Memoir 1966-1971: Washington Irving School days

It is near the end of the half-day kindergarten session. I am seated legs-crossed with my classmates on the carpet, looking up at our teacher. She speaks kindly to us.

Unlike my classmates, I am not sitting still, but nervously rocking on my haunches.

The first or second day that I attend Oak Park, Illinois’ Washington Irving Elementary School, I am miserable. But almost immediately it gets much better.

Here is the problem:  I am a five-year old, people-pleasing rule follower, and know that the teacher has told us to sit quietly as she finishes up the day with a spoken wrap-up… But I need desperately to pee! 

The idea of interrupting her talk to advocate for my personal needs seems unpardonable. I feel embarrassed and impotent. I want to feel comfortable like the other children, but physically, on a basic level, I cannot. 

So, at some excruciating point, as the teacher speaks in calm, measured tones that summarize today and get us excited about tomorrow, I do the only thing I can. I silently let loose a stream of warm urine that saturates my red jumper and the carpet directly beneath me.

This is certainly bad manners, but the sweet relief I feel once it’s out of my bladder and into the carpet –and that no one initially notices––lets me turn my attention back to the teacher.

Observe the young scholar: going to extraordinary lengths to subordinate his needs and strive to measure up for his masters.

As the class gets up to leave, though, the truth of my emission is discovered. And if there are any, then surely this teacher is an angel from heaven. She neither reprimands nor publicly shames me, though. She turns it into a learning experience for me, showing me personally where the boys room is. She assures me that it’s OK anytime to ask to use it. 

I walk the three blocks home as quickly as possible, embarrassed of my urine-soaked pants, but not turned off to returning to the scene of my crime, instead excited for what tomorrow’s classroom holds.

After that awkward beginning, and perhaps in no small measure because of it, I grow to love schooling. I come to know the classroom as a site of organized compassion, a comforting place of routines and easy-to-master norms that make me feel as if I belong. My kindergarten teacher is as kind and engaging as the Romper Room teacher I’ve enjoyed on Channel 9.

And just like on TV, time at school is broken up into entertaining chunks of distinct activity. School  is the opposite of my chaotic home where the only dependable things are the postman and the TV schedule. 

After putting thing in the cubby My Kindergarten has snacks, nap time, and little play kitchens and garages like the ones I’ve seen on TV. Amazingly, the students’ “job” is just to pretend and have fun interacting within these scenes. School is fun!

Within a few weeks, I am comfortable at school, a feeling that won’t leave me for about fifty-five years.

In Kindergarten, too, I feel the first stirrings of patriotism in my breast, when I learn, in a pre-reading color photo pamphlet, about our valiant President, Lyndon Baines Johnson. This kind-looking old man, who looks to me like Papa (my mother’s father) has been doing a good job for all of us Americans.

So that’s what I am, an American!

This is in 1966, so LBJ’s White House is escalating strategic bombing and search-and-destroy missions to support oil and rubber interests in Vietnam. But at five, I am blissfully ignorant of these facts. I’m just an American kid enjoying school in what’s supposed to be a great society.

My 1st grade classroom is run by a strict woman named Mrs. Bergsrud, under whose tutelage I learn to write out my first word: cat. I am thrilled by this new capacity, and am soon spelling “dog,” “dad,” and “dip.” The power of the pen surges through the pencil I hold in my clumsy fingers. (In a year or two, I learn to write in cursive, a time-saving innovation that by the 1990s will no longer be taught to children, which seems a shame to me, since I associate writing freely with writing in cursive.)

Under Mrs. Bergsrud’s rule, I learn to love the calming regularity of school protocols, the routines of classroom life that move us from early morning into the middle of an afternoon with no surprises, just sweetly peaceful transitions. 

“And now, class, turn to page….” My teacher walks the aisles between desks as she issues her instructions, subtly coercing us, and most of us instantly comply. 

I find it fun to conform, to work as a group. I feel included and competent, and this is more than enough. It feels like everything that I am in the big kid place doing what big kids do.

There is also morning recess in the school yard, a concrete expanse where I learn to shoot baskets (not so well) and play “4-Square” (better). These games improve my coordination, social skills, and competitive instinct.  

