“School’s Out For the Summer. School’s Out For Ever”
“School’s Out,” Alice Cooper
When I was fourteen, my family moved from the inner city to the suburbs. That summer I wanted a part time job but didn’t have any contacts or many friends in my new community to help me find one. My mother remained an active “player” in the PTA in the elementary school I had attended since my younger brother was still a student there before we moved. Due to that and my aunt having a “tie-in” to local ward politics, I got a job helping Mr. Allison, the maintenance man and janitor, in my old elementary school. I was hired for the summer to help prepare the school for reopening in the fall. That summer, I learned how not to run an industrial floor buffer, how clean a floor with a broken handled mop and all the reasons why people go to college so they don’t end up as school janitors.
The school had opened in the late 1800’s. The building was an old three-story brick monstrosity with fourteen classrooms. There were two classrooms on the first floor and six each on the second and third floors.
The building had separate entrances and stairwells for boys and girls at either end of the building and a common recess area in the back. The recess area had a partially built cinder block wall most likely originally intended to keep the sexes apart during recess. After all, this was the late fifties. The sexual revolution, coed dorms, and gender-bending roles had yet to be invented. Got to keep them separated – the anthem of the Eisenhower years. Except that no one ever finished the wall during the entire time I had attended that school. Here it was, several years later when I started working there as a temporary janitor, and the wall was still unfinished. To me, it seemed like an incomplete monument to someone’s 1950’s idea of purist propriety.
We started working on a room on the first floor. It had been Mrs. Effenburg’s class, my first grade classroom. Of course, we were in first grade and didn’t understand the irony of Mrs. Effenburg’s name. It would be a number of years yet before we would start assigning Effen this and Effen that in front of our teacher’s names.
I don’t remember a lot about what I learned in first grade. I do remember learning about an abacus that year. What an eye opener – a device that could allow me to not have to keep track of fingers and toes while allocating my allowance. The serious Dick and Jane anthologies didn’t start until second grade.
However, I have other memories of first grade. I remember the stolen recess snacks, half windows covered with metal grating, and insulation-covered pipes that leaked when the heating system was turned on in cold weather. That always brought the janitor running. Mrs. Effenburg did not like water dripping on her students. In retrospect, I think the janitor probably made up a couple Effen names of his own for Mrs. Effenburg.
The only other classroom on that floor belonged to Mrs. Dance. I was totally intrigued by Mrs. Dance because, even though this was in inner-city school, I had never been exposed – up close – to a real black person. And no matter what the grownups said, she did not act like a savage like the black people I had seen firsthand on the Ramar of the Jungle show TV show. She was very small – petite was a word I learned later in life – though I’d heard my father refer to her as “that pygmy teacher.” She was a very nice lady whose students really liked her even if their parents didn’t.
Next to Mrs. Dance’s room was the deepest, darkest place in existence. The scariest room on earth. The gallows. The Executioner’s closet. A black hole before we even knew black holes existed. This was the Principal’s Office. And Mrs. McGrath was the Principal. To me, she was the female version of Killer Kane, the tyrant from the Buck Rogers movies. No one ever returned unscathed from a trip to the Principal’s Office. In fact, it was rumored that some never returned at all.
When we moved the cleaning operation to the second floor, my thoughts went to Miss Miller, my second grade teacher. Three major events took place in her class that stand out in my memory. The first was that this was where my mother took a stand against educational tyranny. Her stand would impact me for the rest of my life. It was in Miss Miller’s class that it was decided that I should be right-handed, not the left-handed mutant that I was born. When my mother found out, she went to school and, in no uncertain terms, told the “edutocracy” that I was born left-handed and I would stay left-handed no matter what. She went so far as to let Mrs. McGrath, Killer Kane’s girlfriend, know there would be hell – though it was probably still heck in those days – to pay if any attempt was made to change my left-handedness at any time in the future.
The result of that battle is that I am still left-handed today. My hand forms an excruciating looking crescent when I write. I can hardly read my own printing. My script is totally illegible. I sometimes wonder if it had been a Catholic school instead of public school and my mother had had to deal with Sister Charles Bronson instead of Mrs. Miller, would I have better penmanship today. Of course, my mind would probably still be confused as to whether it was left-brained or right-brained.
The other fallout from that episode was that I was suddenly on Mrs. McGrath’s radar screen. I knew I was a “left-handed troublemaker” in her book.
The second major event that happened in second grade was that I learned of Lake Titicaca for the first time. This was a word that would titillate me for years. For a second grader, Titicaca was one of the most powerful words in the world up to that point. TIT-i-CACA. I think I found a way to use that word every single day for the rest of the school year.
The third major event of second grade that stands out prominently was actually ongoing – the atomic bomb attack “duck and cover” drills. We knew the Russians were bad and were planning to drop nuclear bombs on us. We knew the civil defense protocols. We had to be prepared to react when the attack came. We would practice duck and cover exercises at least two or three times a month. When announced that we were “under attack,” the boys needed to quickly proceed to the cloak room, grab our coats, and form a single line as the girls had already done. The girls would walk out into the hall and, facing away from the windows, kneel on the floor. The boys would then stand over the girls, coats held out overhead, to protect the girls from flying radioactive debris, pieces of building, people parts and other errant airborne objects.
During these “attacks,” I enjoyed standing over Katy Fisk. I wasn’t the only one. In fact, sometimes there was a lot of pushing and shoving to stand over Katy Fisk. The reason why was that she’d already started a self-taught course in male anatomy. Later in life she became known as Frisky Fisk. She had learned her own version of Fun with Dick and Jane.
