Elm Hill Elementary School was the center of our lives for years. There were five of us Murray kids who went there, and you’d go for kindergarten, first, second, third, fourth fifth and sixth. Except by the time Joey and I got to fifth for Joey and sixth for me, Newington had grown so that we were moved over to over to the old Northwest Annex, the complete other end of town. Joey had Mr. Hadijian, and I had Mr. Silver. Both Joey and I recently went to a funeral back in Newington and met Mr. Hadijian. That was amazingly cool, except he remembered me as his student and had some words to say about what hellian I had been. He didn’t remember Joey. I was mystified, because I didn’t have Mr. Hadijian in fifth grade. I had Mrs. Beck and she was beautiful. My first crush. A word about memory. Mr. Hadijain is older than Joey and me by more than a decade. Already a teacher when were 10 or 11 years old. So he’s in his late seventies, possibly 80’s when we meet him at this funeral. I don’t remember having him. He remembers having me. Who’s right? The teacher? We were always taught to look up to our teachers, and believe them and all, but I have pretty strong memories of Mrs. Beck. I have no memories of Mr. Hadijian except that he was my little brother Joey’s teacher when I had Mr. Silver in sixth grade. So this stuff can all get a little fuzzy. Our memories can change. I mean I have run into people who remember an event that I also remember and they remember it happening at a different place. If enough people started to tell me that I had Mr. Hadijian, would it, could it shake my memory, change my memory? Wow. Is this what brainwashing is. People harangue you until you admit you did the crime, or were somewhere that you weren’t. You can be confused. I am writing this as memoir. I am not making stuff up. I am writing down what happened according to my memory and I am admitting that my memory is not as dependable as written records. What if I found a report card from fifth grade and it was Mr. Hadijian as my fifth grade teacher? My head would swim. I have to believe my memory. I was madly in love with Mrs. Beck. Could that not have happened? I mean I wasn’t all mooney. I didn’t sit there staring at her all day- just a few minutes now and then. I do remember being terribly fascinated with Mrs. Beck when she started wearing sleeveless dresses in the spring. I knew where she lived, in that brick house down by the second hole on the golf course. No I wasn’t stalking her. That wasn’t invented yet. Someone mentioned that that was where she lived, and I remembered. It was a part of our neighborhood stomping grounds. In warmer weather we’d play on the fairways out of sight of the country club, and in the winter we’d use that second hole water hazard as a skating pond. And when there was snow with a crust on it, we’d slide down there, too. And her house was visible from the fairway and the water hazard was pretty much right in back of her house. But it was a harmless schoolboy crush and I don’t think Mrs. Beck ever noticed. If she did she did I never knew. If my memory is wrong, that changes things, doesn’t it? My parents would both undergo electric shock treatment later- spoiler alert, life is not all peaches and cream. Electric shock therapy erases memory. I know because of a memory that got erased from my dad’s mind. To retain my sanity I have to believe my memory. I’m not playing fast and loose with it. Honest.
So is that crush on a teacher, Mrs. Beck, the start of elementary school sex? It was next year, sixth grade, at the annex, in Mr. Silver’s class. He was the first male teacher I‘d ever had. And I loved Mr. Silver. He made learning so fun it was beyond belief. I remember clearly voting to stay in from recess to have extra science lessons, and for me -a hyper active little kid who lived for recess- to even consider giving up recess was big time. We were learning the human body. Bones and muscles and circulatory system and I was totally captivated. I wasn’t the only one who wanted extra science, either. But not enough of us wanted it to carry the vote and we didn’t get to give up recess for extra science.
That year Joey and I had to ride the bus to Northwest Annex. Once past kindergarten we’d always walked to Elm Hill Elementary. My mom told stories about how she had to walk up to the bus stop with me in kindergarten and make sure I got on the bus because apparently I didn’t a couple of times. Not too fond of school? So taking the bus in sixth grade was very different to what I’d come to love, that time walking to and from school in all seasons. The little maple helicopters. Frogs, cattails, learning how to whistle with a blade of grass, popping leaves against your fist. The bus would turn off Willard Avenues onto the road the school faced, then we’d turn left into the parking lot and there was a spectacular maple tree which turned into brilliant flaming orange as the first few weeks of school passed. Mr. Silver points this out. ”Good morning boys and girls.”
We probably all said, ‘Good morning, Mr. Silver!” in unison. It was the times.
“Look out the window.” We looked. He looked at us looking. He waited. “What do you see?” We saw various things and of course some smarty pants girl noticed the flaming orange tree. Most of us were being too subtle: blue jays, frost on the grass, a fire hydrant being visited by a dog.