It is also on the playground that I’m introduced to mammalian sex games. The strangely enjoyable, yet bafflingly pointless, “Girls Chase the Boys/Boys Chase the Girls” game is one of the first to emerge in first grade recess. It goes like this: the girls choose a specific boy or boys to pursue. If they have selected you’re suddenly set upon by a group of screaming girls headed menacingly at you. So of course, you run, and the game is on. 

But it is not a race these girls are asking for. When I run fast and easily outpace them, the girls lose interest, and the game swiftly ends. The point of this game is basic sexual interaction–to let a group of developing humans explore their primitive energies through simple chase.

I discover that I enjoy being sought after, ardently desired, even in pretense. I don’t want this game to end.

So I slow down, let the girls catch up to me. We awkwardly push and insult each other, and then, quick as that, the roles are reversed. 

Perhaps the girls scream, “Boys chase the girls now!” or perhaps I just implicitly know how to reciprocate. I give the girls my best “RO-A-R-R!”, wave my arms, and start running menacingly after them. I run more avidly after individuals that attract me more than others, and the girls divide and shift around my choices. 

The game goes on until the girls get bored. And then it’s game over.

Little do we children know it, but the Great Game of Sexual Politics has begun for us.

In first grade I encounter how society responds to neurodivergent people. There is a girl named Susan in our class who smiles a lot, and says odd, but also true things that make me laugh. I like her. But for some reason, this girl cannot seem to comply with Mrs. Bergsrud’s orders for long. Susan gets up and moves when not given permission to do so, and she speaks up in disruptive, if amusing ways. So my teacher publicly shames Susan, makes her sit apart from us, and lets us know how bad misbehavior and disobedience are.

In this conflict, I am pulled both ways. Part of me (the natural, human side I now see) is with Susan: she feels like a good person to me, and I admire her untamed energy. But part of me also roots for Mrs. Bergsrud. I share the schoolmarm’s distaste for any kind of classroom disorder. This same aversion for conflict informs how I co-create orderly classroom communities in each of my assignments when I am teacher.

One day, after months of Susan’s disruptive behavior, we come into the classroom one morning and see Susan’s desk and cubby empty. Mrs. Bergsrud tells us that she’s been removed from our class to a place more “suitable” for her. 

There is silence.

No one asks where is more suitable for Susan, but to myself I wonder where she’s gone, and wish her well.

I don’t realize it at the time, but the state of Illinois, through the way my teacher has handled Susan, has just demonstrated to me and my classmates its immense power to profoundly influence human lives. The clownish girl who once delighted me has suddenly, jarringly, been removed from our class, with zero friction. It is as if Mrs. Bergsrud were a seamstress, and simply ripped the faulty thread named Susan straight out of our midst.

The message of Susan’s disappearance is, “Class, an offensive element has been removed. Now we can wholly focus on the important learning we have to do. Think no more of your absent peer, and open to page 26.”

It goes without saying that the school only removes students for their own benefit, and only after the best interests of all parties is considered. My classmates and I digest and absorb Mrs. Bergsrud’s decision as the priests and nuns at Ascension Catholic digest the body of Christ through their daily eucharist. We all accept it as an article of faith.

Starting in first grade, our class gets to watch 35 mm filmstrips,  programmed to advance images with recorded narration. It is the state-of-the-art educational technology in 1967. I enjoy learning about the world this way, and wish many of the filmstrips could go on and on. My sensitivity to audio and visual stimuli is going to be life-long. 

When one day Mrs. Bergrud asks me to advance the film strip for the class, I feel a thrilling rush of dopamine, and associate being a “tech guy” with enjoyment forever after. The feeling of controlling other human’s experience goes to my head. I feel all-powerful, knowing that show cannot happen but for me and my actions.

This euphoria I derive from public performance is something that will see me auditioning for plays, publishing in journals, teaching in classrooms, DJ’ing nightclubs and radio shows, running my own business, publishing music and literary criticism, and fronting musical groups in years to come. In all of these, I enjoy the sense of controlling the flow and quality of my audience’s experience.

