October 07, 2010
Back to the Future's doing it. So are The Goonies. And Growing Pains just celebrated a similar milestone: 25 years.
It appears that 1985 was a pretty great year. Among that year's other notable occurrences: The Golden Girls debuted on NBC, "We Are the World" dominated the pop charts, and yours truly entered kindergarten at Blessed Sacrament Elementary on Maple Avenue in New Rochelle, New York. 25 years ago I -- armed with a backpack, a plaid sweater vest and a hideous Dutch boy bowl cut -- began my full-time academic career at this private school which was located just a block away from the home my parents purchased one year later so that I could have a short and safe commute every day.
My teacher, Miss Sullivan, was a perky-yet-tough brunette with a bob (and stature) that may have caused parents to confuse her with Olympic sweetheart Mary Lou Retton. She drove a navy blue Honda Civic CRX that she would park next to the hopscotch grid that was painted outside the side entrance closest to the school's music room. She seemed younger than the rest of the teachers at the school. What gave it away (besides her driving a cool sports car): the fact we addressed her with "Miss." She wasn't a "Mrs." She wasn't married. Which meant she had no kids. And according to standard kindergartener philosophy, only old people got married and had kids. So she had to be young. Even her aide, Mrs. Fortuna, seemed older, and not because of her prefixing title (in my mind I always referred to the former as Mrs. Fortunafish Sandwich).
My mother has always been proud to share that I had started reading at the age of 3, and although I don't recall the first word I was able to decipher on the page, I do remember that by the time I was in kindergarten (5 years old), I occasionally took over for Miss Sullivan during Reading Time and sat in front of my classmates to tell them stories about talking caterpillars and lost balloons. I would read two pages at a time and then show the class any accompanied drawings, clasping the spine of the large book between my little fingers, just like Miss Sullivan would do. For some reason I was never shy or intimidated to sit before my peers and recite several verses while they looked up at me from the floor (a foreshadowing of my future in speech and debate perhaps?). I just liked to read, and it didn't matter if it was to an audience or to myself. The seeds of my bookwormdom had been planted.
Nap time was a bizarre affair. For starters, I never napped. Every afternoon all 31 of us kids were expected to roll out our cushioned mats and lay down for a half-hour on the linoleum floor of the playroom. My "mat" was a rectangular rug sample taken from my mother's furniture store in Port Chester. It wasn't as plush as Stephanie Calucci's Strawberry Shortcake pad. It wasn't cool like Mike Vaughn's Masters of the Universe sleeping bag. And I didn't care. I didn't care because I thought nap time was a waste of time. Why lay down in the dark in the middle of a gorgeous afternoon when there were Legos to assemble, teddy bears to dance with, and more books about talking animals to read?
The playroom was also a hubbub of activity every afternoon. Imaginations ran wild, action figures were shared, and germs were undoubtedly spread. It was also the place where I became a thief for the first time. The loot: a miniature police car taken from the toy bin. I brought it home to add to my ever-growing collection of Hot Wheels and Matchbox vehicles. My little brain had led myself to believe that it was mine, that I was entitled to it, that it belonged with toys of its own kind. There was no elaborate plan to smuggle it out of the school, no blueprint outlining its great escape. One day, while the other kids started to put their toys away, I got up from the floor, casually walked into the adjacent classroom, and placed the car in my assigned cubbyhole next to the unopened juice box I had saved (Kevin Rudd had given me his Juicy Juice at lunch). No one batted an eye. Had I been questioned about it, I simply would have said that I brought it from home.
I know. Devious.
Thankfully this act didn't spark a passion for leading a lifelong career in shoplifting or burglary.
Then there were The Letter People. A television show based on the national literacy program of the same name, The Letter People consisted of 26 characters, each one with a lesson to teach. Mr. B was known for his Beautiful Buttons while Mr. F was known for his Funny Feet (consonants were male, vowels were female). Each week a new Letter Person would arrive in the mail, an inflatable and colorful figure that would be placed on the shelf that ran along the windows of the classroom. The day a Letter Person arrived in class was a day of excitement. What letter would it be? What would they look like? What would be their characteristic? The anticipation was high. The suspense nearly killed us. We couldn't wait for the day we completed our collection.
However, nothing was more exciting than classroom birthdays. Birthdays meant one thing: Cupcakes. For Miss Sullivan and Mrs. Fortuna I'm sure it translated into something more like: Sugar-Rush-Induced Chaos. My young taste buds were already trained to pick out the cheap, store-bought treats from the delicious bakery items that were usually delivered by the parent of said birthday kid. For my birthday, my mom had taken off from work to deliver Freihofer's chocolate-frosted yellow cupcakes. Little did I know that she was also planning a surprise party for me at the Ground Round family restaurant in Yonkers and had invited my entire class and Miss Sullivan. How none of my peers let the secret slip, I'll never know. Maybe there was a conspiracy amongst all of the parents, you know, like in A Nightmare on Elm Street -- minus the whole torching-a-child-killer thing.
I turned 6. There was a clown who performed magic. A girl vomited into a basket of popcorn. And I got a brand new Cabbage Patch Doll. Good times.
Blessed Sacrament Elementary, which was later called New Rochelle Catholic Elementary -- only to go back to its original name after I graduated in 1994 -- sadly shut down in 2007. I received the news one day when my father called me at work to tell me that he caught the local news and spotted one of my old teachers being interviewed on camera. Due to a lack of funding in the Archdiocese, or at least that's what I had surmised, Blessed Sacrament Elementary was no more. It came as a shock. Who ever heard of a school going out of business? I thought they were everlasting like Jesus, or the post office...or McDonald's. What could it have felt like to be in that final graduating class from B.S. (laugh at the initials all you want)? Where did the other classes relocate to?
Every time I return to New York and drive down Centre Avenue in New Rochelle I'll give a salutatory glance at the large building that sits behind the baseball field in between Blessed Sacrament Church and the large RKO moviehouse that now functions as an institution for those with special needs. What goes on inside the building, I haven't a clue. Some say Blessed Sacrament High School took it over, which would make sense, or maybe it's become one giant house for New Rochelle's homeless. Perhaps a closer look would be needed the next time I return to my old stomping grounds.
If those walls could talk...they'd probably cough up a few pellets of hardened chewing gum, a couple of neglected crayons, and years and years of chalk dust.
*BLOGGER'S NOTE: The names mentioned above have obviously been changed for no other reason than the one to protect me from any future blackmail material my peers may have on me. And as for that hideous Dutch boy haircut, let me dig up some photos and get back to you on that.
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