Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Washington School Days: 11. After School

Dave and Steve at Washington Grade School (1948; photo by VAL)

Dear George,

From fifth grade on, I was best friends with Marvin F, and we played together every day after school. We’d go over to the railroad yards and sneak into empty boxcars, fantasizing about traveling to North Dakota or Alabama. Or we’d walk up Sheridan Road to the Silver Cream brewery where we’d collect pieces of broken beer bottle glass from the Green Bay shore which had polished edges from being ground by the sand and waves. In the summer Marvin, Tommy H., and I formed a club that met underneath the sidewalk in front of our apartment building on Quimby Ave. We’d discovered a room-like space about 4 or 5 feet in height under the sidewalk, accessible through a semi-circular opening at the base of the building’s brick wall. The roof was concrete, i.e., the bottom side of the sidewalk, and the floor was dirt. We brought candles and matches down into our hideout and met there daily. We made sure no passersby were in sight, and we recited a secret password before we let ourselves through the opening. A small door led into the apartment building’s cellar, and there we discovered a shelf filled with homemade cans of jams and jellies. At each meeting Tommy or Marvin would steal a jar, and we would eat it with our fingers. I refused to do the stealing, but I was happy to share the loot.

One day my mom was out, and Marvin discovered a large box of kitchen matches in our kitchen. He brought the box into the living room, put it on the floor near a window, set one match upright in the box, and lit it. The match slowly burned down, and suddenly the entire box exploded in flame. We watched transfixed as the whole box burned down to a pile of ashes. Marvin poured a glass of water on the remains, and we cleaned the mess up as best we could. A large, charred circle, however, remained in the hardwood floor.

I got pretty nervous. Marvin or I, I forget whom, covered the burnt black circle with a piece of white paper. I waited for my mother to come home (my dad was overseas in the Navy). She did, and, though I feared the worse, nothing happened. The paper was partly concealed behind an upholstered chair, and my mom didn’t notice it. Each day I came home from school, anticipating the worst. But nothing ever happened. Weeks and weeks went by. I began to wonder about my mother’s housekeeping habits. Finally I forgot about the paper and the burnt floor myself. Then one day, seven or eight weeks later, I came home and the paper was gone.

My mother was livid. She pulled me over to the corner and demanded an explanation. Fortunately I had prepared this in my mind for some time. It was brief and to the point: “Marvin did it.”

That was the end of Marvin’s welcome in our household. We were still best friends, but he never came to our house again. A short time later I learned that arrangements had been made for me to stay after school each day to help Miss Guimond. I was never told exactly why, but I suspected it had to do with keeping me away from “bad influences”.

Every day at 3 p.m. I cleaned the blackboards and banged the dust out of the erasers and helped Miss Guimond straighten up the room. Then I would work on an art project that Miss Guimond would help me with. She explained that I was going to get to use Poster Paints (which nobody else in the sixth grade would be getting to do). On the one hand, I was sort of excited. But I was also intimidated. Poster paints were simply jars of powder. How can you paint with those? How do you mix them? What if you put too much water in? Etc. I finally decided to do my painting of a caveman and his family. Miss Guimond gave me the largest piece of paper available, about two by three feet, and I proceeded to sketch in the picture in pencil. As days went by and the time approached to do the actual poster painting, I became increasingly nervous. Miss Guimond asked if I were ready. No, I said, I needed more time for sketching. I began to draw little tiny stones on the ground and hundreds of pieces of grass. Then tiny leaves on the trees. Finally I’d managed to stall my way all the way to the end of the school year. I never did start painting my picture with poster paints, though I had sketched it in astonishing detail. Miss Guimond and I had a serious talk about lessons from this experience. Then sixth grade was all over, and I left Washington Grade School forever.



G-Mail Comments

-Jennifer M (6-29-10): I can think of some lessons, but what did your teacher think you should have learned?

-DCL to JM (7-4): Probably several lessons, e.g., Don't avoid tasks just because they are new; Don't let unrealistic anxieties stop you from acting; etc. (These are lessons I'm still working on.)

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