By the time I’m in sixth grade at Irving, I have mastered all classroom media technology: slideshows, phonographs, opaque projectors, ditto machines (both hand-cranked and motorized), overhead projectors, maps, globes, and eventually, 16 mmn educational films from Coronet, like this one that introduces 1950s boys to Dating Dos and Don’ts.

My skills with media and my alacrity to volunteer make me the school’s go-to media assistant. I am the obvious choice, for instance, to serve as projectionist when the school’s auditorium hosts a special showing of the 1931 version of Dracula in my 7th grade year. 

And when the “sock hops” in the gym start happening on Friday nights for grades 6-8, I am chosen as DJ.

One of my 45s I get to spin is one that references dancing in the gym, Don McClean’s “American Pie,” a huge hit in 1971.

The positive association I receive from using media and being sought-after for it influences me to pursue work in radio, DJing, webpage development in the 1990s and later website building and leveraging social media in the 2010s. And somewhere inside as I continue to record my own music in retirement, I still imagine an audience, even if I do not actively seek it.

The child, in this case, really is father to the man.

One of the “angels” of my childhood is surely Irving School’s Social Worker, Mrs. Mengle. She has already intervened with my older sister Sheila when mom’s disastrous parent-teacher conference happens in 1969 (see below), and I receive an invitation to come and talk with her: a calm lady in a quiet office with big windows showing the busy traffic passing on Ridgeland Avenue. 

I feel relaxed in a chair facing those windows in her office, even reassured that someone in the building that I love is concerned about me. Soon I am coming into her office one day a week during lunch, bringing in my own peanut butter and jelly sandwich, along with a can of coke or pepsi–my idea of a balanced noon meal. She asks me about my life, and I am happy for an adult listener.

By the time I am in 6th grade, Mrs. Mengle is familiar with my creative performance drive and allows me to write, direct, and star in all-school productions–one that show the dangers of drugs, and another the coming of Eastertide. One of my lyrics in the Easter show goes, “Ronnie Rotteneggs, you are bad/You make chickens feel so sad.”

I think Mrs. Mengle also reaches out on my behalf to the school’s librarian, a radical young man named Mark Weber. She tells this progressive of my interests and proclivities, and during seventh grade he puts into my hands my a Kurt Vonnegut book, a fascinating fable with jaunty songs called Cat’s Cradle. I will go on to read God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse Five, and then most of the rest of Vonnegut’s oeuvre by the time I am in 10th grade.

God Bless You, Mrs. Mengle and Mr. Weber!

After a year or so of our lunch meetings, Mrs. Mengle encourages me to invite my male friends to film lunches in her room. She lets me order films from the district’s extensive 8 and 16 mm film catalog. I show mostly war and nature documentaries, and my social skills and connections to other males flourishes through the intervention of this kind and wise woman. She saw that I was a lonely boy from a difficult home, and that I would need resources imaginative and practical to help me get along in our patriarchal society, and she opened doors to both.

My first experience with Speech Pathology occurs in first grade. My  “lazy tongue” says w’s when it should be producing r’s. My issues are targeted for intervention.

The therapist assigned to my case is a nice lady who painlessly addresses my problems. I get a special invitation to leave my class and join in a small room with two or three other children similarly selected. We sit around a round table and play games. We do simple pronunciation exercises for her. It feels special to get this attention.

[Perhaps it is no coincidence that Girija, my second wife, a woman of great compassion and patience, also happens to be a successful school-based Speech Pathologist!]

During the Speech pull-out I feel my first heartthrob, which arises in the person of Bobby Ann Lee, a pretty Chinese-American girl who attends the speech sessions with me.

She is the first female outside my family to demonstrate overt affection for me (albeit symbolically–when playing a game of “Sorry,” she takes her player piece and brings it next to my piece. She then mimics kissing my token with hers, making an audible “smack” with her mouth and smiling at me.

I feel overwhelmed with a strange wave of uncertain emotion. She finds me loveable! 

I enjoy the sensation.

A week or two later, I decide to ride over to Bobby Ann’s house on my first bike (my older sister Sheila’s outgrown Pixie). She and her mother host me to a pleasant snack of pop and chips, and, strangest of all, rose petals. Her mother eats them directly from the large-leaved flowers on her table. They aren’t bad, either, I discover!

