In a recent New York Times, the front page article was “Pandemic Effect: Absence from School Is Soaring.” Citing numerous reasons for a 30 percent decline in attendance – especially among students in the early years — the reporter quoted a Texas mother describing her daughter breaking down in tears: “Can’t do it, Mom. I don’t want to go.”

She went on to say, “As a mom I feel like it’s okay to have a mental health day.” Really? Is this over-indulgence or empathy for a child’s discomfort?

I am reminded of my own panic at going to first grade. It was the early 1950s when parents had no patience for their children’s breakdowns. There was no such thing as indulgence. Attendance was mandatory.

My mother was sick, hooked to an oxygen tank that I heard hissing every time I passed her bedroom. It was up to my father to walk me to P.S. 6, about five blocks from our apartment on 77th Street at the corner of Third Avenue on the upper east side of Manhattan. I was enrolled there because my parents lied and said that I lived with my grandparents on Park Avenue. I was constantly drilled to give my teacher my address as “911 Park Avenue.” On some mornings my grandfather’s chauffeur, Henry, wearing a cap and black uniform, dropped me off at the red brick building as children rushed through the gates and up the elevator to their assigned classrooms. It was the best Manhattan public school, and parents did whatever necessary to enroll their children – even lie.

Wasn’t lying one of the worst sins a child could commit? My father read me Pinocchio. I was afraid that I’d grow a long nose every time I repeated the big lie. And I hated the thought of actually living with my grandparents – my grandfather, a doctor preoccupied with his patients; and my grandmother, with her temper, who changed all the lightbulbs in her big apartment to thirty watts to save electricity, even when they had plenty of money.

One winter morning, I had breakfast with my sister who was a year younger than I was. She had a delicate constitution and refused to eat her peanut butter and jelly toast. Who does that? Our nanny coaxed her to finish. “I vant you to grow big and strong like your sister, sveetheart.” From Czechoslovakia, my younger sister was her favorite. I knew that after I went off to school, she’d bundle my sister up in her snowsuit and they’d go to the courtyard where the other young children were building snowmen. On some days, John Steinbeck would come out of his brownstone and play with my sister and talk to Nanny – Grapes of Wrath was her favorite American novel.

My father clapped his hands. “Time to go, Loren.” He was smoking a cigarette, and had on his heavy overcoat, his galoshes, and a Mallory welt-edged hat that sat jauntily on his head. To me, he was the most handsome man in the world. Over six feet tall and athletic with a charming smile, he was one of the few men still in Manhattan after the war broke out. Declared 4F because he was nearly blind, he ran his family paint company that manufactured paint for the battleships during the war years.

Reluctantly, I put on my dark green wool coat and struggled into my galoshes. It had snowed the night before and the streets were wet and sloshy as the sun began to melt the fresh snowfall. People headed for work, or like my father and me trying to make the school bell. I dug my boots into the snow. My father dragged me down the street as I wailed, “I don’t want to go to school, Daddy.”

“Stop your whining. I don’t have time for your nonsense. I need to get to work.” We arrived at the gates of PS 6. The mothers stared at my father. Years later, he told me that he always felt ashamed, knowing that their husbands were off to war, and here he was, seemingly healthy, staying behind. They didn’t know his story and he couldn’t wear a placard announcing his “4 F” status.

The elevator door slid open, and Daddy and I stepped in. I suddenly felt my breakfast rising up into my throat, and then I vomited all over my father’s galoshes. “If that’s your way of getting out of school you mistaken, little lady.”

He pulled out a freshly laundered handkerchief and wiped off his galoshes; the smell filled my nostrils. Throwing his handkerchief into a trashcan, he stood in the hallway as I ran to my first-grade class. Mrs. Bruskin was already at the blackboard, writing in big block letters the word “WINDOW.” I hung my coat on a hook at the back of the classroom, took off my galoshes and sat down in my assigned seat. We recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

The radiator pumped in hot air; the windows were shut tight and there was no fresh air. I started to feel sleepy. I didn’t hear what Mrs. Bruskin said, as I stretched my arms in the air yawning loudly. Mrs. Bruskin thought I was volunteering to answer the question she asked, “Ah, Loren, so what does this word mean?” pointing to the blackboard. I had no idea. I sat there in silence as the other children turned around and my face turned beet red, I am sure. It was another miserable day at PS 6.

