, she would be there, proud that she had been my teacher.
In first grade Hiles Stout I had a furious fist fight one day after school. He had new hightop leather boots he was very proud of. He tripped me, and while I was down, kicked me in the face, calling me a sonofabitch. I didn't know exactly what that meant, but I knew he had insulted my mother (the word "bitch" being common enough at our house) so I jumped up and with all my strength punched him in the face. Then I fled home.
Shortly afterward, his mother showed up at our front door, Hiles in tow, his nose now encased in tape. "Look what your monster did to my child," she exclaimed to my mother, "His nose is broken!" My mother, who by now had heard the story from me, and who customarily dealt with other mothers by being extra sweet (not her nature at all, believe me), responded with characteristic no-nonsense directness: "Well, lady, before you get too excited, maybe you should take a look at my kid (hauling me out to show the black eye). Your cowardly lout of a spawn kicked him in the eye while he was down, not to mention cursing and insulting me by calling Jess a sonofabitch. Where did he learn that kind of language? I suggest we call it a draw." Ya gotta love a mom like that!
I was wildly in love with my second-grade teacher, Miss Bentley, but I don't now remember why. It was quite the opposite in third grade, though, because I caught hell for calling Miss Miles a bitch. After all, she had just stuck her long fingernails into my arm, which had hurt me, so I thought calling her a name was quite justified. I got hauled away to the principal's office, and he gave me a licking for it (in those days you could hit a kid in school).
Fourth and fifth grades were unremarkable, but after fifth I was required to change schools because we had moved out of the Columbia district. I thought that was a terrible come-down in social class, that I should have to go to Franklin School.
Fortunately, the first day in my sixth grade class there was a kid who had gone to Columbia whom I rather liked because he was smart, Eddie Shore. Somehow, even when I was 9 and 10 years old, I fell in with the Jewish kids, I guess because of already feeling somehow different from others. It certainly wasn't religious, though. I'm sure it was an early reaction to oppression (long before I knew the word or could articulate such feelings), bonding tacitly with other people who were the objects of social prejudices.
But I adjusted to Franklin readily enough, and in the summer between 6th and 7th grade I feel seriously in love for the first time. That was a great turning point in my life, affecting my choice of which high school to go to, my outlook on sports (which I was notoriously bad at all through grade school), and of course the full blossoming of my sexuality.
Overall, I did well academically. I been taught at home how to read, print, and write longhand, long before I ever got to school. Arithmetic was easy. All my problems were social, not intellectual. I was a constant deportment problem because there were no mental challenges or even adequate physical activities to keep me busy. So I talked a lot, made mischief with others, and was usually in some kind of trouble over that.
But I didn't relate especially well to my peers, because I was so accustomed to solving problems by physical force. Hit first, talk later, and that often involved kids a year or two older. On top of that, I was very skinny and not very big. But lord, I was a stubborn one, that's for sure. So rather to everybody's surprise, including my own, I often got the better of the pitched battles at recess and after school. Organized mayhem, on the other hand, that is to say sports, did not appeal to me at all, because they were team things, and I didn't want to be part of any group. I'm still not a joiner.
Besides, in sports you got hurt for no good reason. At least with fighting I thought there was a reason. I didn't know what it was, but it must exist since one had to fight, want to or not. But with sports, you chose to do something that could get you hurt. I had been knocked flat or fallen countless times in football and I got hit in the face by a foul ball one day while playing baseball -- and I was on the bench, not the field! To me, all that made exactly zero sense.
The conformity we see around us now didn't always exist then, or at least it had a different character. A kid could be different and get away with it without being totally ostracized. In fact, "getting away with it" became something of a badge of pride for me in my primary-school years. I was rebellious at home, too. I figured you were going to get beaten up anyway, so you might as well deserve it as not. I'd be hard pressed to say how much of that aggressive philosophy I've carried forward into my adult life, however.
It was my boyfriend Louis who civilized me, since I felt I had to behave around him and especially around his parents, who were loving but both rather stern. In fact I learned from him how to love people as individuals, and I learned from observing his home life (he was an only child) that not everyone's life was chaos and brutality, that people could love one another as a family. This made my high-school years -- and me -- very different from what had come before.