Sunday, August 9, 2015

School Days

Another installment of reminiscing prompted by my trip to Oakland. These too, are true so far as memory allows.  

I started kindergarten at Cleveland School in January, 1944. At that time, kids could start mid-year because of a semester system that divided each grade into "high" and "low." I think it is a good system; a child who wasn't quite ready for school in September could start in January and not have to wait a whole year to begin. And my mother loved it. She still had two more little kids at home; the nest was getting a little crowded.

I was a mid-year kid until I skipped the high third grade, going directly from low third to low fourth grade. My mother cautioned me, "Don't go thinking it's because you're so smart, it's just because your class was too crowded." But, I was immediately placed in the top groups in reading and arithmetic (we didn't call it math until the fifth grade).

The desks we sat at like those in the picture were mounted on wooden runners. I remember running the edge of the sole of my shoe along the runners and along the grooves in the pine floors. The smell of the oiled floors mixed with that of chalk dust and the ink in our ink wells created a particular school room perfume which is lodged in olfactory memory. Third grade had a special rite of passage. When we had satisfied Mrs. McNary we had mastered the Palmer method of cursive handwriting, we were issued pens and blotters and our inkwells would be filled. We dipped our pens in the blue-black liquid and carefully scratched out the final copies of our compositions. 

Mrs. McNary's classroom was in one of the portables. Being assigned to a portable was a special honor because they were heated by coal-burning stoves. Not only did we have blackboard monitors, some lucky boy was chosen for the highly esteemed position of coal monitor, charged with keeping the coal bucket filled, and stoking the fire as needed. Girls could be blackboard monitors, but only boys were allowed to be coal monitors.

When I was in about fifth grade, a boy just a grade behind me died by hanging in the basement of his home. We were told it was a an accident and I never doubted it. Even though these were the years polio was rampant and several friends had been crippled, it had never occurred to me that a child could die. Another tragic event was the murder of the mother of a classmate. His brother had bludgeoned their mother with a hatchet in a ferocious rage in the basement of their home. My classmate continued at school, but I could never bring myself to talk to him after that. Even looking at him was difficult and made me wonder if my brother were capable of such a thing. I couldn't bear the possibility of losing my mother. And I feared tragedy was contagious. 

Clayton Wright was my first boyfriend. One day our fifth grade substitute teacher caught us passing love notes in class. She called both of us to the front of the classroom and while holding me in a hammerlock, squished against her ample bosom, she forced me to read the note aloud to the class. I'm not sure why it bothered me so much, everyone had opened and read the note as it made its way across the classroom, there was no secret within. But, I still remember the mortification and the smell of that woman: a mixture of Vick's Vap-O-Rub and gardenia perfume. However, my love for Clayton was undiminished by public shaming. 

Clayton gave me a chocolate-covered marshmallow heart for Valentine's Day. The tinfoil wrapping was all wrinkled because he had unwrapped it to enclose two dimes so I could meet him for the Saturday matinee at the Parkway theater.

I was more excited about having two dimes than the prospect of going to the movies with Clayton, so I rounded up a couple of girl friends and we headed for the school store. The school store, located  just behind the school on Brooklyn Avenue was in the downstairs corner of the house pictured below with an entry right on the corner. Inside, was a fabulous assortment of penny candy, Mary Janes, sugar dots on paper, wax lips, wax bottles of sweet syrup, several kinds of licorice, lollipops, and both Fleers and Bazooka bubble gum. I bought a little of everything and shared it with my friends. Fortunately, I was able to beg 20 cents from my father to keep my date with Clayton, In fact, the entire fifth grade class kept our date. They sat in a solid line in the row behind us. I was so annoyed that I got up and moved to a seat by myself. As near as I can recall, that was our last date.

The map above illustrated the approximate boundaries of our free range territory. It is about a three mile square area, with Lake Merritt as it's main attraction. The red X marks the location of our house. I know as young as nine years old, I borrowed a friend's bicycle and rode all around Lake Merritt, a distance of 3-1/4 miles. My mother never knew about it. When I was ten, I got a beautiful Schwinn bicycle for my birthday and frequently rode around the lake. So long as we appeared for meals, we never accounted for our whereabouts.

The year I was in fifth grade, I got a violin for Christmas. It was a wretched piece of equipment, the tuning pegs would never hold and it was constantly slipping out of tune. The fact that I was a terrible musician compounded the horror. Even worse, I loved playing the violin and practiced relentlessly while my mother would beg me to please, please, please, use the mute. You can probably tell by my awkward pose that I simply had no feel for the instrument. 

In the picture of the three little musicians, you can barely make out built-in cabinets on either side  of the fake fireplace. The one on the left housed my Story Book Doll collection. Although I never played with dolls, I loved getting new Story Book Dolls to add to my collection every birthday and Christmas. My parents, grandmother (Mimi), and Aunt Helen all helped my collection grow until I had around thirty dolls. When I grew a bit older, they were boxed up and stored in my closet. I noticed one day they were missing and later learned my brother had given them away to his girlfriend. My parents did nothing to help me get them back and he was never held accountable for taking them. I've worked really hard over the years to let go of resentment toward my brother, but this one surfaces from time to time and I'm still mad.

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