The Thanksgiving Pageant

It was Thanksgiving week at Rankin Elementary School, and there was great excitement among the second-graders.  Our teacher had been telling us for weeks that we would put on a Thanksgiving pageant, and preparations were underway.

Construction paper, crayons, and blunt scissors with rounded edges were put on every table.  Pots of paste and Elmer’s glue left a distinct tang in the air.  Pilgrims hats and bonnets and Indian headdresses needed to be made for the boys and girls.  We worked hard to cut out yellow buckles for the hats and colored feathers for the Indians.  It was tough to make a hat that fit and didn’t rip when you tried it on.

Most of the boys wanted to be Indians.  The members of our tribe had brought in empty Quaker Oats containers, which made perfect tom-toms when decorated with paper and crayons and even sounded like a drum when you tapped the top with your hand.

Our worried teacher had written the script and done the staging.  A few students had a line or two, but most of us would just don our Pilgrim or Indian garb and stand there while Squanto and the Pilgrim fathers gave stiff speeches about friendship and Plymouth Rock and being thankful for the harvest.  Eventually one of the girls wearing a white Pilgrim bonnet would bring in a turkey made of Play-Doh and the show would end.  When the big day came, the show went off without a hitch.

Of course, there was no pretense of historical accuracy or political correctness.  We didn’t know whether Squanto wore feathers and carried a tom-tom, or what the Pilgrim fathers said on that first Thanksgiving, or even whether they ate a turkey for their meal.  But it was fun to make things with my classmates after long weeks of spelling and arithmetic, we got to work together as a class to put on our little pageant, and we learned something about Thanksgiving, and each other, and the tensile strength of construction paper and the edible properties of paste in the process.

Do they put on Thanksgiving pageants in schools anymore?

Where It All Began

IMG_5071Yesterday, after a wonderful service for Aunt Bebe and a welcome chance to catch up with the far-flung members of the Webner clan, Russell, UJ and I took a trip down memory lane.  One of our stops was the first house I ever remember living in, on Orlando Avenue in Akron, Ohio.

We lived at the house on Orlando until I was in third grade.  It’s a time and a place that remains very vivid in my memory.  In part, that’s because Mom drilled our address and phone number into my brain before my first walk to Rankin Elementary School, so that if we had any trouble we could ask a grown-up and they could help us.  That sentence says a lot about how much the world has changed since the early 1960s, doesn’t it?  And I remember the address and phone number even now.

The house looks the same, with the side room where we colored and the little front stoop where we sat on sultry summer days.  The neighborhood also has the same snug feel to it.  I wondered if kids had been jumping the leaf pile in the front yard, just as we had done so long ago.

It felt good to know that this structure, of little importance in the grand scheme of things but of great significance in my life, still stands.

My Pathetic Penmanship

Mrs. Haddad would be disappointed in me.

She was the teacher who introduced my third grade class at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio to the wonders of cursive writing.  On the first day of school, she called our attention to the white shapes on green rectangles that appeared in a row above the blackboard, A to Z.  They were cursive letters, she explained, and this year we would learn to make them perfectly.  The message was clear:  we were leaving childish block printing behind and through our writing would be moving onto the road to adulthood.

Mrs. Haddad said that good penmanship was the mark of a well-educated person.  We believed her.  None of us wanted to be seen as ill-educated chumps.  We spent part of each day with pads of coarse gray paper with wide blue lines, tongues sticking out of the corners of our mouths and faces screwed up with effort, trying with shaky hands and thick pencils to make the loops and whirls and curves on that devilish capital G look like the perfection above the chalkboard.  Mrs. Haddad walked the aisles between our desks, glancing at our pads, shaking her head sadly, and pointing out where our efforts were falling short.

My handwriting was never great, and third grade may have been its high point.  It’s deteriorated considerably since then, to the point where it’s not much more than a scrawl that combines elements of printing, cursive writing, doodling, and hieroglyphics.  There’s no longer even an attempt to make that capital G or capital F, and the pathetic results are decipherable only by my long-suffering secretary and, occasionally, me.  I attribute the decline to trying to write as quickly as possible while taking notes during college and law school classes and hurried telephone conversations at work.  There’s also undoubtedly been a decline in fine motor skills and loss of nerve endings that is attributable to advancing age.

Yesterday I looked at the scribbles on my legal pad and thought once more of Mrs. Hadded, tsk-tsking and shaking her head.  How could I do, I wondered, if I had that pad of cheap, wide-lined gray paper in front of me and Mrs. Haddad at my elbow as I tried to make that ridiculous capital G?

Walking To School

According to this story, a California school district currently bars students from walking or riding their bikes to elementary school or middle school. Although the news article is not entirely clear, it appears that the school district decided that the road that kids would take to get to school was just too busy and, therefore, dangerous. This kind of news story is pathetic — although not particularly surprising in this era of paternalistic government — because it shows how weak, lazy, and risk-averse America has become. And we wonder why we have a problem with child obesity!

Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio

Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio

In the early 1960s, when I first started going to school in Akron, Ohio, UJ and I walked to school every day, from our house on Orlando Avenue to Rankin Elementary School on Storer Avenue. We would turn right out the front door and walk to the end of the block, turn left on Delia Avenue, then walk 11 blocks down Delia Avenue to Storer, where we turned right for a few blocks and then crossed the street to Rankin. We walked that route rain or shine, snow or sleet. On some days Mom would tell us that we were to go to Gramma and Grampa Neal’s house for lunch and we would walk the six blocks from Rankin to their home on Dorchester Road over the lunch period; on other days we were to go to Gramma and Grampa Webner’s home and we would walk the six blocks from Rankin to their house on Emma Avenue.

Perhaps Mom worried about us as we took our walks, but I doubt it. Walking to school was just an accepted part of the day; it was something that everybody did. For a kid, too, it was a time of freedom and high adventure to be savored. You were on your own.

The spiny outer covering of buckeyes

The spiny outer covering of buckeyes

You hustled on the way to school to make sure you weren’t tardy, but the walk home was a bit more leisurely. There would be interesting places to examine, and things to do. On the route back home from Rankin, for example, there was a triangular “island” in the middle of an intersection, and at each corner of the island there was a large buckeye tree. UJ and I called it “Buckeye Island,” and on the way home on a crisp fall day we might stop to see if buckeyes had fallen. We would try to pry open their tough and spiny outer covering and see if we could find a nut or two worth polishing to a brilliant dark shine.

A polished buckeye

A polished buckeye

Sometimes, as we gathered our nuts, older bullies would come up and take the best nuts from us, and we would have to get out of there. But, really, what did we care? They were just nuts. The important thing was that we were on our own, making our own decisions, and the prospect of bullies just heightened the sense of excitement and fun.

Why would any school district want to deprive kids of that kind of experience? Why would any parents be so protective that they wouldn’t want their children to feel that sense of freedom? Why wouldn’t any community demand an environment where their children could walk to school without fear of anything more threatening than a fifth-grade bully?

Everything I Need To Know About Avoiding Swine Flu I Learned In Kindergarten

Yesterday the HR people at the firm circulated a publication from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that gave people tips on h0w to avoid getting H1N1, the latest strain of “swine flu.” The CDC webpage reflecting the advice is found here.

I was struck by how elementary the CDC advice was. Indeed, it was pre-elementary, because most of it was taught to us by our kindergarten teachers. What are the recommended “everyday actions to stay healthy”? First, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and after you use a tissue throw it out. Second, wash your hands often with soap and water. Finally, you should stay home if you are sick (preferably, of course, tucked into a warm and cozy bed, lathered with Vicks Vap-O-Rub, drinking a 7-Up brought to you by your Mom and reading Richie Rich or Archie comics before you doze off in a thick haze of menthol vapor).

Who can’t picture their kindergarten teacher sternly giving these instructions? “Robert, please cover your mouth when you cough!” “Robert, your hands are filthy — go back and wash them thoroughly this instant!” If I survive the H1N1 epidemic, I will have to find Mrs. Radick, my kindergarten teacher at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, and thank her personally.

Nap Time

One day last week at about 2:30 or 3 p.m., I seemed to hit the wall. I began to yawn and my eyes grew heavy. So, to combat the fatigue, I went out to the coffee station, poured some cold coffee into my cup, zapped it to fiery heat in the microwave oven, and slugged down some liquid caffeine. After guzzling a bit of the coffee, the combination of the hot beverage and the caffeine hit me, and I was off and running again.

Still, I thought: Wouldn’t it be nicer to take a nap, like in kindergarten? At Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio, every kindergartener brought a towel to school, and after an hour or so of coloring, Play-Doh eating, playing with Lincoln Logs or building blocks, and whatever else we were supposed to be doing in kindergarten, Mrs. Radick would tell us to take our our towels, find a place on the floor to roll them out, and then lie down and take a nap.

At first, of course, it was impossible to sleep. You’d lie there, feeling a bit silly, looking at the other kids in the class, and maybe making funny faces. Mrs. Radick would walk among us, shushing us gently, and eventually you would close your eyes and magically fall asleep, even though it was the middle of the day and you were in the middle of a bunch of kids. After a while — how long were those naps, anyway? — the teacher would wake us up and we would be ready once more to tackle the punishing kindergarten curriculum, clear-headed and refreshed.

Several years I attended a CLE session that included a presentation on minimizing stress at work, and the speaker urged everyone to schedule, and take, a 15 to 30-minute “power nap” every day. The lawyers in attendance chuckled at such an outlandish notion — imagine, lawyers napping at work! — but deep down I felt the distant pull of the kindergarten towel.