Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Elegy for a special children's place

I'm looking at the sad headline of a story on the front page of the September 8, 2004 edition of the Harrisburg Patriot. (I have a backlog of things my mother sends to me to review.) For sure, the story isn't the saddest, or even the second saddest story on the page. After all, the other headlines read:

"A Grim Milestone: U.S. Toll in Iraq surpasses 1,000 Deaths"
"Floridians' patience wears thin as supply lines grow"
"Deficit will hit record, fall short of forecast"

The story that caused me to pause for reflection today was one that put me in a way-back machine to visit what seems like another lifetime.

"Elite school's closure shocks, upsets parents"

Now, I'd like to recite for you what I remember of my elementary school's alma mater. (Yes, I still know some of it. What does that say?) Sung to the tune of The National Anthem:
O, come along with me, to the Town and Country School
Where the boys are gentlemen, and the girls are perfect ladies.
Here we get our educations, and our social graces too.
In an atmosphere of love, Town and Country is the School.

Quoth I from the story by John Luciew:
The Town and Country Day School, known for teaching French and Latin to pupils as young as 3 and for elite gymnastics and music programs, has closed because of declining enrollment.

After 67 years, the school's enrollment plunged by 50% over one summer without a scandal or sudden rate hike. Presumably, they were squeezed out of operation in a middle class neighborhood by the rise of the charter schools. Why pay for what the state will subsidize? 18 teachers were laid off.

It's true. They taught us French. They sent us down for gymnastics classes weekly. We had a performance bell choir, music classes, and private music lessons. All the talk of "eliteness" baffles me. The school was elite. The clientele wasn't. We were just lucky. This wasn't one of those waiting-list elementary schools with high-powered parents seeking status through their children. This was a place where a lot of middle class kids were treated with love and dignity while growing up in a declining town, their parents making a financial sacrifice to give their children something special.

Reading the story flooded me with memories I didn't know I had. If your parents had to drop you off early in the morning to get to work, they'd give you a bowl of hot cereal in the lunch room. When you came to school in the morning, you checked in with Bob, the custodian, who also doubled as attendance-taker, bursar, and kindly male figure-about-school. Classes were always small. So small that after 2nd grade, two grades shared a classroom and studied the same materials except for reading and math. Every child got individual attention. When I became a chronic, know-it-all loudmouth with a "C" grade in Conduct in the 3rd grade, I was introduced to the concept of independent study by Mrs. Wilson. I could follow my interests without disrupting class. My friends who needed help with reading got more time because I was busy working up papers on the solar system and this guy I'd heard about called "Shakespeare."

And when you got in trouble, you were called to the principal's office. There you got a mighty firm talking to. And after you cried a little bit, you were sent back to class with an encouraging pat and a smile, knowing that you were forgiven but expected to not repeat your mistakes.

If you didn't "fit in" in the dog-eat-dog world of playground politics, you didn't know it at T & C. Some of us were geeks, but wouldn't find that out until we were sent off to other schools. My introduction to an all-white public school in 6th grade after moving really opened my eyes. Even though it was a nice school, the social order of children there was practically mob rule by comparison. Within the first few minutes of the first day I was a social outcast, and would remain so until a reshuffling of the decks in junior high. I can only imagine what my black friends from T & C would have endured. Well, I have a pretty good idea, based on what the black kids in high school endured. (William B. ended up heading back to private school so he could get a little break.)

So, I want to memorialize my fallen school with my most memorable story from it. This story is about, strangely, the one time I hated it...during the summer school session after second grade. Our teacher, name long forgotten, was not one of the regular teachers. Just there for the summer. I don't think she got the ethos of the place. All I remember was her short fuse and frequent class punishments. (Any one student acting up resulted in all of us with our heads down on our tables.) And eventually, we were at near-mutiny. To a one, we all hated our teacher.

Frustrated, one day she called us out to the front stoop and told us that she wanted to talk about why we were misbehaving so much. After a long, confused silence, I spoke up. My oratory went something like this: "We don't like how you're always yelling at us. We don't like how you're always making us all do stuff when just one person does something bad." Then I reached back deep and said "We just don't like YOU!"

And off I was sent to Mrs. Hartman's office, where she would meet me to have me disciplined.

Only I didn't go to Mrs. Hartman's office. The school was in my neighborhood, so out I went the front door. And I ran. Now, it was summertime, so a kid on the sidewalks wouldn't be unusual at all, but I knew I'd done something pretty crazy and dangerous, so I was going only on back ways. Through yards, over fences, down alleys. Anything to avoid traveling along the roads.

Think of a very small Ferris Bueller.

