An ordinary day for most, but not for me. For me it was the first day of school. I remember it always seemed different, but it wasn’t. It was the destruction of everything I’d created and loved.
The horror started the day before with comments of, “SCHOOL TOMORROW” sung in a kind of haunting tone. If that wasn’t bad enough, the adults were happy and smiling at me while telling me about the wonders of going back to school. I was convinced they were nuts! They’d all lost their minds!
I couldn’t help thinking about no more sleeping in and having breakfast with my dad when he came home from the night shift at the post office. No more watching Father Knows Best, Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and all the greats. I got dressed and combed my hair – BECAUSE I HAD TO! I was ready for my first step out of the house into the warm summer sun to embark on my journeys and discoveries. ALL GONE! I didn’t have enough time! There must be a mistake! There was no mistake; this was gonna happen no matter what.
After a terrible night of tossing and turning, it came. The first blow: the alarm. And my mom saying, “Get up now, you don’t want to be late, let’s go!” I kept thinking, “I don’t wanna go, and I hate you.” But I did go, and I didn’t hate her.
I knew the routine well. I either walked to P.S.78 or took the Q18 at Grand Ave and 69th Street. I liked the bus, because the driver went through Hull Ave, Jay Ave, and was at Calamus with incredible speed for a bus on residential streets. I laughed when some adults commented, “HEY SLOW DOWN!” Adults…go figure! After all, sitting in the back of the bus was fun and that’s where the cool kids hung. Even though I was the only kid back there, I was still being cool.
I was still not over the shock of my summer vacation world being crushed, but I did notice this kid who got on the bus somewhere during the Hull Ave/Jay Ave route. I noticed him because he never came to the back of the bus. He sat in the front which was odd because we were the only kids on board and should be sticking together. I called him over and we exchanged names. His name was Gary. I just had to know why he sat in front and not back here. After all, there was a perfectly good seat with a window to hang your arm out of and be cool. His answer was short. He said, “I like it.” I was expecting a bit more, but okay. We really got going talking about P.S..78 and how cool the school looked just like an old haunted evil castle. We were surprised to find out that we would have the same teacher, “Mrs. Dick.” That always brought a chuckle for years to come.
The bus came to our stop at 69th Street and Calamus Ave. We talked all the way to the schoolyard, then got in line to enter that great Gothic structure. The first line to move were the little kids. Then the next, and the next, all in a close single line. Gary and I were in the 5th grade and next to last. The 6th graders were last. We marched in and up the institutional green painted stairway and steel steps. Sometimes someone would start a foot stomping rally for the echo effect, which was quickly stopped by one of the teachers or the principal, Mr. Landau. Another reminder of my past life of fun and freedom, GONE!
Bonjour, Mrs. Dick!
Gary and I arrived at Mrs. Dick’s classroom along with 30 other kids and noticed a mutual friend. His name was Ray. That was cool, strength in numbers. We needed that because Mrs. Dick was known to be mean. (Man, we had no idea.)
As kids entered, some sat while others didn’t know what to do. Mrs. Dick just kept her head down and focused on whatever she was doing until out of nowhere she yelled, “You know how this works. You’re not going to waste my time; small kids in front, big kids in the back, let’s go!” All three of us looked at each other incredulously while scrambling to find a seat before we got in big trouble. Ray was smaller, so he was three seats in front of me. Gary was my height, so we sat next to each other in the back. This seemed to work. Ray was front line while Gary and I held the rear. It felt like we were in a war zone.
Close to the end of the day things didn’t seem so bad. In fact, there were a few cute girls in class and that was okay. I also felt Mrs. Dick wasn’t so bad but there was still something scary about her and I was going to keep an eye out. After all, I was raised on Mazeau Street and wasn’t gonna let my guard down. I told Gary and Ray to be cool because Mrs. Dick wasn’t the normal teacher we had in the past. Gary didn’t seem to be concerned. He thought she was okay and there was nothing to worry about while Ray, on the other hand, was the cool tough guy on the outside. He had tons of Brylcreem in his golden blonde hair making it shine like a new copper penny. He always wore his silver ID bracelet and watch, pointy shoes, and white shirts that his mother washed in a bluing agent that made them glow. Ray wasn’t about to show any fear, but in three days he would be the first of us to discover the wrath of Mrs. Dick.
One day it came after lunch. She was at the blackboard and Ray was talking to his girlfriend, Linda, to his left when Mrs. Dick spun around, walked over to Ray, and pulled the skin under his chin while yelling at him for talking. The whole class was quiet and in shock. Ray didn’t know what just hit him. There wasn’t enough Brylcreem in the world to handle that. When she was done pulling and yelling, she told him to give her 100 Billy Do’s. Ray knew what that was because his sister had Mrs. Dick two years earlier and filled him in. Some of the other kids were filled in by their older brothers or sisters. Some like me had no clue about Billy Do’s. Ray got up rubbing his neck and shaking his head. He looked at me while walking past and opening the stationery cabinet. I was too much in shock to turn around to see what he was doing. I heard the cabinet door close, watched Ray walk up to her desk and place something on it.
Gary and I just looked at each other. Little did we know it wasn’t over. Gary was next. I noticed Gary bending under his desk doing something and at that same time she turned around yelling, “GARY! What are you doing while I’m teaching?” She was on him like white on rice. She pulled his neck, but Gary wasn’t gonna have it. He slapped her hand away, but Mrs. Dick wasn’t gonna have that either… not the Peoples Republic of Mrs. Dick. She pinched the back of his neck, then walked away while telling him to pay attention.
I looked at Gary with a smug grin and said, “I told ya.” Well, that was a mistake. She yelled out my last name, “DEFALCO! TAKE 500 BILLY DO’S FOR TALKING.” Oh no! What the hell do I do? I went to the cabinet opened it and saw all kinds of stationery. I had no clue what to give her because I hadn’t noticed what Ray did, so I’m standing there like a dummy, and she yells out, “What are you doing? Grab the little yellow paper.” I thought, well okay, she wants 500 of these, so I start counting one, two, all the way to twenty. Again, she yells, “DEFALCO! WHAT NOW?” I said, “I’m at twenty.” She says, “No, No, NO! Take one, put your name on it and write ‘500 TALKING!’”
I walked up with my Billy Do in hand and put it on her desk, but I wasn’t that lucky. She grabbed my neck and ask me if I was a wise guy then told me to sit down. Man, that hurt. We never got our necks pulled again but we did get Billy Do’s. These small yellow papers were her way of rating us as students. None of us wanted them as we thought they would stay with us for the rest of our lives. Later we found out they were trashed.
Gary, Ray, and I went on as friends for decades with many memories. When we looked back on our 5th grade with Mrs. Dick, we had fond memories. We all agree her methods today would have earned her a prison sentence, but that out of the many teachers we had, she taught us well. We remember our 5th grade education. We made it through Mrs. Dick’s class, and we had earned our bragging rights. Later, we found out what “Billy Do” really meant. It was a French phrase for Love Letter spelled “Billet-Doux.”
Strange lady, this is my last Billet-Doux to you. RIP, Mrs. Dick, and thanks for the education.
Paul DeFalco grew up in Maspeth.