When I think of the witch in Hansel and Gretel, I think of my kindergarten teacher from P.S. 48 in the Bronx, Mrs. Burke. Her one saving grace was that she introduced me to a kaleidoscope, a prism that illustrated how one thing can appear differently. But in all honesty, my fear of kindergarten wasn’t only about Mrs. Burke. I could see no good reason why I needed to go to school. I was a barnacle comfortable in the regular tides of my mother wheeling her shopping cart to Southern Boulevard and my father taking the subway to go to work. The idea of being thrown in with strangers, whom I did not know, made me nervous. I felt school would not welcome me and furthermore, I mistrusted whatever I could learn there.
By the time I entered Mrs. Hershkovitz’s second grade class, I had become resigned to a slow rock climb out of elementary school through a sea of sour milk containers waving banners of white straws. Resistance was not possible.
Sitting at a desk on the first day of second grade, I waited upon my teacher’s instruction. She asked us to fold our papers into thirds. First grade had prepared me for this. I tried to make the columns as even as possible. Then Mrs. Hershkovitz asked us to write our names. Before I did, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and saw a girl with a single long braid. “Do you have an extra pencil?” she whispered. “I forgot to bring one.”
Except for a runt resting at the bottom, there was only one other sharpened pencil in my possession, and I was using it. But she was in need. I exchanged the runt, and silently made the trade.
“Thanks.” She cast her eyes downward. But during recess she caught up with me. She was taller by a few inches and had a broad smile, with black brows that framed her eyes. “Thanks for the pencil,” she said. “My name is Norma.”
I began to stop at Norma’s house so we could walk to school together. Her mother greeted me at the door. “Norma, are you ready? Lenore’s here.” Norma was always in various stages of getting ready. “Do you mind waiting,” her mother would ask in clipped tones so that Norma could hear every word, “or shall I tell her you’ve gone?”
She was the one person I could talk to for hours without thinking of what to say next. In those days, I was perennially shy and awkward. I also admired that she had godparents. Most Jewish families didn’t have such accouterments. Her godmother, was a bird-like woman who wore pillbox hats, years ahead of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Norma’s family accepted me into their household as another daughter. I learned to eat her favorite dish, which was an American cheese sandwich on raisin toast smeared with mayonnaise. My family invited Norma to join us at Orchard Beach where we ate egg sandwiches and my father, an amateur acrobat, taught her how to do a birdie, urging her to point her toes.
Our families did not stand in the way of our friendship. We were growing up in the fifties and Norma was African-American and I was white, but that reality didn’t loom large, a passing fact to which others attached significance.
One Saturday I was invited to attend a Cotillion with Norma at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem. It was a formal affair, some kind of coming-out party for the debutantes of Convent Avenue. As someone who was chubby, my taste in clothing leaned toward large shirts, but somehow, I managed to dress for the occasion, the only little white girl sitting at a table who was asked to dance by a boy who knew I couldn’t. But everyone was kind, amused by my crossing over to a territory that was obviously foreign to me. During that evening, I experienced how Norma must have felt for most of the time—surrounded by white classmates in a white world and needing to rely on charm and intelligence to get her through.
In some way, I think we knew that we were different from our peers; our friendship allowed us to cultivate and nurture that sensibility. We didn’t wish to conform to the demands of an outer world, shaping us the way blown glass is shaped under extreme heat. We trusted each other not to let that happen.
It’s not many people who can say that they’ve been friends with another person since second grade. Norma and I can say that and more—how we’ve helped each other to keep hope alive for a better world.