Recently, my wife AKL and I have been watching the British documentary "Up Series" of films (gotta love Netflix), which posits the conceit, "Give me a child at age seven, and I will give you the man." Beginning with a dozen or so seven-year-olds in 1964, it then revisits them every seven years to find out how they have changed. Filmed interview-style, without the now-clichéd "Reality TV" filters, it allows a fascinating look at long-term personal growth.
And so, lately, there has been that question in the back of my mind, about whether or not the truest, most unadulterated portrait of me might have come at age seven. I was a nice, happy kid then, if a bit shy. I was creative and smart; maybe I didn't yet have a keen sense of humor, but I had not yet begun to edit myself in the affected way that, eventually, we all do.
Throughout my teens and twenties, I ran away from that seven-year-old a bit, but in the past ten years, I've come to admire the kid I was. And now, with children of my own, I find myself chasing down leads on that seven-year-old, looking for answers on parenting, and a return to that simple honesty.
So, after 20 years, though I didn't much like high school — I never quite found my niche there; I was never quite comfortable in my own skin; and, well, I don't suffer fools gladly — I figured it might finally be enlightening, and even fun, to go to a class reunion. And indeed it was.
I was remembered there by some folks whose names I had long forgotten, maybe even slightly more fondly than I'd have thought. But the real kick I got was not from seeing friends and classmates I hadn't spoken to in 20 years, but specifically from seeing those few with whom I had gone to elementary school. Yes, we had all continued along the same track to high school, but our elementary school was a special place — not only to me, but to them as well — and so we share a peculiar bond.
Though it was a suburban school, in the heart of Philadelphia's Main Line, it was not served by buses. All of the students walked there, and none lived more than 10–15 minutes away. That said, it had as diverse a population as could have been found in most suburban schools in the early '70s — an Ellis Island mix of whites, blacks, Chinese, Greeks, Italians, Irish, Jews, Catholics, Protestants. No one was egregiously poor or rich, but we ran the gamut from lower to upper middle class.
We all played together, as kids do — because the world hadn't yet taught us not to. And it was a blessing, to grow up in a small community in which not everyone looked alike and we were comfortable with that fact; in which some of my first kisses were interracial.
Because there was no bus service (and no technology for parents to nag us on cellphones), and more open field space than is possible for most schools today, there was daily loitering after classes. Good, clean loitering, mostly, the sort of which forces kids to bond. A few fights, sure, but mainly just hanging out, alternately chasing girls and being chased by girls; sliding on winter ice; playing four-square, or wall-ball, or "kill the cow."
We were pretty good kids, occasionally stupid and prone to splitting a lip, but it was loosely a neighborhood rule that when the church bells rang that evening, we all had to troop back to our respective homes. And we did.
Some days we'd head to the large park around the corner, or to a friend's house, or to catch crayfish in the creek of an open field behind an old age home. We walked or rode bikes; nearly all we wanted in life was only ever a few blocks away.
My own street dead-ended into the school, and at least once, my dog followed me right through the doors, into morning classes.
Stories of the school are legendary. Everyone of my era knows whose dad punched out the principal, which teachers had warts, which presumably unlucky students moved away, and what grade we were all in when the school closed. (Sadly, some budgetary truths are inevitable, and in 1978, Wynnewood Road Elementary School shut its doors as part of the Lower Merion School District, and the giant lot was sold off and subdivided for new housing.)
When we found out it was closing, it really stung, and even in fourth grade, as I was, we knew it had been our Camelot, and that nowhere else could provide quite as singular an experience.
And sure enough it did not. I remember the next year as being fun, and I made some new friends, but when we got to the new school (by bus), we, the outsiders, didn't quite pity the natives, but we thought them less fortunate. They hadn't been shaped by such a unique place as we had.
It's tough in retrospect, of course, to know how rosy the lenses are through which I remember my days in elementary school. I think of that era in many ways as the best of my life. But there are levels to reality, and my wistfulness makes it tough to separate the actual from the burnished, from the imagined. (Or as Tim O'Brien puts it in his brilliant book on Vietnam, The Things They Carried, the "happening-truth" from the "story-truth.")
Clearly, it was a simpler time for me personally, but it was a simpler time for us all, an era in which kids could stay and play on school grounds after classes (without any administrators worrying about liability), or go a couple blocks over to the park and do the stuff of elementary school kids without being hassled.
I live now in an incredibly diverse area of Boston, among Brazilians, Indians, Caribbeans, Asians — and I am thankful my daughters will grow up in such an environment. And when I listen to the patchwork patois of our playgrounds, I think about my old school — and hope to do justice to the sons and daughters of it.