Visit Home Part 3

A recent convention trip to Florida provided me with the opportunity to visit my home town. This is part three of a series on that trip. Here is Part One and Part Two.

As with many people, the bulk of my formative years were spent in school, and school was where I learned how life worked.

Although I attended five schools from 1st grade through 12th (because that was how the grades were divided), during my visit I only went to see the ones that carried the most meaning (an extremely subjective, relative term comparing between the two). That meant Brigham Elementary School and Winter Haven High School.

Brigham, now known as Brigham Academy, had grown a bit, but the core structures were still there, sporting a new paint job but little changed otherwise. Perhaps they now had air conditioning. They certainly hadn't when I had attended. I well remember stifling days in both Spring and Autumn when the most important goal was to not leave the paper on my desk completely soaked in sweat, if I could help it, before turning it in.

Brigham Academy

The long thin buildings originally had each housed a single grade. Each year I moved farther and farther down 6th Street, from Ave. C to Ave. A. Because the strongest memories are usually associated with pain, the painful things are those I remember most.

In the 1st grade, practically on the first day of school, the boy sitting next to me pushed me. I pushed him back. This should have settled the matter, but of course it never does. But instead of fighting, the boy told the teacher, Mrs. Boggs, that I had pushed him. Despite my protestations that the boy had pushed me first, Mrs. Boggs rapped my knuckles with a ruler. But not his. As I sat and cried silently, the lesson I learned in 1st grade was what a snitch was. I knew, at six years of age, why nobody likes a rat.

In the 2nd grade, on the playground, we played kickball and other games. The coach taught physical education as well as English. One wonders how I achieved any level of literacy.

One day, during a kickball game, I was playing first base. A kid named Tyler was pitching. Tyler was overweight and I recall my father liked to refer to him as Tubby Tyler. Never to his face, though. My father was insensitive but not a complete asshole.

Now, kickball had many of the same basic rules as baseball or softball. A ball is pitched to a guy on home plate. The ball is propelled back out into the field. The object is to run around the bases without getting tagged out.

So Tyler underhanded the ball to the... kicker I guess, not batter. The kicker kicked the ball straight down the first base line to me. I caught it and, not knowing what else to do, since no one else was on base, threw it back to Tyler, the pitcher. I didn’t know that, unlike in baseball where the runner is automatically out as soon as the ball is in the first baseman’s hands, in kickball I actually had to tag the guy.

Now, even then I knew that this made no sense. Why would the runner even bother to run all the way to first base where I was waiting, ball in hand? But those were the rules. Tyler was so furious at me when I threw the ball back to him that he couldn’t even speak. Finally he growled out, “Oooooooh, Seaslug!” his jowls quivering mightily.

I learned several lessons in 2nd grade. The first was that rules are important. The second was that people assign extraordinary importance to the rules with the least significance in the grand scheme of things. I stopped enjoying sports after that.

In the 3rd grade I had an argument with a kid in 5th grade and challenged him to a fight.

We faced each other, standing in the shade of a tree (In fact, I’m sure it’s the same tree as the one in the pictures above on the extreme right) on an absolutely brilliant sunshiney day.

I threw the first punch, hitting him in the arm. In fact, we actually took turns. His return strike was to my stomach. Again I swung, again to the arm. Again he hit me in the stomach. The fight was over. I learned several more lessons in 3rd grade. First, don’t pick a fight with somebody bigger, older, and probably wiser than you. Second, if you do pick a fight with somebody bigger, older, and probably wiser, know how to fight. Something I wish I could have asked my father how to do.

While in the 4th grade I was standing in line, in the cafeteria, waiting for another delicious meal of mystery meat, collard greens with vinegar, corn bread as dry as the Sahara, and Velda brand milk, served in little cartons that could only be opened with sharper knives than we were allowed, and with paper straws that would collapse upon the first sip faster than a junkie’s veins.

During lunch, the librarian stood in the cafeteria to monitor things. On a particular day, the librarian left the cafeteria. Just as she was disappearing from view, and as the screen door started to slam shut, someone, I don’t know who, shouted out, “Good! The old goose is leaving!” I found this funny and clapped my hands. Instantly the screen door screeched open and the librarian’s basilisk gaze focused on me, in mid-clap. My heart turned to stone. I could no more convince the librarian that I had not called her an old goose than I could convince Mrs. Boggs that I hadn’t started a pushing match in 1st grade. I was made to stand with my nose against the wall for the entire lunch period. In retrospect, one less day of collard greens in vinegar was not entirely a bad thing.