Bobby and my premature romance turns quickly into friendship, and then an ongoing rivalry that lasts the next seven years of our time together at Irving. 

In 6-8th grades Bobby Ann shares top place with me in Science, Social Studies, and English, and she surpasses me in Mathematics. In the 8th grade presidential race, we wage an intense campaign of posters and speeches over the intercom, and I narrowly lose to her. 

In time, my rival bests me in the academic world, too, serving I think for many years as a professor of biology with the University of Kentucky. 

I wish her well!

A memoir I shared with my students in 2011 that deals with these Washington Irving years:

Growing up with an alcoholic mom, you never knew what to expect. Getting in a car with her–because as her little kid you had no choice –meant you might be driving 80 miles an hour down suburban streets as she screamed her rage, or maybe while on the way to pick up your big sister you might suddenly start veering out of traffic. bump over a curb and into a tree. The cops would come and discover her passed out behind the wheel and you confused in back. Or then again, you might arrive perfectly safe and on time. You just never knew.

At home, from day to day, you didn’t know what to expect. One day she would be Wonder-mom, cooking delicious food, helping you with your lessons, taking care of your little dog and playing fun games with you when you came home from school. But the next, she might be gone–checked into some psychiatric hospital, or comatose in bed, or alarming the neighbors by hunting grandparents in the back yard trees. There was no way of telling. You just never knew.

So my elementary school building–the stately Washington Irving–became an island of order in an ocean of chaos, a place for me to linger in and cling to, as motherless children will cling to benign passing adults  School was where synchronized bells moved everyone through the day, and where the adults all acted relatively sane. It was perfect for me–it  allowed me to safely grow.  With school’s daily routines and small challenges, I felt secure–I always knew what to expect.

Before I could join organized sports, school filled my yearning for order, and I was a happy student.  A big part of why school “worked” for me was the reading. So much of school work entailed reading, and I loved to read. My home’s bookshelves held sets of encyclopedias–the World Book, The Book of Knowledge, the Audubon Nature Encyclopedia, The Golden Book, a medical encyclopedia–and I had found refuge in those books since I was big enough to turn the pages and look at the images. Reading and learning, I found, calmed and intrigued me. Finding out about subjects and lives more interesting or important than mine put things  into perspective, diverted my attention from present sufferings. In the school library I found and devoured every last book on World War II, including the weapon surveys by C.B. Colby.  What, after all, were my family’s difficulties compared to the Nazi death machine? And how could I despair of my future when I lived in the land of excellent technology like the Browning Automatic Rifle and the B-17 Flying Fortress?  

Fourth grade started marvelously, with math, reading, and science conducted by the very pretty Miss _____ , who was even more attractive because was never cross or mean, and she never shouted. She didn’t have to. She had a confidence, a sense of certainty about the world and subject matter that made her classes run like clockwork. Each student knew what was happening, what had happened, and what was going to happen in her room. While my life at home might be very confusing, Miss ____ ‘s every lesson gave me a satisfying sense of completion and progress. Last week were words describing trees; this week would be words describing flowers.  Not only did everything make sense, but Miss ____ acknowledged me, and gave me the opportunity to show off my knowledge in special reports I prepared for her from my Audubon Nature Encyclopedia

“One kind of mollusk is known as a ‘bi-valve’ because it has two openings–one where the water goes in and another where it  goes out. It’s like ‘bi-cycle,’ which means two wheels.” 

“That’s right!” she praised me in front of my peers..”And can you give us some examples of bi-valves?” 

“Um,” I was up to her challenge. “I think that one is a clam, and another is an oyster. And they help clean the sea-water with their valves.”

“I believe you’re right!” She smiled at me.  “And how interesting,” she turned to the class. “Thanks to Drew, we now know something about the creatures at the bottom of the sea!”

Some of my classmates resented my extra-credit reports, and others thought me weird, or annoying, but I didn’t mind. I basked in the radiance of her approval. In the Happy Land of school, the Queen considered me a favorite. 

