The true story of my stress-filled first day at a one-room schoolhouse.
Part of my life after leukemia has been devoted to finding out why I got this disease in the first place. Believe me, I’m not looking for retribution or litigation, and I don’t have an overly inquisitive mind. But when something attacks you, causes you to suffer for many months, and leaves you feeling like you’re standing on the welcome mat at death’s door, you would naturally like to know why.
Over the years, many scientific studies have tried to determine if stress can cause cancer, or cause it to grow faster. When the body is under stress, the theory goes, it releases hormones -- such as adrenaline and cortisol -- that, in the long term, can cause the immune system to become suppressed. That’s why at times in your life when you were under a lot of pressure—before an exam in school or just before a job interview--you came down with an illness. Scientists believe that this immune system suppression may make the body more susceptible to cancers such as leukemia.
The first five years of my life were spent living with my parents above my grandfather’s general store. I imagine it was not an idyllic life for everyone, but for me it came close. I was loved and felt secure. What else did I need? My stress level was probably close to zero, but it wasn’t going to remain there.
By the fall of 1953, it was time for me to begin school. There was no kindergarten or nursery school, so I went to the bus stop that first day of first grade, my Roy Rogers lunch box in hand, wondering what I was getting into. I had never seen a school room on TV–we were months away from our first set—and I don’t remember my parents having ever described to me what a school was like. Add to that the fact that there were no kids in the immediate area to tell me about it, and you can understand that I was venturing into the unknown.
It didn’t take long for my stress level to spike. I was the youngest one at the bus stop, the bus was late, and the older kids were giving the driver two minutes to arrive, or they would return home. What a predicament I would be in if the bus didn’t get here soon. Should I go home or wait here alone? I was counting on these school veterans to provide leadership that I could follow, and here they were threatening to abandon me. As it turned out, the bus arrived before they could carry out their threat. While this crisis was averted, things were destined to get worse.
In a matter of minutes, the bus deposited us at a one-room schoolhouse about a mile from the store. It wasn’t exactly a one-roomer—there were first and second grade students in one room with one teacher on the first floor, and third and fourth-graders on the second floor with their own teacher. There were outhouses to the right of the school, and a creek ran by on the left. The fourth grade boys called it the “shit crick” and they told us little kids that if we ventured into it, we could expect to be thrashed within an inch of our lives by our teacher’s thick yardstick.
My first day got off to an inauspicious start when our teacher requested that we stand up, one at a time, as she walked to our desk. Apparently, she had sniffed out a bowel movement in our row and needed to find the responsible party. The girl in the front seat got up first. She was wearing a green frilly dress and promptly turned her backside to the teacher for examination. She passed with flying colors. Next up was a boy—I’ll call him Caleb—and the crinkled look on the teacher’s face said she had found her culprit. Caleb was taken out of class and his mother was called, mystery solved. Later, the scuttlebutt on the playground was that Caleb had been nervous about his first day of school and had an accident. “Accident?” one of the fourth grade boys sneered. ”I think he was scared shitless.”
Later in the day I was excused to visit the outhouse but, upon arrival, I discovered that someone—I suspect it was a couple of those fun-loving fourth graders—had set a rock on top of the toilet lid and, despite my best efforts, I was unable to budge it. Luckily, I managed to hold on until I got home, and another embarrassing sniffing exploration–with me holding the hidden treasure this time–was avoided.
I can’t recall the words of our conversation at supper that evening, but it was something to the effect that I informed my parents that my first day at school stank (literally), and I saw no good reason for me to go through that again tomorrow or, for that matter, ever again. For some reason, they found this amusing and, needless to say, I was back on the bus the next morning. My parents had imbued with the ability to learn, and I eventually enjoyed school quite a bit.
Do I believe that my stressful first day really had any connection with leukemia some fifty years later? No, I don’t think it did. But that doesn’t mean there was no psychological damage from it. I’ll tell you sincerely that since that experience, I have never had a desire to live near a creek, I still look at a yardstick as a weapon rather than a measuring tool, and, if I get within a hundred feet of an outhouse, I always get a slight pain in my belly.