Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Life in Four Colors (Part Fifteen)

August of 1962 marked the beginning of the fourth grade for me... and it also marked the first time in my admittedly brief history as a student that I was attending school somewhere other than Garden Lakes Elementary.

Garden Lakes was a relatively new school when I started there in 1959; as a result, the facilities were new, the furniture was new, the books were new, the equipment was new... I had come to assume that this was the way every school was furnished and operated.

Then came my first day at Elm Street.

Elm Street was an old, somewhat worn-around-the-edges school that seemed to be long past its prime. The classrooms were cramped and dreary; the textbooks were old and overused; the playground was inadequate and undersized; the curriculum was unchallenging and rigid. I felt like I was in some sort of mock school that emphasized form and structure over content.

I knew very few people there, although many of them knew one another. They had gone to school for three years prior; I was the new kid. I wasn't the only new kid, of course; West Rome was a growing area at the time, with lots of families moving into new homes in the area, so there were others like me... but I was the only fourth grader there from Garden Lakes, so I felt particularly alone.

Mrs. Cook, my teacher, was a stern by-the-numbers instructor who seemed to love two things: magic squares (a mathematical puzzle/tool for instruction) and handwriting drills. Over and over again, we did magic squares and we practiced our handwriting. Since I was left-handed and Mrs. Cook insisted that we use fountain pens, I inevitably smeared the not-dried ink as my hand dragged across the cursive characters that we inscribed on tablet paper over and over and over again. Mrs. Cook tried briefly to get me to use my right hand instead, but that was such a dismal failure that she abandoned that course of action quickly.

For some reason, Mrs. Cook also liked the song "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport," which we sang in class on many occasions; eventually, when she thought we were good enough, she had the principal listen over the intercom as we sang the song. We finished; there was a prolonged silence, then the box on the wall said "thank you." It seemed surreal to me then, and it seems just as surreal now, forty-six years later.

Geography, reading, science--they were all repeats of things that I had done in the third grade at Garden Lakes. I was bored, and within a month I was sneaking a comic book or two to school so that I would have something to read during recess (since the playground was so small, there wasn't enough room for everyone to play at once, so I found it easier to sit off to the side and read comics).

I had pulled out one of my comics--an issue of Justice League of America--when another student walked up to me, plopped down next to me, and said "I really like that one." He then mentioned the "When Gravity Went Wild" story from JLA #5, and I knew he was telling the truth--he really did like it, and he knew something about comics.

His name was Phil Patterson, and he became my best friend at Elm Street almost instantly.

Phil was a little bit heavier than me--he wasn't fat, but he was "stocky" in the way that parents like to describe kids who could benefit from dropping ten pounds or so. I wasn't athletic because my wretched eyesight had stopped me from developing an interest in sports since I couldn't see the action more than five feet away from me; Phil wasn't athletic because no one ever gave him the chance.

Every recess, Phil and I would talk; we liked the same comics, we both had collections, and we both liked to draw. I learned that Phil lived not that very far from me; I could walk to the end of my street, head up Paris Drive, turn left on Conn Street to Burnett Ferry, and then cross Shorter Avenue at the light to Watson Street; Phil's house was the second house on the left, less than a fifteen minute walk--and only about a six minute bike ride.

Within a couple of weeks, I had gotten permission to go to Phil's house after school; he wanted me to come see his comics, so I walked with him to his house. His collection was a bit less diverse than mine--he seemed to enjoy superhero books but nothing else--but there were enough duplications that we could talk for hours about stories we had both read, and we could play our favorite "what if" games, speculating what might have happened had certain story events worked out differently.

I also met Phil's mother--a pleasant woman, but one of the most protective parents I had ever seen. Phil's parents were older than my parents; he had an older sister, but somehow his parents seemed far more protective of Phil than of his sister. Every ten or fifteen minutes, she would check in on us to see what we were doing; that pattern continued for the duration of our friendship.

Phil's house made an impression on me that is vivid to this day. To get to his room, you had to go up a flight of stairs; the stairs came up into the middle of the upstairs area (I believe the room was finished out in what was once an attic), with narrow hallway-like passaged on either side that extended to another closet and storage area on the floor above the foot of the stairs on the first floor. The space in front of the floor was Phil's room, and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. My room was bright, small--9 feet by 11 feet--and had little privacy, since it was directly across the hall from my parents' bedroom. Phil's room was expansive, isolated, and slightly dark. It was a comic book fan's sanctum sanctorum, and I wanted a room just like it.

I learned later that Phil's family had something else that I had heard about but had never previously seen: a fallout shelter. A real honest-to-gosh carefully constructed and stocked fallout shelter. I only got to look inside it once, in Phil's company, and I don't think his parents ever knew that he showed it to me, but I know he was proud of it. Had it been my family's fallout shelter, I would have been proud, too; it was like having your own very small Bat-Cave!

Suddenly Elm Street Elementary wasn't so bad...

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