Saturday, August 7, 2010
Elementary memory like a cherished toy
Like a cherished toy, stored carefully between uses in felt-lined, wooden box, I take my grade-school memories out and play with them at times.
I remember, though not always clearly, all the way back to kindergarten in Dolores. The building was new, maybe even the first year or so, dark red brick, clean polished tile. New metal tables with dark, simulated-wood grain, Formica tops. Morning and afternoon classes. They tabbed me as a morning person. And as students, we were asked to bring a small carpet we could unroll and use for the nap-time break.
Ridiculous, I thought at the time, we don’t need no stinking nap. We are burning daylight. I need to find a girl friend. Such rebellion resulted in an ‘outlaw’ reputation at early age.
First grade was tougher, intentionally, I assume. They sent the ‘outlaws’ to Mrs. Denby’s class. Mrs. McRae’s for those that need nurturing. Mrs. Denby’s for those that need some discipline.
First through third grades were back in the old building. Orange-chipped brick with high-buffed, oaken floors that creaked to the sound of marching munchkins. The floors were always polished to high shine with only the occasional interruption facilitated by the orange-colored, sawdust-like compound that they put down when someone barfed all over them.
In each of the classrooms of that old building was a room not encountered since, a coat room — a long narrow partition with hooks down each side to hang coats, shoes and other articles of childhood. A place to escape to, when the going got rough, to wrestle with the neighbor kid — or if the occasion presented itself, to steal a kiss.
Early in my educational career, the old building was heated with a coal-fired furnace, the kind with two great hoppers that some poor, unfortunate soul every morning had to shovel huge scoops of slow-burning anthracite in though the top opening covered by a red hatch. The furnace room was just off to the right as you pushed the crash bar on one of the big double doors out to the playground. A place of great mystery, and teachers constantly warned of the terrible, disfiguring accidents that could occur if you were to wander into the off-limits area. If it is that dangerous, several of us thought at the time, then why is it right in the middle of the whole campus?
But accidents do happen, I tried to explain.
Like the time I accidentally poked Arthur Meyers in the forehead with a pencil. The teacher’s attempt at a ‘scared straight’ warning, involving potential lead poisoning, fell on deaf ears I am afraid. Because I had it (upon good authority) that modern pencils are constructed almost exclusively with graphite centers.
In those early years, the playground itself was tougher place. Much tougher than the coddled children of recent times experience. Just dirt, and a little gravel with coal cinders under the high-bar swing sets and ‘the maximum vertical lift steel slide of death’ on the far edge of the playground. More than one hapless Dolores student left a hunk of scalp, or several square inches of hide hanging from the metal of that big boy, or in the dirt below.
Of course that was by no means, the only available hazard. Red rubber kick balls flying out of nowhere and everywhere, a decrepit Driver’s Education trailer with steel ‘temporary’ stairs that could knock out the most firmly seated of teeth when properly approached, and students contributing to their own delinquency (everybody was Kung Fu fighting, man those cats were fast as lightning, Huh!)— it is a wonder anybody survived third grade. Later the quality of road rash was vastly improved when, in a stroke of infinite wisdom, it was decided to black top the entire surface.
Third grade was a watershed year.
I, as with other fellow condemned ‘outlaws,’ had the good fortune of once again being placed in the ‘needs discipline’ class. We had two teachers that year, rather than just one.
I recall, on perhaps the very first day, Mrs. Rucker, introducing us to the theory of détente. Standing war-like in an offensive crouch, with a four-foot wooden paddle raised high in hand (the paddle air-vented with several offsetting rows of holes drilled in the center), the five-foot, three-inch, 60-year-old music teacher found it necessary to show us her muscle and identify her willingness to apply corporal punishment.
With the other teacher however, that is where the power resided.
Mrs. Wallace, was not only the afternoon third-grade instructor of English, vocabulary and Social Studies; she was also the principal and perhaps, more importantly, lived diagonally right across the street from my family. She was a person I cared about not disappointing, at least not permanently.
When I went back to Dolores recently after a long absence, I noticed that the old orange-brick building has been replaced. Of course, Mrs. Denby, Mrs. Rucker, Mrs. Wallace and most, if not all, elements of the old playground are now long gone.
But still, stored away in safe place, protected in cushioned fabric and encased in a strong box, are set of memories that could rival the best toys on any shelf, in any toy room.