How My School Daze Began: A First Confession

Little Bill Henk

My first day of school gave exactly zero indication that one day I’d be an educator.  Although my behavior back then might have predicted many things, becoming a teacher definitely wasn’t one of them.

Excitement filled the air as my mother walked me to Hillsdale Elementary School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that bright and sunny September day.  I honestly do remember the scene like it occurred yesterday.

No five-year old could have been more excited about starting kindergarten than me. My family made a huge deal of building up my expectations for learning and playing and making friends, and I was raring to go.  My older sister, a straight-A student, loved school, so I naturally figured that I would, too.

But something unexpected happened when my mother handed me off to Mrs. Robinson, my very first teacher ever.  Standing at the classroom door in the basement of the school building, I peeked in.  The scene felt horribly wrong to little Billy Henk.  No wonder.   Every single child sat crying—sobbing actually.

After Mrs. Robinson escorted me into the room, I asked a little girl from my neighborhood what was wrong.  But the tears and the stuff coming out of her nose made it impossible for me to make out what she was saying.  In hindsight, it must have been something like, “We’re all gonna die!”

So, I did what any self respecting young man that age would do.  I started weeping uncontrollably, too.  And I didn’t even know why.  Obviously, there must have been something terrible to fear, and I refused to be its next victim.

Poor Mrs. Robinson, a veteran teacher, looked fearful to me, too, which didn’t help.  That troubled appearance more likely came from the annual shock and chaos every first day of school brings to even the most capable educators.

Like a good and wise trooper, Mrs. Robinson gathered us kids around the piano and started to play and sing familiar, delightfully cheerful songs, one after another.    By rights we should have sung along merrily as we acclimated with glee to our new daily life.  But instead, we just kept crying—every last one of us.  Not to be outdone, with my dread reaching epic proportions, I soon earned the distinction of being the most desperate, pathetic, deafening wailer in the class.

Thankfully, after a small eternity, I gained a small measure of self-control, and my survival instinct kicked in.  Summoning up my very best pitiful puppy dog face, I shifted gears and softly asked Mrs. Robinson, through my tears, if I could just stand by the nearby window to look out.  For some reason, she agreed— probably to get me out of ear shot.

What she couldn’t have known was that my deep horror had sparked a cunning plan.  Neither she nor any of the other kids could see me in action where I had retreated.

So I slid a chair in the general vicinity of the window with the stealth of a Ninja, stepped up on it, and then climbed onto the large recessed window sill.  From there, I reached up – big and tall – and managed to unhook the mammoth window.  Using every ounce of my strength I raised the glass barrier that separated me from freedom, creating just enough space to wiggle through.  My exit was deft and glorious, and best of all, completely undetected!

Pulling myself up to street level from the sunken window well, I promptly ran home on skinny little legs, a “man” possessed.  I waited breathlessly on our front steps until my mother, who had run a few errands, returned home.

I honestly don’t remember ever seeing her eyes any bigger or that vein in her head any more engorged than when she got her first glimpse of me that day. Thinking positively, I hoped she’d be impressed by the superior intellect, rugged determination, and uncommon resourcefulness that enabled my escape.  Not quite.  When her pulse became measurable by human standards, let’s just say that she expressed something other than pride or amusement.

And how about poor Mrs. Robinson?  She told me several years later when I visited the school to give a special talk to parents that my little getaway had put the fear of God in her.  When she counted the kids that day, came up one short, and noticed the open window, her heart sank more than any time in her entire teaching career.  She remembered running to the school office with all of the urgency of a 911 call, long before such hot-lines existed.

Well, my mother firmly walked me back to school, apologized profusely to my visibly shaken teacher, and left me there in the halls of learning.  In many respects, I’ve never really left.applebooks

Thus began my love affair with education.

So why is this story my first post?   Well, a blogger has got to start somewhere, so why not at the beginning?   And, I reckoned that a narrative style might just capture your interest so you’d revisit the blog again soon.

Truth be told, storytelling is only one of the things you’ll get from me here.  In my next post, I’ll tell you what else you can expect.  Thanks for listening.

…Oh, and by the way, Mrs. Robinson is very proud that I became a teacher, a professor of education, and now a dean.  My mom and dad would be, too.

If you have a funny school story to relate, as either a teacher or a student, please consider sharing it with us in the comments.

10 Responses to “How My School Daze Began: A First Confession”

  1. 1 Sarah C. August 12, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    What a delightful story! My oldest child starts school in a few weeks and I think I may have a talk with him about not leaving the building with out an adult.


    • 2 billhenk August 13, 2009 at 12:16 pm


      I’m REALLY glad that you liked the story. And thanks for being the very first person ever to comment in writing on my very first blog post. Your kind words are encouraging and much appreciated. Hopefully other readers will either enjoy what I write or somehow benefit from it.

      Definitely have that conversation with your son!

      By the way, I neglected to mention that after my little escapade, the school put special locks on those windows…



  2. 3 Bob Rickelman August 20, 2009 at 9:52 am

    This sounds just like what my sister, Beth, used to do. My grandparents lived two doors down from St. Marys School outside of Cleveland. I was in sixth grade and (of course) the student who could do no wrong. The nuns loved me! My sister used to run away from school at least once each month in first grade, and hide in my grandparents’ closet. More than once, Father Danko would come to my classroom to ask if I could go find my sister. We knew where she’d be. I think we took turns going to get her!

    Interestingly I was visiting Beth in our hometown last month. We talked about this story from 40-some years ago. Sister Mary Matthew, our first grade teacher, actually apologized to my parents years later for treating my sister so poorly and constantly comparing her to me. She admitted liking the boys better than the girls. Beth swears it scarred her for life.

    Father Danko died suddenly in his early 30s, while digging a ditch for a poor family who didn’t even go to our church. That’s the kind of guy he was, and the kind of role model I had growing up.

    Donna and I were older siblings, so I guess we set the standard for our poor younger sibs. I wonder if that still happens . . .


    • 4 billhenk August 20, 2009 at 8:45 pm

      It’s really sad your sister was made to feel so inferior that she felt the need to leave the school building and seek safe sanctuary in your grandmother’s closet. I did get compared to my sister by some of my teachers, and it did bother me, but not enough to prompt another escape–well, either that or my reputation as a fugitive had the teachers keeping a close eye on me. I think that my sister locked me in a closet one time, though, but I’m not sure about that one. Thank goodness for role models like Father Danko. I want to believe that the sibling comparison stuff doesn’t occur much in schools these days, but I’m sure that there is some of it.


  3. 5 sharon August 20, 2009 at 11:13 am

    Great picture, great story, Bill. One quote I love–“Teaching is a devilish profession, but it hath its charm”—may equally apply to being a student–a both devilish and charming experience. God bless all teachers and students as this next year begins! We all need it.


    • 6 billhenk August 20, 2009 at 8:46 pm

      Glad you liked the story and the photo. You could probably draw a few horns on that image and I’d look like a little devil. I echo your blessing on our teachers and students.


  4. 7 Alex Weightman August 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    I really enjoyed your story and I am looking forward to reading your future post.


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