Volume 43, Issue 3 - March 2008
I paused for just a few seconds after walking through the main entrance vestibule doors as memories engulfed me. Good memories. Memories of a time long ago when life, my life at least, was much simpler.
The shiny tile floor, the smell of chalk dust, the clanging locker doors and the constant chatter of children making their way to their classes. And then, just as I became totally lost in the moment, the big bell on the hallway wall rang loudly and sent teachers and students alike to their respective classrooms. Everything was just as I had remembered it and what a delightful scene it was!
Who could have possibly guessed that one day I would be invited back to speak at Irving Elementary … the school where I had spent six happy years of my childhood? The school from which I almost graduated. Well, let me correct that. I did in fact graduate, but a bad case of the mumps kept me from actually attending the graduation ceremony that for a day or two was of great concern to my mother. Leaving nothing to chance, she actually went to the school on the night of the ceremony to get my diploma. But because the school had been informed that I was not going to be there, they had not brought it with them to the ceremony. My poor mother did not sleep until the official document arrived in the mail a few days later.
My mother and father hadn’t received a great deal of formal education. My mother didn’t graduate from high school and my father never attended one. But that didn’t keep them from placing a high degree of importance on the formal educational process. In fact, my mother had very much wanted me to be a teacher and, as I was growing up, I wanted the same. When I enrolled for college, I had listed my major as Elementary Education. My plan was to one day return to good old Irving Elementary to teach seventh grade social studies and math while coaching the school baseball team to perennial district #89 championships.
To my pleasant surprise, the old school really did look just the way I remembered it. The gym with its smoothly polished wooden floor, the not-so-smooth yet brightly painted interior cinder block walls, the flimsy bulletin board cases outside each classroom, even the old ceiling-mounted pendent light fixtures. The classrooms still had old-fashioned chalk boards and panels of cork still ringed the rooms near the ceiling with the usual assortment of small lightweight cardboard sheets of cursive style letters tacked to them. Pull-down map coils topped some of the blackboards and a big black round clock still stood guard over the top of the only door in or out of each classroom. In all these years, I thought, absolutely nothing has changed.
The one and only exception to all of this was the lack of desks in the various classrooms. In my day, we sat in neat, orderly rows of desks. As I remember it, there were usually about six rows across and each row was about five desks deep. Typically, there was about three feet or so of spacing between each row. But the desks were gone and now each classroom had tables kind of randomly spread throughout the room and each table had four students assigned to it. This arrangement meant that some of the kids didn’t face the front of the classroom. Instead, they more or less faced each other, across these somewhat small tables. So when a teacher was speaking to the class, some of the kids would have to turn in their chairs to face the teacher and then would have to spin back around to write something down on whatever paper they might be working on. This seemed very awkward to me. I would later be told that this has now been the style in most school districts for several years, although I must confess, this makes little sense to me. However, as someone who missed their own eighth grade graduation ceremony, who am I to question such things?
Irving Elementary has, to say the least, a storied history. At least a half dozen former or current NBA stars played in its little postage stamp of a gym. Black Panther leader Fred Hampton went to school here and lived just across the street, less than 100 feet, from the main entrance. Through the years, the school has done its best to educate future politicians, business leaders, tradesmen, educators and even a few gangsters. And I had loved this old school dearly. So when I received a call from Mrs. Darby, the senior of the school’s two seventh grade teachers, to be the guest speaker for their annual career day, I accepted the invitation without any hesitation. After all, I had always believed that I was a teacher at heart and that, had it not been for a twist of fate or two, it could have been me making a call to line up a career day speaker for my students.
Mrs. Darby presented me to her class of 27 bright, adorable, eager little minds and, for 20 minutes or so, I explained the roll that glass played in the lives of all of us … both young and old. How glass kept us safe, helped keep us warm on the coldest of days while giving us a chance to see what was going on in the world around us and allowed our lives to be lived more enjoyably and comfortably. I used pictures, charts and samples for my presentation. They listened in silence … almost motionless … seemingly awestruck. I didn’t see how it could have gone any better!
At the teacher’s prompting, the children applauded after I made my concluding remark. Then she explained that the children would now be allowed to ask questions and that I should not feel hurried with my answers.
She further explained that they were a modern, progressive class and that the children would not have to raise their hands and then be recognized before asking a question. They were only required to not all speak at once and to be respectful of each other. A true professional this teacher Darby, I thought. No doubt, I would have been the same.
Confident that my presentation had been both informative and interesting, I was more than ready to respond to what I was sure would be intelligent and insightful questions. Mrs. Darby then made her way to a chair next to the windows and nodded to the class that it was OK to begin.
