i recently saw an anonymous quote: “would the child you once were look up to the man you have now become?”
i don’t know that i could answer “yes” to that question. at least, not yet. because the child i was wanted to reach the world. with ideas. with art. and i haven’t yet done that. but my desire to do so began very long ago; it’s been the main constant in my life. and it was definitely already present when i began First Grade, at Greenwood Jr. High School.
yes, that’s right– Greenwood JUNIOR HIGH School. during my entire time at the brick and green (metal, not wood) state institution, i wondered why it was called “Jr. High School”– the school started at kindergarten. so…”Jr. High School?”
“my daughter attends Greenwood Jr. High School. she’s five and a half.”
why not go all out and call it Greenwood UNIVERSITY?
“you know, my son goes to Greenwood U.”
“oh, he’s in college?”
“no, he’s in second grade.”
nevertheless, i was never bothered by the name, even though i thought it sounded like i was bragging to say i went to junior high when i was still missing teeth. but hey, i was moving up. to the big leagues. at six years old, all summer i’d been chomping at the bit for school to start.
after kindergarten, i knew that elementary school loomed in the distance; and i was excited. i couldn’t fathom a place full of so many kids, of all different ages. but as imposing as it seemed, i liked the idea. and i knew my world was about to broaden, about to be more interesting than ever before. i was ready. i was a child, on the brink of the future. and the future seemed bright. it was 1979, and i was a still-blonde little bright-eyed wanderer, entering the hallowed sanctuary of a perplexing dichotomy of books, tests, projections, assignments, and lectures—and kids who had no interest in any of them. to say that my first grade class was advanced would be like saying the Hindenburg was a triumph. and unfortunately, as the years progressed—like peers on the Hindenburg–i would lose many of my classmates. not to illness, accidents, relocation, or flaming hydrogen; but rather, to F’s. many of my cohorts would love the grade we were in so much, they would choose to stay there; and as we few stepped onto the next rung of our elementary ladder, our old compadres would be replaced by the kids who’d stayed in the grade ahead to welcome us and show us the ropes, until the next year came and even fewer of us advanced forward. the kids at Greenwood were nice; they were moreso hosts than students, gracious and accommodating enough to pick a grade and just remain there. perhaps they weren’t bad students, so much as spirit guides, wise and willing to help us on our way. “welcome to My Grade. the room is approximately 23 and a quarter feet by 32 feet and 17 inches. there are 276 tiles in the ceiling, plus two quarter-squares in the southeast corner. summers are beautiful here; during the winter, the 2nd to last desk in the 4th row gets a little extra sunshine between 2:32 and 3:17; we’re in a great little location for fire drills, and only 38 steps from the water fountain.” i half expected the veteran students who returned each year to show up in white suits, with Mexican accents, joined by Tatoo and welcoming us to Fantasy Island. and looking back, it seems like a fantasy.
my First Grade teacher was Deanie Stephens. she had long hair, and she always seemed upbeat to me. once my mom went to her house, and i was along for the ride. i couldn’t BELIEVE i was inside my teacher’s HOUSE. i couldn’t believe a teacher even HAD a house. just like i did, just like my family. teachers lived in houses? not in trees? they didn’t burrow? and you could visit them? it just didn’t seem possible. even though Mrs. Sharp had a house in my church’s neighborhood of Raimund Heights, this was First Grade—this was the Big Time. but there i was, on Mrs. Stephens’s couch. it might accurately be compared to sitting in the Oval Office as an adult. and yet, as amazing as the fact remained, the experience was surprisingly mundane. i’m sure the Oval Office, even with its vast and powerful history, is a little underwhelming. walls, a desk, chairs…it’s just a room. and to see Mrs. Stephens’s home was sort of like seeing behind the Wizard’s curtain. this is where she goes when she isn’t at school? just a normal house?? it was as if i’d made my way to the center of the universe, only to find out it was just a shopping center, with a Starbucks and a Super Wal-Mart. the next day at school, i felt that i knew a secret no one else had ever suspected, no one else had ever fathomed, and no one else would ever believe: Mrs. Stephens…was a PERSON.
and speaking of persons, some of my Parsons Kindergarten chums had followed me to elementary school. two of my closest friends–Andy Grimes and Jimmy Bunn–began Greenwood alongside me. Jimmy lived in my neighborhood of Eastern Valley, and Andy lived in Greenwood. his mom knew Mrs. Stephens, so he too had been to her house. Andy and i were the Chosen Ones, the only two to be let into the Circle of Trust. and we would quietly keep her secret safe.
Greenwood was a great place, with great lunchroom ladies. Mrs. Hill usually took our money at the end of the line. and so, for some reason, i took her to be the leader. She seemed like the head of a gang of white-coated old ladies, who were running some scam that involved giving kids food and taking their money. i never figured out their angle, but i just knew there was a greater purpose, maybe moonshining, maybe gambling in the back. these ladies just seemed too important to devote their lives to peanut butter balls and chicken tetrazzini; they were doing something else. something bigger. but nothing sinister– i adored the lunchroom ladies. i knew there was love in every small bowl of apple sauce, in every cheese sandwich beside my chili. these ladies were a dynamite team, like an old quartet from the Motown era. in my eyes, they were strong, smart, cool, and right. or maybe i just really liked the tater tots.
and so, with my delicious, crispy cylindrical spuds, and my new friends, and my First Grade Junior High status, i flourished. i became the artist of the class, the best at drawing. and an A student, thanks to Mrs. Sharp’s advanced curriculum. i killed at being a First Grader. i loved every moment of it, and i hoped it would never end. but as my seventh birthday approached, i knew my days in class were numbered. and i would soon have my very first real summer, my very first school break. my very first big sense of time passing, of a hallmark that would continue for years, the changing of seasons to mark advancement, improvement, change, growth, and the aging inherent to life in a linear existence. i would put away my pencils, and get ready for a summer of shorts and iron-on t-shirts. it was 1980; i had finally made it to a decade i could call my own…being born in ’73, i’d only inherited some other peoples’ decade–weird people with wacky clothes, mustaches, and bad haircuts. but 1980 was all mine. and so was summer. and so was life.