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Gateway: The First Day 1964

A warm September day this first day of school. My first day in Gateway Regional High School just a few yards down the road from my home.
I don't have to rush to get ready, the school is right behind my house, so I stay in bed for as long as I can, savoring the last minutes of summer vacation.
There is no way to prepare for this, to be thrown into a new building with hundreds of other kids from four different towns, four different worlds.
I and everyone else will be creating something new in this rectangle of bricks and mortar, rising up from what used to be Mr. Rizzuto's field.
It wasn't long ago that Paul Avis and my brother and I ventured out into this field as the Bulldog Patrol, our army platoon, ready to take on the Nazis. Mr. Rizzuto spotted us and mistook us for older boys armed with BB guns, and he came roaring at us full speed in his pick up truck.
"Let me see those guns," he barked.
"You boys better not be huntin' out here."
"No sir, I said, "they're just training rifles. You can't load them with anything. They're not real."
Mr. Rizzuto grunted, and satisfying himself that we weren't out to kill anything, he rode off, warning us to be careful.
We did not enter the field again after that encounter.
I walk past what's left of the woods behind my house,the woods where I used to roam all day long. I'm walking in the shoulder of Egg Harbor Road towards that field where Mr. Rizzuto didn't want us to play. It's hot, but the trek won't last very long.
Yellow buses zoom past me, hauling the kids from Wenonah. I can hear them laughing and yelling and talking as they pass me by.
Cars and buses are pulling into the parking lot, and the grounds in front of the school are filled with kids waiting for the first bell to ring.
Is everyone as nervous as I am? Not too many of my classmates from the Heights are in class 7C. I'm not comfortable about this. I don't like letting go of things that are safe and familiar. What if the kids in my class are all smarter than me, or if I'm somehow put into a class of all wise guys or something? Will I be looked upon as a nerd, once again the only boy still sporting a crew cut?
The bell rings and we flow into the building. I've got to find room 214, that's my homeroom; the teacher will be a Mrs. Conaway.
We're directed where to go,and I'm caught up in a current of bodies all trying to find their way home. I feel like I'm in one of those science experiments where they put a mouse in a maze and I'm looking for a piece of cheese, except there's hundreds of other mice getting in my way, and I'll never be able to see the cheese through all these bodies.
Somehow I find room 214, and Mrs.Conaway who's standing outside the door like all the other teachers. She says hello and tells me where to sit, and I take my place and get a look at my new surroundings.
Everything is new. Our desks aren't really desks, they're more like little tables attached to orange/red plastic seats by chrome-plated tubes. More tubes underneath the seat are where you store your books when you don't need them. Not much room under there, and your feet are likely to kick them off if you're not careful. The clock is new, and the flag and the walls and the blackboard-which isn't black anymore, it's a kind of green color.
There's a speaker on the wall and someone is constantly making announcements.
We all have to stand for the National Anthem and to say the Pledge of Allegiance-the whole school all at once-along with that voice coming over the PA system in the wall.
I find out that Homeroom is where they take roll and give out information. It's where our lockers will be, just outside in the hall. Two people share a locker. My locker mate will be this guy from Westville, a kid named Gary Lundquist. He wears glasses and he looks a lot smarter than me. He seems a lot more outgoing than I am, and he's already talking to everybody, making wise cracks the whole time.
Mrs. Conaway tells us that in a few minutes first period will begin, and the bell will ring and we'll all have to wander the halls looking for our next classroom.
Wandering and searching. Wandering and searching. A river of children flowing through the halls. Every once in a while you see someone from your home town and you call out to them but you can't stop, you're caught up in the current, lost souls looking for classrooms.
It will go on like this all day. Wandering, searching. Books piled up in your arms. Meeting new kids and looking for old familiar faces. Lunch in the cafeteria sitting at long tables that look like the ones in those old James Cagney prison movies.
Parts of the school aren't finished yet. The gym's not done, so we'll have to use the cafeteria. The auditorium isn't finished and some of the biology labs aren't either.
I'm not comfortable this first day of school, but it goes by quickly. I don't have time to think about it too much with all the scrambling about and looking at schedules and learning locker combinations and carrying all those books. Bells ringing and announcements over the PA system. Lots of new teachers and a river of children to contend with.
Before you know it the school day is over and I'm back in Homeroom waiting for the final bell to ring.
I made it! It wasn't too horrible, but it was a bit overwhelming. I hardly saw any of my former Woodbury Heights classmates all day. It looks like I'm the only boy from the Heights in class 7C. Who decided that and why?
I think I'm going to like my locker mate, this Gary Lundquist kid from Westville. He's in class 7C as well, so I see him most of the day. There's this other guy named John, but he prefers Jack. He's from Wenonah and I kinda see some of myself in him. I heard him talking about Marvel comic books and it sounds like he likes history just like I do, so I think he and I could be friends. Lots of new last names.
Albright, Banks, Camp, Chattin, Fell and Leeds. I'll sit behind Lundquist in most of my classes. Stens, Stokes, Wernig, Williams, Wiler and Zahn. New names, new faces. New everything.
Kids empty the building at the end of the day, rushing down Helen Avenue back into Woodbury Heights; boarding the buses for Westville, National Park and Wenonah.
It's a short walk for me, up out of the field and past the woods, past the places I used to roam. Past the places where Mr. Rizzuto didn't want us to play.

by Jim Maddox