Back to School

Sometimes the most memorable lessons happen outside the school walls.

Excerpt from the book “They Call Me Orange Juice” by Audrey McDonald Atkins

The first day of school. New clothes, binders, pencils, and paper. New hope for a better year, nice friends, and teachers that aren’t too hard. A chance to reinvent yourself for the year. Find your niche. Make your mark. Change the world. The possibilities stretch out before you like the line in the cafeteria. 

Even though I am no longer in school, I still get as excited about the first day as I did when I was four and started my educational pursuits at Mrs. Jones’s kindergarten. Our school was a long, low cinder-block building behind Mrs. Jones’s house on Lebaron Avenue. Every day started with the Pledge of Allegiance recited with our hands held over our hearts (I thought it was “with liberty and justice for Aud”) and the National Anthem sung in earnest enthusiasm. We were young patriots during a seemingly never-ending, mysterious foreign conflict our parents called Vietnam. Thirty years later, my son would start his days the exact same way, war and all. 

We spent most mornings sitting at round tables in groups of five or six. There were stories and sing-alongs and art projects. Then there was lunch, which everyone brought in little metal lunch boxes or paper sacks. A cheese, pickle and mayonnaise sandwich on light bread for me, thank you very much. No one cared if their sandwich wasn’t in the shape of a star or if there was a peanut on the premises. We just ate whatever our mamas sent or traded it for some delicacy a friend’s mama had made, like a bologna sandwich or a piece of cold fried chicken. We brought Kool-Aid in a thermos or drank from the water fountain. 

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After lunch we had a short nap on plastic mats that always seemed vaguely sandy, and then, it was playtime! Glorious freedom to run and scream and cut capers. There was a big swing set, a merry-go-round, and what was probably the most popular piece of playground equipment ever — a rusted-out junk car sitting on blocks. We swarmed its frame like ants, crawling under, over, and all around it. I remember climbing inside and sitting through the bottom of the enormous steering wheel while my friends rocked me from side to side. 

Red Rover; duck, duck, goose; crack the whip. We learned how to divide ourselves into teams, how to cope if you weren’t picked, how to lead, how to follow, and how to win or lose graciously, for Mrs. Jones would have it no other way. We learned that, if chased, Frankie could run just as fast with crutches and a cast as he could without. We learned that if you pick up a snake and bring it into the classroom, the teachers would scream bloody murder, even if it is just a little one. I learned that if you kick the mean boy in the ankle just as hard as you can, he’ll tell on you, and you will get paddled. Hard. 

We learned so many lessons on that playground where there was no soft mat to cushion our falls, no hand sanitizer, and no time out. So many more lessons than are found between the covers of a book. So many lessons that have made so many things possible.

Born and raised in Citronelle, Atkins shares stories about growing up and living in the South in her book, “They Call Me Orange Juice,” and at her blog

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