We walked hand in hand in New Hampshire’s late summer chill, me in my checkerboard dress and my mother in her eternal Madras shorts. A fine mist bathed our legs, but I was enamored of the hand-me-down that looked most like the school clothes in the Sears catalog, and so I trusted in the sun.
Haven Elementary was three blocks from home but new to me⎯a Federal era brick box with a double-wide iron gate, like the orphanage on the edge of town. I was relieved when we used the side entrance.
Pushing our four hands hard against the massive door, nubbly as broken safety glass from decades of painting, we stepped into a vestibule paneled in mahogany wainscoting puritanical in its beauty. My nostrils flared against the smells of disinfectant, paint, paste, and dust. Cracked slate boards and desks with empty inkwells summoned the ghosts of five generations whose Buster Browns ruts warped the glossy wood floors.
We stood in line, strangers amid friends, until it was my turn to shine. I knew kindergarten admission would be easy, even though I was only four. I could see every E on the eye chart, knew my colors and the alphabet, could count all my fingers and toes, and knew that people liked me. School was going to be great. There were more toys than I knew existed, even a toy sink that squirted real water.
After free play came the medical exam at a table in the back corner, remote but in no way private. The doctor was cheerless, with wiry hair, a white lab coat, and pale women’s hands.
He weighed and measured me, pressing too hard on my head, then told me to sit on the table. He glanced at my file, nodding and grunting. His eyes said he owned me and my mother.
He pinched my ear, turning me this way and that to peer into my head. He tapped my knees with a hammer but made no jokes about my kicker as a good doctor should. He grabbed my feet and turned them till my legs hurt. He made me feel more like a doll than a person. Then he plugged a ticker-teller in his ears and told me to take off my dress.
I looked to my mother for help, speechless.
He looked at her with impatience.
She repeated his instructions, unzipping me.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. How could she expect me to undress here, for this cold man with the grabby hands? She, who had taught me to always cover up, even at home, especially in front of my father and brothers.
I panicked. “No. Don’t.”
She shushed me. “Behave.”
“NO,” I shrieked, trying to climb down, but she was too fast and strong. Off came the dress and white slip in a blur, the pastel flowers of my panties wilting in the light of day. Gulping back tears of shame, I surrendered.
It was a long walk home. My mother said she’d never been so embarrassed. “How could you behave that way?” she scolded.
I wondered the same about her.
Jane C. Elkin is the founder of The Broadneck Writers’ Workshop and author of World Class: Poem Inspired by the ESL Classroom (Apprentice House 2014). Her poetry and prose appear domestically and abroad in The Delmarva Review, Kestrel, Angle, and Steam Ticket, as well as in anthologies by Ducts, the Harvard Bookstore, and River Run Books. A graduate of Bates College, Southern Connecticut State University, and the Defense Language Institute, she is a language teacher, singer, and theater critic.
Ms. Elkin’s memoir “A Day of Firsts” was selected for The Delmarva Review’s current edition (Vol. 8), containing original prose and poetry of 35 authors from the region and beyond. The literary journal is published by the Eastern Shore Writers Association with additional support from the Talbot County Arts Council and private contributions. For information about availability and submissions, see the website: www.delmarvareview.com.