No one spoke of my accident that evening. Nanny, my sister, and I ate dinner at our little hand painted table in the room we all shared while my mother and father had dinner in the dining room when he came home at seven o’clock. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I knew that my father reported what had happened in the elevator.

A few days later, I found myself in a psychiatrist’s office. “So why do you think you don’t like to go to school? Don’t you want to learn, be smart and go to college one day like your mother and father?”

I didn’t trust him. I picked up a piece of lint on my plaid skirt and rolled it into a little ball, putting all my attention on it. I didn’t want to answer him. He wrote something down on a pad of paper, the pen scritch-scratching like a mouse scurrying into its hole. “Why don’t you like school?”

Choking back a sob, I confessed that I was forced to lie; that I was embarrassed to be taken to school by Henry; that I worried that when I came home my mother would have died, and that I didn’t like being separated from my sister and Nanny. “Have you told your parents any of this?”

“No, they will only get mad at me.”

“I’ll have a chat with your mother once she is feeling better.”
I couldn’t imagine that anything would really change. I stood up and headed for the door. “Don’t forget this.” He handed me my tartan scarf, and as I turned the doorknob he said, “When a patient leaves something behind it usually means they want to come back. Do you?”

“No thank you.”


My parents bought an acre of land outside the city and built a house on it – four bedrooms, a large living room, a dining room, a den, and a screened porch. It was my father’s dream to live in suburbia; my mother, not so much. My sister and I were to share a bedroom, and the adjoining playroom would eventually be converted into another bedroom for one of us. Nanny came with us. My father drove to work across the George Washington Bridge at seven in the morning, returning at seven in the evening. We now had dinner in the kitchen, and my parents ate an hour later in the fancy dining room with the crystal chandelier and aubergine wallpaper.

We had moved out of the city in March with four months remaining to my school year. My mother enrolled me in first grade at the Pleasant Ridge School, a ten-minute walk from our house. Every day I joined a procession of neighborhood children, crossing North Street when the light turned green. The school was one story, with a large playground. At noon, the Good Humor man drove up in his white truck and jingled his bell. I usually had just enough money to buy my favorite popsicle – an orange Humorette. I wasn’t very well-liked. Most of my classmates had been through kindergarten together. I was an outlier, but at least I was not there under false pretenses.

Toward the end of the school year, the first grade class gave a short musical. Each child was to wear something white to represent snow. We were to sing:

Snow is falling on my garden, whirling twirling gently down
Snow is falling on the branches, of the trees tall and brown.

But the flowers are not forgotten, Spring will bring them back to life

For Jack Frost in dreams has traced them, on my window last night.


My mother went to Alexander’s Department Store and bought me a terry cloth bathrobe. Under the fluorescent lights, it looked stark white but when I tried it on, it had a yellow tint to it, as if a dog had taken a pee in the snow. I begged my mother to exchange it, but she said, “I schlepped all the way to Alexander’s and I’m not going back. You’ll just have to wear it.”

Nanny, my mother, and my sister attended the performance. I was placed in the first row as one of the shortest children. My sister told me I did very well. I knew she was lying. I was so embarrassed. If it had been 2024 instead of 1951, would I have been coddled and allowed to stay home for a “mental health day?” I doubt it. Excuses were not tolerated – especially not one that involved an off-color bathrobe. The children probably laughed behind my back, but they didn’t humiliate me with a tweet, or an Instagram post.


Loren Stephens is the president and founder of Write Wisdom and Bright Star Memoirs, ghostwriting companies based in LA. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her stories and essays. Her debut novel, All Sorrows Can Be Borne, about her husband’s Japanese family was published in paperback in 2023.