By Tim McGrath
“I can’t be with Sandy anymore; she has hair under her arms.” Fifth grader, Bobby, lamenting the loss of his latest love interest.
Well, here we are again. The yearly going-to-school ritual most of us lived through is in full swing. I can’t think of many other experiences so many of us have in common than going to school. The times and places are different, of course. But being corralled into rooms and special buildings with a wide variety of kids for about 12 or 13 years is fairly universal. The entrance into the world of geniuses, misfits, politicians, scoundrels, salespeople, comedians, princesses, and all manner of interesting characters.
In the week leading up to that big first day of my early school years, there was the going-to-the-store to do the yearly gathering. That meant going to Arlan’s, because they had the best deals on EVERYTHING: pink pearl erasers, the twelve pack of pencils, notebook paper, pencil boxes to hold it all. Then there were the crayons. I coveted the Crayola big 128 box with the sharpener built into the back. There was even the color burnt sienna in there, not just blah old brown, but burnt sienna. Never mind it really was the color of something the dog left in the yard; it was something new, different, exciting. I never got that. I usually ended up with some crappy off brand box of 16 or 32.
There were the new shoes from Rose’s Shoes in Galewood; PF Flyers, or Red Ball Jets if Mom was feeling generous, or if I was particularly adept at convincing her they really were the best thing for my feet. After she and old Mr. Rose had a discussion about my feet, though, I usually ended up getting a pair of clunky Stride-Rite orthopedics. Scratchy corduroys, maybe a new shirt or two, depending on if I’d outgrown last year’s model, would complete my new fall ensemble. The gear of a kid starting a new year of school.
Doesn’t seem to be much different today. There’s still the gathering of stuff, the anticipation of heading off to school mixed in with the tinges of sadness on leaving the days of summer behind.
September 1, 1960 through June 12, 2012 found me living in some classroom or another. From my student days in Wyoming Public Schools: the ancient halls of Boulevard Elementary to the brand-new Taft Elementary, to Wyoming Junior High and High School. After that I found myself a student roaming the halls of Calvin College, which led me to being a teacher in classrooms in Fremont Public Schools.
That’s a lot of school, a lot of doors passed through. There was much stuff to be learned: some invaluable, some an exercise in learning simply for the test, some a complete waste. A handful of those kids with whom I became friends with then still remain friends. Others came and went, as life inescapably happened, and they ended up in faraway places, never to be heard from again. Sadly, some have passed on. Teachers who were dedicated, brilliant, engaging; and the ones who weren’t. Thankfully, most of the teachers I spent those blips in time with were caring and good. Through it all there were the stories: some funny, some touching, some sad, some disturbing.
Here’s a few of mine….
Up until that early morning of September 1, 1960, school consisted of playing, eating, sleeping, and generally having a big time at home, mostly with Mom. If there was any formal education to be had, it was watching Captain Kangaroo, Miss Jean on Romper Room, Fireman Freddy, and Buck Barry on Buckaroo Rodeo. It was a comfy life, one I thought could probably work out favorably well into the future. So, when I turned 4, Sunday School came around, and I was hurled into my first experience in a classroom. Gathering each Sunday morning with Miss Helen, her helpers and all the other 4 and 5-year-old kids in a classroom, learning to listen, taking turns, coloring, singing songs, doing puppet shows, and flannel boards helped me get ready for the big show.
September finally came; it was time for my debut.
I still have a crinkly black-and-white photo Mom took of me, my friends Gary, Debbie, and Malia all lined up on the front steps of Boulevard Elementary. Gary and I in those stiff new corduroys, button down shirts, shiny black Stride Rites, Debbie and Malia in pretty little dresses, shiny black Mary Janes, and bright white anklets. Smiles all around. The beginning of our foray into the illuminating world of public school.
I stood in the doorway of my new kindergarten class and, glancing into the cavernous space, there, like a priceless ruby, sat a beautiful red tricycle. I quickly walked in, and looking it over, decided this place was going to be A-OK. Without a moment’s hesitation, I jumped on, and pedaled right out the door. Imagine this, I remember thinking, look at all these hallways I can explore. So just like that, I was off. I toodled down the hallway directly in front of our kindergarten door ignoring all the stares and giggles. As I rounded the corner on my way back past the class, the shadow of a very large woman with glaring red lips, and bulging blue eyes hidden behind silvery cats-eye glasses darkened my path. Putting her ample face inches from mine she shouted, “Just what are you doing? Get back in here right this instant!” She grabbed my arm, yanked the trike out of my little hands, and pinched me, hard. “Don ‘t you ever do anything like that again!” she scolded. Welcome to kindergarten.
Late in the year, the class put together a musical show for our parents. All of the boys were dressed up in white shirts and dark pants, girls in white blouses and dark skirts. We each had some kind of instrument to bang on or shake. What a horrible cacophony it must have been. We also sang some little choruses, much to the delight of the moms. To round out the show was one daring little fellow who performed a solo. He was dressed in white shirt and a bright red bow tie. A little vest completed his ensemble. And remarkably, the teacher had gooped up his lips with bright red lipstick and had rubbed rouge on his chubby little cheeks. When it came his turn to shine, he belted out the selection, then at the finale got down on one knee, arms splayed wide, Al Jolson style. The audience roared their approval. The teacher beamed her delight at the showmanship, our soloist bowed low at the waist. Another successful production in kindergarten, room 1-A.