Of course, I couldn't go home. My mother was there. And I couldn't hang out somewhere obvious like the 7-11. The ballfields in the neighborhood were too damned open and conspicuous, so they were out. I started sneaking to friends' houses until I finally found one who was home. We got to playing, which helped to take my mind off of the really huge trouble I was in now. I didn't know how long I'd last, but we'd just have to see. I just didn't want to have to go back to school and face the music that day.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

I had no idea how much of panic this would set off. A vanishing student? Inconceivable.

First there was the roundup. All students to the lunch room so that a careful sweep of the building and grounds could be conducted. I'm sure the call was immediately placed to my home as well. But when those turned up empty, most of the school employees were sent to their cars to comb the neighborhood while a team stayed behind to keep my schoolmates occupied. (What did they say when parents arrived to pick up their kids later?)

So, they never did find me.

My father found me.

I might add that he did so with more panache than he is known for.

See, he didn't go to the front door of a friend's house. He didn't call. No, he hopped a curb in the middle of a street and drove right over the field belonging to the Holy Family Catholic Elementary School. And he rolled that Dodge Charger of his right up to the top of the berm at the edge of this poor kid's backyard.

After a few red-faced, choice yells, I was told to get my butt in the car.

I believe we briefly went home to call off the search. But I wasn't just in trouble for what I'd done. It turns out that I'd stupidly managed to pull my stunt on a day when my dad was taking off a little early so that we could drive down to Baltimore together for a father-son baseball game.


So I got more of an earfull on the way down to Baltimore. But I eventually told my side of the story. I never saw the teacher again. (If I had to guess, the summer job didn't pay enough to cover the grief it caused her, and she probably told them they could shove it. She didn't seem like the happy type.) And the rest of the summer, one of the principals filled in just fine. The mob settled down, and peace returned to our little school.

I'm not sure what this story says by way of properly remembering this treasure of a little school. It certainly shows that I was (and probably always will be) something of a royal pain in the ass.

But I'll always remember that the next day, my buddy Mike Haas told me that all my classmates had cheered when the bell rang at the end of the school day. He said they all yelled "He's free!" (Yeah, right!) And I was taken to the sandbox, where I was shown a castle they had built in my honor.

So, I guess it was the kind of place where seven year olds could have something of a solidarity movement. Or even a bloodless revolution.

The other thing I know is that every adult in that place was probably worried sick about me and had nothing in their hearts but my own best interest. Some of those teachers and administrators were gray-haired when I knew them, and some of them are surely passed on now. But I still have images of their kindness and care with me to this day. I can only hope my son will be treated with such love as he goes off to school.

So good night to Mrs. Hartman and Mrs. Boyer. Same to you Mrs. Weekly, Mrs. Simpson, Mrs. Griffiths and Mrs. Wilson. A little call out for the kids like Herbie Mumma and Franklin Henley. Good night to you Troy Bowman and Khadijah Potter. Devin S., you were my first kiss, and Rae C., you were my first unrequited love. Matt Healy, you were my best friend all those years, and I hope you're happy somewhere today. Eric W., somebody told me once you were having a really tough time of it, and I wish you a little peace.

Bless you, Bob the Custodian, wherever you are.


Anonymous Cassy Buela said...

I remember you. I'm not quite sure what inspired me to Google "Town & Country Day School" - 'just because', perhaps - but I found your blog on "Elegy for a special children's place" (11/24/2004). Herbie Mumma? Khadijah Potter? Eric Woods? Troy Bowman, Kim Gritman, Devin Shephard, Cindy Benner, Mrs. Simpson, Big Bob . . .? I haven't heard those names in years.

I wouldn’t be surprise if you don’t remember me. I was a timid little girl who started at T & C in fourth grade (Miss Ferfarro). If you left after fifth (Miss Spicher), we’d have only been classmates for two years. You missed the Miss Mullikin years.

I didn’t realize T & C had closed. It’s a shame. It was a good place. My brother and I were lucky to be there. Perhaps it wasn’t always a picture of perfection, but on the whole, it was a perfect place for us.

Oh, and I love cats. :)

3:01 PM  
Blogger EB said...

Cassy, I remember you!

I remember you as being very quiet. I have a specific memory of a music lesson where we were taught a song that started "Buelah, the big beast lived long ago..." And that this namesake caused you some amount of teasing.

Why would I have that memory? The human brain is a strange, strange thing.

I like cats too. We have three: a finnicky orange tabby, a sweet pudgy gray, and a young calico who is a colossal pest, but whom we adore because she happily plays with our four-year old son.


4:21 PM  
Anonymous Cassy Buela said...

Oh, for Heaven's sake, one of these days I might actually learn how to type - or proofread. THE cats . . . I love THE cats. Sorry. The last comment from 3:01 PM should make a bit more sense now. Thanks for the memories!

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Herbie Mumma said...

Oh my gosh, this brings back memories. It was a special place for sure. If my email address pops up please feel free to email me. hmumma@hbgyfc.org

10:41 AM  

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