But one day in February, Happy Land was invaded. It was true that you couldn’t trust my mother, but I continued to have faith in her, continued to believe that we were a “normal” family, that mom could do things “normal” moms did. From the school’s perspective, however, there was mounting evidence that my family was abnormal.  Mom had missed every performance and school play, and was repeatedly absent for Parent-teacher conferences. Noticing my inordinate love of school and super-eager attitude, the teachers may have wanted to find out what was going on. In any case,  I was told by Miss ____, probably with a couple week’s notice, that my mother was scheduled for a 1:30 conference on an early-dismissal day.  As I did with all her other requests, I assured Miss ___ that I would be responsible for it.

I would have told my mother, maybe through her closed bedroom door, that there was this meeting, and that Miss ____ was looking forward to meeting with her, and mom probably acknowledged it, but when the day arrived, I came home to a quiet house. I climbed the stairs and saw that in her room, mom was “sleeping.” The lights were off,  the shades were down, and she lay unconscious in her nightgown. In retrospect, I know that she’d taken tranquilizers and washed them down with booze, but of course I didn’t know that at the time. I only knew that I needed to get mom ready for the 1:30 meeting–and it was already quarter till.

“Mom?” I pushed her shoulder. “Mom, we need to go to school. Miss ____ is waiting to meet you.” 

There was a guttural moan in response. I persisted. “Mom! We don’t have much time. We’ve got to get going!”

“Huh?” came a far-away voice. But she was aware, and bit by bit I got her up and going. Over the next hour, I got her out of bed and dressed–though I’m sure her clothes didn’t match–and walking unsteadily, leaning on me, the four blocks  to school, where Miss ____ awaited.  

I felt awkward waiting for mom in the hallway, and then later when Miss ___ called in the school’s social worker, I had an inkling that things were not right, but so what? Then I saw with horror that my teacher was holding out and then disposing of mom’s used sanitary pad. I knew that was a shameful thing. 

But still, with the school’s professionals taking care, I knew there was nothing to worry about. School would make everything all right, as it always had.

The offshoot of that meeting for me, where mom’s alcoholism was seen and smelled, was mixed. On the one hand I was allowed extra freedoms by teachers and administration and scheduled to meet on a weekly basis with the school’s social worker to “talk about things.”  I appreciated this attention and with the social worker I developed a lunch group that watched 16mm films and put on school plays. 

But on the other hand, I was no longer a “normal” student. I could tell that my teachers, including Miss ____ , were treating me with less regard and more sympathy now. They saw me as coming from a “problem home,” which filtered their view of me. Now any high achievements I earned were seen as overcompensating, and any bad behavior as a “cry for attention,” or “acting out.” My dreams of fitting in, of being “normal” were crushed. 

Ultimately, though, the interventions of school made me aware of how I was different, and how I would need to find ways to compensate for those disadvantages. The social worker showed me that already,  through reading and learning, I had developed healthy ways to rise above insanity and despair. And while I could not count on my mother being there, there were dedicated professionals who would be, and they would help me develop my most important trust relationship:  the one I have with myself. 

My reflection on the previous narrative: I have been able to almost fully consummate my love with schooling, or public schooling, more exactly. I served as a school teacher, the designated adult and instructor in life skills, the guide for growing minds, for 37 years, from 1983 to 2021. 

I was not conscious of identifying as a teacher, and certainly never strove to prepare myself to teach until I was 21, having been invited into that role to serve undergraduates at Illinois Wesleyan, and then at Illinois State University. Teaching language felt easy to me, and it felt righteous. After all, I knew first-hand (see previous narrative) the value of literacy for surviving life’s challenges. 

I also accepted the implicit belief in educator as savior, servant leader to otherwise miserably lost young humans.

This zealous belief probably did not benefit my first students (see my chapters on my early teaching years, 1986-93). Coupled with an unquestioning faith in whatever curriculum was given me, I reigned punishing tests and impossibly high standards down on my ignorant charges. I was, to use a line describing Robert Reed’s Claggart in the 1962 version of Billy Budd, “a Pharisee among the lepers.”

And for many years I did it with a smile, feeling I did God’s work among men.

How wrong one can be!

But fortunately I had a good mentor who hired me to teach at York Community High School in Elmhurst, and I learned to respect students for the first time, and began to understand my real responsibilities. After that, and for pretty much the last 20+ years of my career, I grew into an increasingly compassionate teacher.

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