Friday, August 4, 2017

Center Road Elementary School: Rewind

I have a pretty good memory, but am getting old enough that a few leaves are starting to fall off the tree. So I'm going to get the rake out and pile them up one last time before the wind blows them away forever. I did this a few years ago on another blog and was happy with the results, although Blogger shows the posts in reverse order and I'm too lazy to figure out how to change it.

This post will concern the same time frame, but there won't be a narrative, just some memories. I went to Center Road Elementary School in Perry, Ohio from 1977 to 1980. Back then, it was a one-story brick building with three classroom hallways (one for each grade, third through fifth) with one of those combination cafeteria/gyms at one end. Today, it's just a grassy field. But... I remember a few things.

It was built on flat ground, but the third-grade hallway had a weird slope in the middle of it. I wonder if it was a construction mistake. That hallway was where the janitor's closet was. Some of the teachers would assign a student to clean the erasers, and the eraser-cleaning machine was in the janitor's closet. It was dark and kind of spooky in there. There was one of those "civil defense" signs inside - I guess that's where they would have put us in the event of World War 3. They could have fit about 20 kids in there.

The eraser-cleaning machine was a small cast-iron vacuum cleaner bolted to a table. You held the eraser up against a hole and flipped a switch, and the machine sucked the chalk dust out of the eraser. It was louder than hell, especially in that little closet. In that closet was a shelf where the janitor kept his supply of ZGOOP. You remember ZGOOP, don't you? That was the sawdust-like stuff the janitor would use to soak up puke. They still make it!

Eraser duty was a privilege because you got to do it unsupervised. So of course we did things like jam the erasers into the hole until they hit the impeller, which would scorch them and make a bad smell.

The third grade classrooms had coat closets attached to them. They were long skinny rooms with a row of coat hooks on the wall, that opened back into the classroom on either end. A couple of the older teachers - and some of them must have been teaching since the 1940s - would call them "wraps" instead of coats. "Children, it's time to put on your wraps and get ready for recess." The classrooms also had sinks. Once a girl ran to the sink red-faced, and threw up into it. The janitor didn't need his ZGOOP that time.

Mr. Snyder was the janitor. One day at lunch, I was taking my tray up to the trash can, and he said, "These kids throw away more food than you can shake a stick at." That was the first time I'd ever heard the phrase and it took me a while to get his meaning. He was right, we did throw away a lot of food. Some of the food was decent. They would always serve potato chips on pizza day and we'd put potato chips on our pizza. The spaghetti wasn't great - they scooped it out of the steam table and it sort of stayed in the shape of a scoop - but they served a slice of decent Italian bread with it and we would make a spaghetti sandwich.  Some boys would take their leftover food and stir it all together into a disgusting stew. Then the principal said if he caught us doing that again, we would be forced to eat it.

Recess. The playground had a paved part, with swings and basketball hoops, and an unpaved part that was sort of grassy but had gravel scattered around it. We used to play tackle football at recess, but kids were coming in bloody from hitting the gravel. So they made a rule: tackle football is OK (hey, this was northeast Ohio), but you have to play it on the football field, adjacent to the playground. We would go straight to the football field in the dead of winter. We didn't get hurt because we all had those ridiculous puffy down jackets and rubber snow boots. Some kids even wore leggings. It was tough to run in that getup. Kids would do that old trick of putting bread bags over their feet before putting their boots on, to keep their socks dry.

When it rained, kids would come to school in yellow rain slickers and rubber overshoes. What a hassle getting in and out of those things. Today when it rains, I usually don't even grab an umbrella. It's just water!

The school was close to town and some kids were "walkers". If I recall correctly, the walkers got to leave a little early, before the buses came into the driveway. We would put our coats on at 1:45 and sit back down in our seats to wait to be released. They would announce the buses over the PA. "Bus 7 may now line up on the sidewalk."

The town library was about a quarter mile down the road, and once in while if the weather was good, the teacher would walk us over there and we'd check out a couple books. That was a real treat. We would walk right past the house of the lady who gave me piano lessons. My lesson was in the early morning and her house always smelled like burnt toast. I would be dropped off, and then after the lesson would walk over to school. I would get there about 15 minutes late, which the adults thought was OK but which made me really feel uncomfortable. Kids would say, "Why do you come in late every Tuesday?" and I'd have to tell them I took a piano lesson. I hated the piano lessons and really enjoyed being able to walk past her toast-smelling house without going in.

In the fall of the fifth grade, I got a paper route. That was not an easy job for a 10-year-old. I had to deliver about 25 papers seven days a week, rain or shine, 365 days a year. The weekend edition was a morning paper, so I didn't get to sleep in on a weekend for the whole three years I had the route. It was like something out of a Dickens novel. OK, maybe that's an exaggeration.

The principal, Mr. Hambor, was a tall, good-looking gay guy in a time when adults did not talk about these things, but all the kids knew. He would get fussy in a slightly gay way when we misbehaved. During lunch, if we got too loud and the teacher aide couldn't shush us, Mr. Hambor would come in and flip the lights off. The kids would go "Woooooo!" and then quiet down. He'd always say the same thing: "Boys and girls, hey! It's getting a little looooud in here."  At assemblies, if there was a reason to clap, sometimes we would start to clap in unison. After a while, he said, "Don't do that! Do you think you're in Europe?" I have no idea what he meant by that. He punched a kid in the shoulder once, right in front of us all. Not hard, just enough to get the kid's attention, but it was a punch.

There were two teacher aides, a nice one (Mrs. Toth) and a grouchy one who I won't name. The grouchy one was really mean sometimes. Once, she quieted the kids down, but I didn't realize it and kept talking. She said, loudly so all the other kids could hear, "Do you think you're some kind of an exception?" Embarrassing.

There was no air conditioning and the boys weren't allowed to wear shorts even though the girls could wear skirts. That still sticks in my craw. Today all the schools have air conditioning, and the boys can wear skirts.

1980 was fifth grade and that was the year my friend died. I wouldn't say we were best friends, but we were as good friends as a boy and girl can be at that age. She had sat behind me in the fourth grade and had a kickass set of magic markers that were scented. Yellow was lemon, purple was grape and so on. She would let me borrow them. Then we were in the fifth grade together. Our fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Wilson, was athletic and liked to take us down to the gym to play warball, and would get in and play with us. (Mrs. Wilson could really sling the ball and wouldn't hesitate to take you out. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in engineering, but Mrs. Wilson gave me a C in arithmetic one quarter and I deserved it.) My friend and I would make a pact not to throw the warball at each other.

She had been out of school with a cold for, if I remember, two or three weeks, and then she came back to school on a snowy day. There was a snowball fight at recess, and she was getting the worse of it, and was crying. She caught the cold again and was out of school. Then one morning all the girls were clustered up in the back of the classroom. I was sitting at my desk, reading, if you can believe it, a big hardcover edition of Roots. I wonder what the kids thought of that. Then Mrs. Wilson said, "I guess you've all heard about []...she died yesterday." Wow. No, I hadn't heard. They gave her aspirin and she got Reye's Syndrome and died. It was in March.

Today, they would have grief counselors and the whole bit, but the adults never mentioned it after the morning bell rang. I don't think they even made a schoolwide announcement. A few weeks later they built her a little stone memorial that sat in the grassy area in front of the school. The school is gone, but the memorial is still there, in a little clump of trees in the middle of an otherwise empty field. I wonder how many people who see it have any idea who it was for. Eventually they'll take it down.

Now I'm getting upset, so I'm gonna quit. Next time: Manchester Elementary School.

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