The lesson I learned in 4th grade was that people will very happily let you take the blame for something they did. I should point out, however, that nobody ratted out the unknown comedian.

In 5th grade I was taught mathematics by the appropriately named Mrs. Counts. Mrs. Counts still is the tallest woman I have ever personally met. As a 10 year old she towered over me like a sequoia over Danny DeVito.

On another brutally hot sunny Florida day, Mrs. Counts returned graded tests to us. For some reason she decided to have each of us read his or her grade aloud to her so that she could document it in her grade book. I had scored a D on this particular test. Naturally, I was embarrassed about having to announce this to the entire class so when it was my turn I said, “B”. But Mrs. Counts new perfectly well that I had not earned a B on that test and so she called me to her desk to look at the paper. In a loud voice she said, “This is a D! That’s a lot different than a B, isn’t it!?”

In 5th grade I learned what cruelty is.

And so it went through 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th grades, until I reached high school.

Winter Haven High School

In high school I was essentially a nobody. One of many, to be sure. It was a large student body. As I recall, I graduated with about 400 other people. But I didn’t experience any of those iconic events that one so often sees in American films about school. I didn’t play sports, I wasn’t in the band, I wasn’t in the 4H club with the farmers. I coasted.

My least favorite classes, the maths, were at one end of the school, and my favorites, English, literature, drama, were at the other. I always managed to schedule my favorite classes for the end of the day, and so after midday I would walk the long outdoor hallway, past the gym, and into the cool, air-conditioned language arts building.

As I stood in front of the school, in the present day, I saw that most of it was under either construction or demolition. The classes I had liked least had all been torn down and were being replaced by a multi-story structure. But the language arts building had been renamed for my favorite English teacher. Ruth Wolfe.

How I had liked her. So inspiring, so funny. I felt like I could actually talk to her. And on one of those occasions when I did I nearly died of shame when I tried to use in conversation, and mispronounced, the word lithe, having only ever read the word and never heard it spoken before. Unlike its long, flowing, onomatopoeic-like proper pronunciation, I said it in a short abrupt lith. “Lith?” said Mrs. Wolfe. “Oh, lithe! Hahahahaha” How stupid I felt as I walked along the hallway with my idol. Even so, they should have renamed the whole school after her.

Drama had Sally Hendricks, on whom I secretly had a crush. I thought her a carefree spirit. A hippie type, wild and untamed. I daresay the only thing untamed about her was her long, frizzy black hair, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that then.

I never did follow through on my crush and ask Sally out on a date or anything, and eventually she moved away, but she must have known I was fond of her because, a couple years later, while going to school for a new job she was starting, she called me and I drove out to see her. I took her to Tarpon Springs where we walked on the docks, looked at sponge divers and their boats, raked our fingers through souvenir sand dollars, shells, and of course sponges, and ate sea food. Afterward, we went back to her hotel room and smoked a doob. It was lovely.

Of course, besides her somewhat fey attitude, Sally’s major attraction, back in high school, was that she represented the unknown, the far away, the adventurous. She was from exotic Xenia, Ohio. I had wanted to leave my small home town for as long as I could remember and by my senior year I was absolutely frantic to get out. By then I was working weekends 40 miles away, near Orlando. A veritable metropolis to my eyes. I even tried to get an apartment there right out of high school. An idea nixed by my parents.

I had no starry-eyed memories of school chums or school spirit or school proms anchoring me to this place on which I was standing again. This high school was probably the most changed of anyplace I had visited so far, but I felt no nostalgia for things lost. Perhaps I was happy to see it apparently thriving and expanding.

But school was long over.
I dream sometimes myself back to school, terrified that I didn't learn the lesson.... the best mornings I had after those dreams :))
I can't remember the last time I dreamed about school. Maybe once I've had a dream about not studying for a test. I don't have many anxiety dreams of that nature, I don't believe. But then, I don't remember most of my dreams, anyway.