That was my only year on the second floor as things turned out. By the time third grade rolled around, I was serendipitously up on the third floor. My teacher was Mrs. Fraction. I’m not sure if she purposely married someone with that last name when she decided to become a teacher, but it certainly was appropriate. Besides Mrs. Dance, she was the only other black teacher in the school. Third grade became the year when language became English, arithmetic became math, and fractions really became an anathema in multiplied ways.
I wasn’t the class clown. But, then as now, I enjoyed getting a laugh. Also then, as now, appropriateness was not necessarily a requirement. So…. I had procured a little rubber cigar that, when squeezed, had an ash that would pop out the front. One day, Katy Fisk was standing in line right in front of me. I decided that she would appreciate a demonstration of my little toy cigar. Naturally, the best place to surreptitiously hold the cigar was just below my belt so no one could see it but her. So there I stood, squeezing my cigar, the ash popping in and out, successfully entertaining Katy Fisk. And then I happened to look up, directly into the disapproving eye of Mrs. Fraction. Mrs. Fraction was not happy with my nasty infraction. I thought for sure I was going to end up in Mrs. Killer Kane’s office. To my relief, she took the cigar from me and told me never to do anything like that again or she would let Mrs. McGrath and my mother know about it. As she turned away, she couldn’t quite hide the slight smile in her eyes. I always wondered if Mr. Fraction acquired a new item – my rubber cigar – to amuse the boys at the bar with that night.
After finishing my janitorial duties in Mrs. Fraction’s room, it was time to move across the hall to Mrs. Hogan’s room, my fourth grade teacher. She was an older woman, probably nearing the end of her teaching career and had become hard of hearing. As a result of her infirmity, the boys in her class became very adept at armpit farts and the competitions were quite intense. During that year, Mrs. Hogan’s class developed the reputation for reproducing the greatest and loudest armpit farts in the history of Washington school. We ruled the pits!
There were several other notable accomplishments that year as well. Russia’s Luna 3 space probe visited the dark side of the moon – years before Pink Floyd. The Twilight Zone debuted on television. JFK was elected president. Pantyhose were introduced. And our classmates, Georgia Caspan and Joyce DeMedio, had grown boobs over the summer. Totally unexpected, that development took our daily in-class daydreams of playing cops and robbers and soldiers in a whole new direction. Suddenly all the guys were studying anatomy. Katy Fisk had competition.
My summer job progressed and so did my sojourn through some of the most influential rooms of my young history. It was mid-August and we were working on the final room that needed our attention. It was also my final classroom as a student in Washington School.
Miss Caroline Stein’s classroom was the throne room of the most beautiful queen of teaching of my whole academic career. She was young. Maybe a year or two out of college. She was beautiful. A statuesque blond. My mother said she wasn’t a real blonde. What did mom know? Statuesque – a word I had learned from Georgia Caspan, Joyce DeMedio and Katy Fisk. Miss Stein was from Pennsylvania – an exotic foreign locale. I was totally in love. Which turned to total horror when Miss Stein caught me kissing Katy Fisk in the cloak room! The dejection I felt when I realized she was personally taking me down to Satan’s Den – the Principal’s Office. The Cave of Killer Kane’s Consort!
Katy and I sat in the outer office. I wished I were three years old again so I could justify the feeling that I wanted to wet my pants. As I waited my imagination kicked in. I could see spiders and scorpions hiding under the secretary’s desk just waiting to pounce on me when the chief demon gave them the go ahead. I could envision the iron maiden she kept in the closet in the Office to deal with bad boys like me. I could hear the dreaded call to my mother telling her what a perverted little person I had become. I would have to go to bed without Ramar of the Jungle and the Twilight Zone for the rest of my life. She was going to say, “I remember you, lefty. You’re a troublemaker and I’m going to cut your left hand off!”
Just as I decided that my life as I knew it was over, a teacher came rushing through, bursting directly into Satan’s Den without any hesitation. “Mrs. McGrath,” I heard. “One of the students has gotten hurt in the recess yard.” At that point, the chief demon exited her den like the bat out of hell she was. She ran out the door. After several minutes, the secretary looked at Katy and me and must have taken pity. She took us back to our classroom as the rest of our class had already returned from the injury-marred recess.
The schoolyard emergency turned out to be that one of my classmates, Charlie Patton, had fallen off the unfinished sex segregation wall and broke his arm. I never did find out why he was climbing over the wall when he could have walked right through the opening, but I silently thanked him every day for being so inexplicably clumsy. Miss Stein, seeing Katy and me back in class, must have thought that Killer Kane’s Consort had finished torturing us back onto the path of puritanic scholastic righteousness. She never brought the subject up again. But I knew she was disappointed in me. I also knew I would never be her shining star of long division again. So my daily in-class daydreams strayed to even more unobtainable but infinitely safer anatomical subjects – Connie Stevens, Inger Stevens, and Stella Stevens.
And so ended my first real job. Several lessons came out of that six- week journey down memory lane. First, little kids are really sloppy and dirty. This fact was hammered home especially when we were working in the restrooms. Second, the teachers’ room reeked badly of cigarette smoke which in all likelihood masked the smell of booze. I also determined that the greasy-type marks on the walls were probably from frustrated teachers banging their heads on them day after day. And finally, I found out there were no iron maidens or racks or even thumb screws in Mrs. McGrath’s office.
Unless of course she took them home with her to practice with over the summer….