Now comes a letter from a fifth-grader from my beloved old school, announcing that he will graduate in 2016 and asking me to be his "reunion buddy," on the occasion of my 30th high school reunion.
He describes his life and seems likable and enviable. If I were in the fifth grade today, I would want to be his friend.
He’s asked a few questions, so here we go.
“Do you still keep in touch with some of your Academy friends?”
Indeed, I do, but it is a far cry from the daily interaction we enjoyed at The Academy.
Funny, although 30 years have passed, I am still in regular touch with a couple of my distant classmates. One or two have remained dear friends, even though our lives have taken us to different cities, careers and families. Others live down the block and our relationship is little more than a friendly wave when we pass in the street; sometimes we stop to chat. Just this past week, I enjoyed a visit with a far-flung classmate, a doctor in California, a good fellow I once played with daily at The Academy — but now we see each other maybe once every few years.
Life is a strange. My relationships in the halls of The Academy were real. Yet, once we scattered to our colleges — and then to distant towns to start our careers — we saw each other only on the rare occasion, like vacations and reunions. It’s a little sad to lose daily touch with one’s great school friends, but marriage, work, and the attractions and opportunities of adult life certainly fill my time and heart.
I loved my classmates and still do.
“What was your favorite subject?”
That’s a hard question. I’ve never been a great scholar, but I enjoyed each subject for what it taught me. I do know this: whether I liked a subject had little to do with the subject itself. It had to do with the teacher and, moreover, whether I worked hard at the subject. I liked subjects that provoked some struggle on my part.
My teachers were extraordinary. I remember my fifth grade homeroom teacher, Ms. Grace DeLeon. I remember how she would tell us stories about her car (a Corvair) and her childhood friend (Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, but was truly a warm and delightful woman). She would also whack mischievous students across the knuckles (“Hold our your hand, Mr. Isaac.”) with a thick, three-sided ruler. I think I earned the whack of the ruler once.
I hope you are not getting whacked on a regular basis.
In recent years, I’ve taken some opportunities to get to know a few of my former "masters" (that’s what we called teachers back in the day) as adults, as friends. We’ve had dinner and enjoyed conversations. Two even joined me in some public foolishness.
Here’s a surprise that’s coming: today’s teachers, who seem so old, will someday seem little older than big sisters and brothers. They can become your friends in adulthood, if life works out that way.
As I reflect on my “favorite classes,” I know that I also learned much beyond the classroom. In middle school, I enjoyed long conversations with teachers in their offices, cooks in the kitchen, custodians in the halls, students during breaks, and parents of classmates at sporting events. I learned much from these “teachers” of these “subjects,” too.
An example: Mr. Dan Barren was neither my classroom teacher, nor my football coach. We had little to do with one another. He preferred those who could help him on the field. Or so I thought. One day, near graduation, he stopped me in the hall to say, "Artie, when I first encountered you, I thought you were little more than a smart aleck. But, over time, I have learned to respect and admire you as a leader. I just didn’t understand you at first."
There is no greater learning. Coach Barren taught me to look more closely when I meet someone, especially if my first impression is negative. (His son, Mark, my much admired classmate, teaches at The Academy today.)
As anyone who remembers me knows, I did my best work in extracurricular life: editing The Academy Life, acting in plays, cheerleading at basketball games, making after-lunch announcements. The Academy let me explore my heart and my talent for writing and performance. Those were the “subjects” that have most profoundly made me what I am.
If I had to choose one academic subject, it would be pre´cis, a type of writing taught to me by Mr. David Trowbridge in eighth grade grammar. It is the method of writing plainly, with as few words as possible. (Perhaps that skill fails me now, in this long essay to you.)
“What was your recess like?”
It was primitive. We were released with a yelp and returned to the room with a bell.
Between the yelp and the bell, we climbed about on “jungle gyms” (playground structures made of metal tubes). We had only three choices on which to stand: asphalt, grass or each other.
I remember two moments, both traumatic:
- Once, I fell on the gravel driveway and needed two stitches on my knee. I think I can still see the scar.
- Once, I was talked into a playground fight. Jim and I did not particularly know one another. I don’t think he had any particular complaint with me, but he — like I — had been talked into the fight by others. Instigators whispered to us that the other fellow had said something nasty and wanted to fight. We quickly found ourselves encircled by boys chanting, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" As I recall, I held up my fists (an act that felt so unnatural for me — I grew up with three older sisters, no brawling big brothers) but threw none. Jim punched me, I hit the dirt and the crowd was greatly disappointed by the brevity of the fisticuffs. It was the only time I’ve disappointed an audience without disappointing myself.
So, I hope you aren’t getting whacked regularly on the playground, too.
I shouldn’t dwell on the two hard times. Beyond those moments, recess was delight. The freedom to run in the fresh air and sunshine. It was glorious.
In the Upper School, I recall a game called Stick Wars. We had been drawn by biology class to the woods where we examined our own personal "ecosystem," small areas of land (three square feet). But a few chaps found it exciting to throw branches at each other. These branches — two- to three-foot segments of fairly hefty wood — would be thrown high into the trees, toward another fellow’s far-off ecosystem. This was not bullying. It was sport with everyone glad to be in the game.
Once Mr. Phil Hess, our dear biology teacher, heard of this, he outlawed the game due to its danger — and its lack of academic value. (Alas, Mr. Hess died this summer. His eulogies have been heartwarming and are a reminder: when you graduate, be sure to call your old teachers before they die.)
"Did you play any sports?"
I was too timid and thought (perhaps mistakenly) that I didn’t have the natural talent. I talked myself out of it. Too bad. There’s so much good to be learned in sport and on teams. I missed much of that.
But I did support my classmates. I was a cheerleader. If you can find teachers who were in school with me — Mr. Barren, Mr. Hunker and Mr. Wuorinen — they can describe how I would pretend to row a boat across the basketball court during when the teams huddled during times out. The spectators would chant, "Stroke. Stroke. Stroke." as I scooted toward center court on my butt. The team captain, Jim Bishop, recently told me that the coach would beg the team not to watch me.
I also recall when we played the deaf school in basketball. You know how an opposing team shouts to distract someone shooting a free throw? Well, the deaf team and their audience had a way of screeching so loudly when our team was at the foul line. But, of course, we couldn’t retaliate by screeching at their foul shooters; they were deaf. So, as a cheerleader avenging the screeching, I stood on my head behind the basket and made faces at the shooter. I remember everyone laughing — including the shooter and referee who stood beside each other, shedding tears of laughter.
In all, The Academy brought me lifelong friendships and prepared me well for college, but it also gave me daily opportunities to learn better how to create laughter. I’ve always been grateful for that.
I wish you every success in fifth grade. May this be a year of learning, fun, a minimum of whacking, and the growth of lifelong friendships.