“That’s right, Sandy. Do you know what type of tree it is that turns such bright orange?”
Sandy did not. Sandy was a girl who lived in our neighborhood and I had noticed her as pretty cute. We do weird things as kids; at least I sure did. Did I go up to Sandy St. John and talk to her and tell her I thought she was cute? Are you kidding? Not on a bet. Admired from afar. It is not wrong to think someone is cute, to like them, but I did not have the temperament then to even think about approaching a cute girl. I was painfully quiet. Sometimes to get myself to do things that I didn’t want to do I would threaten myself with having to go up to Sandy St. John and talk to her if I didn’t do the thing. Say for instance I did not want to run around the block one more time. I could break out the Sandy St. John threat, and away I’d go. Another half mile was way easier than the thought of talking to Sandy. Young love.
So we have little lesson about trees turning colors, you know, the usual stuff, but Mr. Silver gets us wicked hooked. “So when the leaves have turned color, it is the beginning of the end of their endless cycle. They will eventually fall off the tree….” And of course we all knew this because there is nothing quite so much fun to a young and short person as walking through colorful, crisp, wonderfully fragrant, fallen leaves, up to your knees in places, on the way home from school.
“Does anyone think all those leaves will have fallen off that tree by tomorrow morning?”
No one did.
“Oh, so you have a sense of how long it takes for this to happen. Because you are all young and bright and notice things. Good.” He walks to the window. Looks. “ How about by the end of the week?”
“You guys are good. Of course they will not all be gone by the end of the week.” He looks out the window again, thinking. He turns back to us. “How about next week?”
And there were a couple of hands. “Good.” He rubs his hands together. “Here’s what we’re going to do. I want you to watch that tree all this week. Observe it closely. Every chance you get. And next week, not on Monday, but by the middle of the week, we are going to set up a chart with your estimates of when all the leaves will be gone from that tree.” He let that sink in. I mean that’s pretty exciting, right? “And whoever wins, who ever has the date closest to when they are all gone, will win…” and he names a prize that I cannot remember but it wasn’t really important because we were pumped. We wanted to set up the chart right then. “No. You watch this week. Next week. Make good estimates.”
That tree was the focus of my life for the next month. When the bus took the turn off Willard every kid in Mr. Silver’s class would have his face plastered against the window looking at the tree. And when you got into the room after you ditched your coat in the coatroom you’d go hang out on the windows looking at the the leaves falling, comparing today to yesterday, guessing. As kids got eliminated for guessing too early, interest waned. October, and still leaves. I sat up front then. Captivated. One day Mr. Silver needed a desk. He asked me, “May I take yours, Paul?” Of course he could. And when he took it I felt pretty funny, sitting there with just a chair and no desk. “Feel pretty naked, don’t you?” I blushed a deep scarlet. Naked was not a word you could say. Not to a boy in front of class. I was relieved to get my desk back. By November it was pretty well over with the tree. We’d all been eliminated, except Mr. Silver. He had picked a pretty late date. It felt a little bad to have Mr. Silver be the winner, but there you are. We had been pretty keyed for quite a while. And now we were onto the bones and muscles anyway. There were two momentous events the year. The first had something to do with sex. The second had to do with Norway. Innocence was about to end.
I still don’t really know what went on. There had been a talk to just the girls. The nurse? Some other older woman? What would they talk about? Oh…. Was it about what was happening to their bodies? Was it a frank talk about menstruation and breasts and urges and relationships. Did the nurse sit down and say, “Now girls, this going to be an interesting talk because we are going to talk about changes the are happening in your bodies and in your feelings, some of you now, some later, and that’s fine, It’s not a race. I want you to feel free to interrupt and ask me anything if you have any questions as I talk. It’s going to be a little awkward at first, but we’ll begin by being frank and listening to each other carefully.”
Are you kidding me? It couldn’t have been. This was way too long ago for anything approaching frankness. I imagine the talk was guarded, exceedingly awkward and brought up issues that weren’t talked about or resolved in any way. I bet no one was frank for one second. And that stirred up a hornet’s nest. Kids were eager to know and suddenly there were more notes being passed than you could imagine. Questions? Guesses? Comments? Observations? Mr. Silver noticed. He intercepted one. He just stopped teaching, walked over, and stood with his hand out to the girl who had just been handed the note. He was tall, too, and big and bald. And it was scary when he did that. His demeanor was complete different. The girl wouldn’t look at him.
“Give me the note, please.”
He took it. He opened it.
He walked, not a word, to the back of the room. The note was in his left hand. A piece of chalk was in his right. Every eye was on him, turning as he went by.
