Last night I dreamt I was back in my old elementary school. It was the opening day of the new school year and there I was, not as a young child, but in the here and now giving a talk to the kids. It was the old school auditorium somewhat modernized and I stood before the crowd without a prepared speech and just started talking. And it went something like this.
Hello, kids. Hard to believe, but some 60 years ago, I sat where you sit now. The seats were wooden instead of plastic and none of us carried backpacks or i-phones. Our sneakers were U.S. Keds and cost probably $5 instead of your $150 Nikes. We carried pencils instead of i-Pads and brought metal lunchboxes with pictures of Roy Rogers on them. But the halls of Harrison School back then looked pretty much like they look now and we had to learn the same state capitals and times-tables and such that I hope you still do now.
Kids, a teacher is one of the most important persons in your life. You will never forget them. I remember every single one of mine from all those years back.
I had Mrs. Levy for kindergarten and I remember circle times and finger-painting and sometimes all lying down on the floor for a rest. First grade was a bit of a shock, with reading time and math time and right and wrong answers, the real deal of school. Mrs. Williams once put me behind the piano with a dunce cap, but she also brought me up to Mrs. Tomsu, the second-grade teacher, to show off how well I could read. When I got to second grade, Mrs. Tomsu one day decided I was talking too much and I had to wear tape over my mouth for an afternoon.
In third grade, we got to go upstairs to the 2nd floor and I had Miss Rice (these the days before “Ms.”). We did not get along well and I spent more time in the hall than in the classroom. She wrote on my report card (I still have it) “Douglas is very, very annoying.” The principal was Mr. Feinberg who was bald and who we cruelly called “Fuzzy Feinberg.” When the hall wasn’t punishment enough, I spent much time in his office and he wasn’t abusive, but it wasn’t fun either. But I do remember an activity from Ms. Rice's class where you walked up to a box and selected a photo and then wrote a story about it. I liked that.
Fourth grade was the nicest teacher to date, Mrs. Hendrickson. We made marionettes and put on a little play. Mine was an Eskimo (now called Inuit). It was my one and only drama experience in elementary school (except for something in second grade when I was a clown and did a somersault and my pants split. I took them home to my Mom at lunch to sew for the afternoon performance and they split again.) One day in class, someone was tapping me on the shoulder while I was talking to a friend and I swung my arm back to get them to stop and realized I had hit Mrs. Hendrickson! She was somewhat good-humored about it.
Fifth grade was Mr. Anderson, who had thick glasses and was strict. When I did something wrong—and I think you’re getting the idea that I was on the naughty side of things—he made me duck-walk down the hall and back or stand up for an hour in class. The saving grace was a sweet substitute teacher named Miss Graziano who I and my fellow boy classmates had a huge crush on.
Sixth grade was Miss Conover, a no-nonsense strict teacher with high standards who made the boys wear string ties to make gentlemen out of us. I remember some kind of science fair project about a volcano and standing out in the hall with Patty Brooks, one of the two African-American girls in our class, who was delightfully sassy and bold and told me how she’d be kissing her boyfriend right in the hall if he was out there with her.
Harrison School used to end at 6th grade and then you went on to Abraham Clark High School from 7th to 12th. But that year, they decided that all the town's elementary schools would add 7th grade. So I had two teachers that year, Miss Richmond, who uncomfortably reminded me of Miss Rice and Mr. Reuter, who was way nicer than Mr. Anderson.
Meanwhile, we had gym (P.E.) with Mr. Salcito, my favorite of all teachers probably because I liked sports. He also ran the summer program, where anyone could show up for free and play tetherball or Nok-hockey or baseball or such. I was on the Harrison Chiefs baseball team and the low-point of my athletic life was a game against our mothers. 9th inning, bases loaded, two outs, we’re down by one run and I’m up. I pictured my Babe Ruth moment and swung too hard on each pitch and struck out! Oh, the humiliation! Mr. Salcito also still owes me a prize that he never delivered for winning the pie-eating contest, the beginning of my sense that the world wasn’t always going to be fair and that adults were not always reliable.
Don’t remember much about art except Mr. Friedman yelling at me too uncomfortably close to my face. Music was with Miss Saruya who liked that I could play piano. We mostly sat in desks and sang forgettable songs badly. The only two I remember are The Erie Canal and a song where the boys got to chime in with their fake-deep husky voices, “Baked potato!” Since I became a music teacher, I see how much better those classes could have been if Miss Saruya had crossed paths with the Orff approach. But the timing was off—that seed didn’t drop in American soil until 1962.
It appears I didn’t like school that much and that was partly right. I was intensely curious about the world and read books and listened to Beethoven and played Bach and started a rock collection and drew animals from National Geographic magazines and played pick-up baseball, football and basketball with my friends, laying the foundation for a lifetime of independent learning. But I do have fond memories of the school fair, throwing ping-pong balls into fish-tanks to win goldfish, my Mom telling fortunes, cartoons in the 5th grade class. I loved Field Day across the street in the playground and eraser tag on rainy days and the Debate Club where I took everyone on my team’s turn to respond because I had a rebuttal and the excitement of seeing it snowing out the window and the buzz in the room when we were working on something interesting and getting our Harrison Echoes, a school-published kid literary magazine (still have some in my file drawer!). I liked the assemblies and still remember a theater troupe doing a puppet show about the Upside Down Family and the song, “Oh, we’re upside down. We like to be upside down. We want to be upside down. So we’re upside down.” I liked joining the bike club, where in order to qualify, you had to memorize the ten rules even if you didn’t understand what they meant. (1) Keep to the right. 2) Have white light on front. 3) Give pedestrians the right of way. Etc.)
I remember on the last day of school in 7th grade wondering if the teachers were going to talk about all the kids in my class and send us off in ceremonial fashion. They didn’t. But when I became a teacher and found myself in a school where the teachers could decide what kind of community we could be, some part of me knew all the things that didn’t work for me in my school and was determined to make them work for the kids I taught. I started many rituals and ceremonies and celebrations that had the fun of the Harrison School Fair, the mystery of snow out the window, the zaniness and humor of the Upside Down Family, the imagination of the stories written from pictures, the documentation and sharing of creative work of the Harrison Echoes, 100 songs as memorable (and many more interesting) than“Baked Potato” and “Erie Canal,” the speaking about each kid at graduation that I didn’t get. And so on.
So Harrison School students, I hope the school has changed enough to give you some of these things that you deserve. Meanwhile, I thank all of my teachers for their efforts, no matter how much they fell short in my eyes— you can see how much I learned from them.
And yes, I’ll be happy to stand here before you and finally receive my pie-eating contest prize.