It doesn’t take long in a school setting for all the new scholars to sort themselves out into the various strata of life in school: the smart kids, not-so-smart ones, leaders, followers, the teacher-pleasers, funny kids, odd ducks, troublemakers. By about 2nd grade those murky classifications were now beginning to solidify, and everyone knew where each other belonged. Of course, with age comes wisdom, and in reality, most of us would have found ourselves in most of these categories at one point or another during our school days. But that realization was years off; not something most second graders would think much about.
Life is pretty good if you find yourself in the smart kid, nontroublemaker camp, but not so much if you’re in the not-so-smart group. Heaven help you if you’re in the not-so-smart, troublemaker group. Back in my early school days there was no such thing as special education, where kids who struggled with learning or behavior problems could get help. Thankfully, today there are many ways kids who struggle can get the help they need and deserve. I had the opportunity to serve for a number of years as an elementary special education teacher. I was able to work with kids from kindergarten to fifth grade who struggled with school. It was a wonderful thing to see progress made when we could help equip the kids who struggled with the tools they needed to succeed. Often behavior issues would diminish when they were successful with their learning, as well. Those days were far in the future, however. Back in my school days, if a kid struggled in the classroom, and was a behavior problem, the results were predictable.
Danny checked both boxes. He struggled in the classroom, and in getting along with other kids and teachers. Plus, he had a physical challenge – he had a wooden leg. The rumor was it had been cut off when somebody slammed a car door on it when he was little. But that was just a rumor, so who really knew. He did have a sense of humor about it, though. He used to take the foot of the leg and turn it around so the toes were pointing backward, usually as we were lining up to go somewhere. He would pull this stunt with the teacher at the beginning of the new school year, or whenever we had a sub. It was fun to see the incredulous expression on the teacher’s face when he pulled this one off.
In spite of his antics, however, things were tough for him. But in all honesty, he didn’t make things easier for himself, either. When the stump of his leg was sore from the chafing of the prosthesis, he’d take the leg off and use crutches. The crutches became a way to annoy other kids and adults. Usually this involved clumping other kids in the head or rear end as he roared past. I saw him do this one Sunday morning in church, too. Poor Miss Laman, the church librarian, became a favorite target. He’d quietly sneak up behind her, stretch out the crutch and whack her on the backside. This particular Sunday she let out a loud, ”Oh my!” As Danny zoomed past her, she scolded him with,” The Lord is watching, Danny!”
It was midway through our fourth-grade year. The class was to read silently in our reading books, then after a certain time, we would read the same thing out loud going from one kid to the next, up and down each row. If you were a fluent reader, this was boring, but not a problem. If you struggled with reading orally, this was misery. Everyone had to do it, no exceptions. The logic being, if you follow along enough times, you’ll improve. Danny hadn’t got that message. When it got to him, he sat there. The teacher hollered at him to, “get with the program!”. Danny couldn’t do it. He put his head in his desk and started crying. “I can’t do it, and you can’t make me!” he hollered back. The teacher pushed his chair back, got up, and stalked over to Danny’s desk. Grabbing him by the arm, he hauled him out of his seat, and dragged him to the front of the room near the door. He picked him up and dumped him hind end first into the wastebasket. Grabbing the edge of the wastebasket, he opened the door, and kicked the trashcan with Danny stuck inside out into the hall. “That’s what we do with the garbage!” he roared as he slammed the door shut.
I lost track of Danny somewhere in junior high, yet he did graduate high school a year after me. After that, I heard various things of him living in Hawaii, then Alaska. Someone said they’d heard he’d travelled the country, making it his goal to visit each state. This same person mentioned he’d heard that Danny had died several years ago in Alaska. As I heard this news, it made me wonder how his life would have been if he’d gotten the help he needed as a little boy.
I had the chance to attend my 50th class reunion a while back. We had 235, or so, kids in our graduating class, and about 80 attended the event. We shared tales of where life had taken us since that sultry June day in 1973 when we walked across the stage, and out the door into a new life. We spoke of children, grandkids, spouses, careers. There were the “remember whens” shared of people, events, and who’d won or lost the big games. We laughed about the shenanigans pulled, and the odd manner of particular teachers, imitating a phrase or tone of voice they had used.
It was quite remarkable to see someone I hadn’t seen in fifty years and recognize immediately who they were. Or, to hear a voice and be able to conjure up images of them in school all that long time ago. It was as if we’d been transported back into the days of our youth for a few short hours. Bittersweet in a way; a time for looking back on what was, and what might have been, if only…..
School, for most of us, is a universal experience. A safe familiar place some run to, for others, a miserable place to escape from. Yet, in spite of the ups and downs, wackiness, and drudgery, it is a time of discovery, laughter, tears, heartbreak, joy.
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