When he got to the back of the room. He turned to face the wall with the windows. Suddenly he fired that piece of chalk at what must have approached the speed of sound into the wall right by the windows. There was a loud noise as that chalk exploded into dust with a terrifying violence. Where once had been a teacher at the blackboard explaining the human body to a group of eager boys and girls, now sat a group chastised. Severely. Chalk dust drifted to the floor in the sunlight coming in the window. We were stunned. Not a sound. Mr. Silver quietly walked to the front of the room. He looked us over. “I want to see every person who knows anything about this note or any of the other ones that have been going around. When I dismiss you for lunch those of you who don’t know about this will leave, and those who do, will stay. And we will talk.”
And class was different after that. I think we were a little older than he thought. Not such an innocent bunch of school boys and girls. Sixth grade. Trust had been broken. Some boundaries had been pushed. I don’t really know. Should we have talked about it openly. Yeah. Of course. The child’s world asking about the adult world. We never did. Would we now a days? Hush.
The previous winter we’d all been mesmerized by the winter Olympics. My father would sit in his black leather chair; my mother would sit in her chair, black vinyl. None of us wondered then why my mom got vinyl. We kids’d loll around in the living room, on our new beige rug- long cotton fibers with gold flecks. Before we housebroke two dogs on it, it was soft and nice. Some of us might be on our orange vinyl couch with ranch oak arms, or on our pull out sleeper/couch that was much more comfy, covered in cloth instead of that vinyl. We had the ranch oak coffee table that converted to a full sized dining table for our Sunday dinners and you could put your legs under there and feel pretty cozy. All of us flopped somewhere and together and it felt great. My parents and all. Family. As nice as it gets. And we’d ooh and ahh over the olympics. The downhill skiing was thrilling! Jean Claude Killy. Such speed. And the skating was wonderful. And the ski jumping. My god, they flew!!! Absolutely flew. I think it is safe to say that my passion for skiing developed in the living room with my parents and brothers and sisters sitting around the television set. And then the next Christmas, I got the gift of a lifetime. My parents got me a pair of skis. It was a pair of blue wooden skies with real cable bindings- not just leather straps. I was no longer so interested in sleds and sliding. I wanted to ski. It was probably not yet seven in the morning. We’d get up pretty early for Christmas. Our parents were not up yet. I took those skis out in to the kitchen, by the back door near the utility room to try my boots in the bindings. I was a short kid, but I had pretty big feet. I had pair of workbooks with green stitching that I’d written an essay about and got a decent grade once. The green stitching I guess won the day with the teacher for good description. I loved my workboots and was completely cool with using them on my skis. I knew ski boots were really expensive. I put one boot in the binding. It was a little struggle. I pushed the lever down in front that tightened the cable to clamp your foot in and the boot bent the sole off the boot up in big arch. WAY too small. I was a little disappointed. I was more than disappointed. I was stunned.
My mom showed up in the doorway from the hall, by the refrigerator. “How do you like ‘em?”
I let the binding loose to free my boot and looked up at my mom, fighting back tears.
“Oh, those look a little small.”
“Yeah.” I blinked. “I love the skis, though.”
“Can you adjust the binding part?”
Sometimes you just need a mom there. I looked at the bindings. I had just joined Boy Scouts which encouraged handiness and self reliance and my time in the woods with Kenny sure helped. I started to feel better. I got a screw driver and started to move the toe piece forward so the boot would fit. Half an hour later, drilling holes with my little awl, I got ‘em to fit.
“We didn’t get you poles. We thought you might be able to use tomato stakes.”
And that was that. I got an old tomato stake from the garden, pretty long and used it as a single pole between my legs. An idea I got from reading about Snowshoe Thompson, an incredible biography of a man who skied all over the rockies delivering mail in all sorts of conditions before postal was really invented.
Suddenly I was a skier. Back yard, front yard, the street when it was snowy. I remember one winter after a good storm, Henry Leinhardt’s dad drove his little Mercedes convertible two seater with the top down all around our block towing Henry behind him on skis. It was total hoot to see him whip around the corner to climb Oak street. But the ultimate was to get out to the golf course. We’d slide on any hill we liked, and I started skiing all over the place Had I been given a pair of skis with a cross country binding, and been taught to wax them up, I’d have been in heaven, but we didn’t know about that stuff so I was in heaven anyway. These bindings were just clamp your foot to the ski bindings for downhill work.We built a ski jump up at the back of the country club. That hill was quite steep. I saw it recently and it is quite steep. A lot of hills I thought were steep when I was younger have shrunk, but this one is still steep. So of course this was the hill we built a ski jump on.
