As a first-grader back in the 1950s, I was beginning to suspect life could be complicated and confusing when our teacher, Miss Goldberg, read the story introducing George Washington to our class. The name was familiar to me because he was our neighbor but the story she read was quite different from what I knew.
As a 6-year old, I remember taking mail for his son, Allan, to Mr. George Washington’s door, ringing the bell, and when Mr. Washington appeared, I would give him the mail that was dropped in our mail slot by mistake.
My brother’s name was Allen Wadlington and the mail frequently got mixed up, so we had to make this exchange on a regular basis. Mr. Washington was always very polite, saying “good morning” or “good evening” as the time of day required and would ask after the health of my family.
When I started first grade, it took a few days for me to figure out that there could be more than one George Washington.
At least I knew the answer to the question “Who was George Washington’s wife?” Everyone in our neighborhood knew it was “Shirley.”
A new family had moved onto our block and the mother and her three children walked through the neighborhood, introducing themselves to the families. I remember that the oldest son, a teenager of 14, was introduced as “Smokey.”
The kids in our neighborhood speculated that the nickname was because of his skin color and he was sometimes teased unmercifully.
Later in the year, my mother had the following encounter with Smokey: Mom had gone food shopping and Smokey was good enough to help her walk home with the bags of groceries. As he placed the two bags on our kitchen table, Mom asked him what his name was, to which he replied “You know my name Miz B, it’s Smokey.”
Mom shook her head, “No, what is your real name?” He hesitated for a moment, then quietly answered, “It’s Louis.”
Mom said, “Now that’s better. You’re growing up to be a very nice young man, but you should let people know that your name is Louis. What they call you will impact how they treat you and more importantly, how you feel about yourself.”
Louis thanked my Mom for the advice and the 50 cents and left our house with a big smile on his face. By the end of the year, nearly everyone had started calling him Louis, including his mom.
Their family moved away to another neighborhood a few years later and I sometimes wonder if he remembered my Mom’s advice. I hope so.
I had a feeling life was going to get a lot more complicated as first grade progressed. Our class assignment was to know our home address and how to say and spell the street names around that address in case someone other than a parent or neighbor had to walk us home from school.
Working hard on my beige paper with the wood chips still in it, I was eventually able to correctly spell out my street name – Lippincott Street. When Miss Goldberg asked if we knew our city name, I learned to spell – Philadelphia.
I started to get a little shaky when she asked about the state in which we lived – Pennsylvania. Now I was going to need a wagon to carry all those letters around with me. I covered a whole piece of paper with my block printing, just writing my name and full address, starting at one corner and slowing going downhill to the other corner. Miss Goldberg, another piece of paper please.
That’s a lot to lay on a 6 year-old, back in pre-Google and Mapquest days and before online reference websites. The surrounding street names going north didn’t help me: Allegheny Avenue, Venango, Lycoming, Wissahickon, Luzerne, Wyalusing, Lackawanna, Manayunk, Conshohocken, Pulaski, Wyoming and my personal favorites Shackamaxon, Tulpehocken and Wingohocking streets.
Heading south from my house we had Cumberland, Huntingdon, Columbia, Susquehanna, Fairmount, etc. Luckily Moyamensing, Poquessing, Tackawanna, etc., didn’t enter my sphere of knowledge until I started driving in other parts of Philadelphia (and its outskirts).
Years later I stopped complaining when my name fit neatly on the back of my little gym suit (I was quite skinny), while poor Jacqueline Chamberlain’s name started on her left sleeve, ran up across her back and finished just at the tip end of her right sleeve. I would have been crushed to the ground under that weight, but Jackie was good-natured, broad-shouldered and held up well under all those letters.
Looking back, would first grade (or life) have been less complicated if I lived on Main Street, in Ames, Iowa?
Millicent Knight is a resident of Valdosta.