The jump was about two feet off the ground and when you hit it you flew. It was awesome. And you didn’t need poles for ski jumping. The olympic ski jumpers didn’t use them. We’d measure our jumps and go do it again. We could go around 20 feet. I started to really jump off but my right ski would always let go, so I’d have to land on one ski and watch out for the loose one coming behind.
Kenny’s dad, a carpenter, had made us a sort of snow unicycle, too. It was a single ski with a little platform and seat on it. You sat about knee height off the ski and could sort of steer with your feet. It was tricky. did we ever take it over the jump? Are you kidding We were boys. We’d have jumped the thing off Niagara Falls if they were handy. Landings were dicey, but you could always laugh and it wouldn’t hurt.
So when it came time at school with Mr. Silver to do a report- our introduction to research- and you could choose any country in the world, I of course chose Norway because they had skiers. Norwegians were always featured in the skiing events of the Olympics. What could be better?
Well as it turns out, doing reports on Norway is no where near as much fun as skiing. I didn’t really know how to do the report and after the new sourness in the class over all the notes being passed, I wasn’t exactly comfortable asking Mr. Silver for help. So I did what any kid would do and avoided the task. Kids began turning in their reports and giving reports and Mr. Silver is glowing with pride in each and every one of them, and I just slid lower and lower into my chair.
It changed school for me. I started to hate school. I’d loved it so in the fall. Now I dreaded each day. The reports were assigned in the winter and by spring I had not done a thing. Not a thing. Mr. Silver started pushing harder. I was not one who was pushed well. He began talking about retention. If I flunked social studies he could hold me back from going to the junior high school next year. I became sullen. You couldn’t have gotten me to smile. School was pure dread. Hold me back. I don’t care. This was a dark time. Finally, just before the end of the school year, he called my mother in for a conference. Retention was discussed. My mother was alarmed. We had so liked Mr. Silver and sixth grade. What had happened? It was this stupid Norway report. I just wanted to ski and now the snow was all gone and who ever cared about Norway really?
They struck a deal. My mom explained it to me when she got home.
“Mr. Silver and I had talk about you.”
“Did you know he was thinking of holding you back?”
“Don’t you want to go tp Martin Kellogg Junior High School?”
“Paul, don’t you?”
“I don’t care.”
“Well I care. I want you to care, but I can’t help you there. You have to do that report. Then you can go to the junior high.”
I sat with my lower lip sticking out.
“We decided that if you would produce one hundred words, it would be enough for you to pass, and with the good work you started the year with, he can comfortably recommend you to go on.”
My lip went out a little further.
She got up. Went down the hall to our book shelf and got an N encyclopedia from this old set we had. She opened it up to Norway and set it on the kitchen table. She got out a sheet of paper from the paper drawer and got a pencil. She set them down by the open encyclopedia. “One hundred words.” She left.
I stayed still. After five minutes she came back.
“Have you started yet?”
“Would you be more comfortable working on the floor in the living room?”
“O.K. then. You may.”
I moved all the stuff out there and lay on my stomach. I looked at the entry on Norway. It was huge. It was more information than you could imagine. Pages. I was not really there; I didn’t really exist. My world was over. Adults can never understand how this can happen. This was impossible. One hundred words.
Just for those of you who don’t know, a hundred words is not much. Anyone could write that much by hand in less than five minutes if you knew what you wanted to say. A good typist can go along at a clip of close to a hundred words a minute. To both Mr. Silver and my mom I’m sure this was not at all an insurmountable problem. It was for me. I stared. I was a zombie. My brain was dead. I didn’t have a brain.The sun began to sink outside. I was not outside. I needed to be outside. I had my rule of staying outside every day for three hours. I was just frozen with something. Fear? I think if my mom hadn’t intervened I would be there still.
But she did intervene.
She came out and picked up the book and paper and took the pencil out of my hand. She put them at the kitchen table again. She picked me up. She took me with her arm around my shoulders and said, “Come on. Let’s sit at the table and get this done.”
“Here’s what we’ll do.” She took out the paper. “Write your name.”
I wrote my name.
“Now write Norway.”
I wrote Norway. Ninety-nine to go.
“Now I want you to copy from the encyclopedia until you have a hundred words.”
It started to sink in. You’re not supposed to copy. I knew that. I was being cut a deal. Collusion? Collusion.
I copied from the encyclopedia. Until I had a hundred words.
And when my mom next came over and asked if I was done I was.
“Did you count?”
“You give it to Mr. Silver, tomorrow. You go outside and play.”
And I did.
That year changed me. The end of innocence. Next stop, Martin Kellog Junior High School.