“Sir,” began the first child to speak up, “your job sounds kinda boring. Do you actually like it?”
“Yes I do ... most of the time anyway, and some days it’s even fun,” I responded.
“Do you make a lot of money at your job?” asked a round faced little boy up front.
“No,” I replied, “I don’t make a lot of money but I’m able to pay my bills and live decently.”
“Are you in a union?” asked a freckle faced redheaded boy from the back of the room.
“No,” I replied, “I’m not.”
“Because my dad says,” the redhead went on, “you gotta be stupid to have a job and not belong to the union cause if you’re in the union you always make more money but you don’t have to work very hard.”
From a little girl with a bright green sweater, “Do you have a puppy?”
“No I don’t have a puppy.”
“Cause Mr. Johnson, who came and spoke to us last year, has a lot of puppies. He owns a pet store and he even brought two puppies with him last year when he spoke to us. He let us play with them, too.” “That’s nice,” I replied and then, trying to move the questioning in a different direction, added, “and I’m sure that Mr. Johnson’s pet store has a nice big glass window in front so we can all see the nice little puppies. Does anyone want to know what kind of glass is probably in Mr. Johnson’s window?”
“Did you bring a treat for us, Mr. Hill?” asked a girl with a missing front tooth.
“No, I didn’t bring a treat. I didn’t know that I was supposed to,” I replied, starting to feel a bit uncomfortable.
“Do you have a cat?” asked a boy sitting very close to me.
“No, I’m sorry; I don’t have a cat either.”
“Don’t you like pets?” the same kid continued.
“He’s not in a union either,” the redhead chimed in before I could attempt to answer.
“And he didn’t bring a treat,” missing tooth girl added as a couple of kids booed softly. Thinking the entire situation was starting to unravel, I looked toward Mrs. Darby for support, but she was starring out the window at a squirrel sitting on the branch of a tree chewing on a nut. Her eyes weren’t moving and she was sitting as rigid as a rock. I think she had slipped into a trance of some kind leaving me to fend for myself. I could feel a trickle of sweat working its way down my back. I turned back to the hostile crowd … I mean kids, and suggested that if there weren’t any more questions that maybe I would leave now.
“Mr. Johnson brought a treat and puppies,” said a previously quiet kid from the middle of the room. “He was a very nice man.”
I took another quick glance toward teacher Darby but neither she nor the squirrel had moved. In fact, they now seemed to be starring at each other.
“Hey,” a kid who looked like he might be carrying a gun yelled out, “do you make a lot of money in that glass business of yours?”
“He can’t be making a lot of money,” snorted the redhead before I could utter a word, “cause he’s not in a union.”
Ignoring the redhead and looking directly at the future felon who I had no doubt was both armed and dangerous, I replied, “I don’t make a lot of money but I make enough to get by, and I think as you children get a little older, you’ll come to realize that finding a job you like is much more important than making a lot of money.”
As children started falling out of their chairs with laughter, the future felon picked up a text book and threw it at the redhead, hitting him squarely on the shoulder.
The noise of the book hitting the floor after it hit the redhead apparently jolted teacher Darby out of her trance, because she now made her way toward me with a peaceful smile on her face. She thanked me once again for stopping by and then led the class in a less than enthusiastic round of applause.
“Mr. Hill,” teacher Darby now intoned. “I always ask our career day speakers one question before they leave and in your case it is a particularly pertinent question because, just like these boys and girls here today, you once sat in this very classroom and dreamed about your future.”
“OK, Mrs. Darby. What would that question be?”
“Well Mr. Hill, when you were in the seventh grade, what did you want to grow up to be?”
I looked up at the ceiling for a second or two as if to be pondering the seriousness of the question. Then, making eye contact with as many of the 27 children in the room as possible, I answered.
“That’s an easy one, Mrs. Darby. I would have liked to have grown up and owned a pet store.”
“Really, Mr. Hill?”
“Yes indeed. With lots of puppies and kittens and, naturally, it would have been a union pet store. And, by the way, Mrs. Darby, I was in such a hurry to get here today that I forgot to bring the treats that I had planned to pass out so I’d like to give you $20 to buy some treats for the class.”
She took the twenty dollar bill that I had tried to gracefully remove from my wallet, smiled a wicked little smile and said, “You know Mr. Hill, twenty dollars won’t go very far these days. Especially with 27 children. Could you make it fifty?”
I pulled my wallet back out and added thirty dollars to the twenty I had already contributed, nodded my head, turned and walked out the classroom door, under the big black round clock. As I did so, I glanced over my shoulder and noticed the redhead and the felon giving a thumbs up sign to teacher Darby. I was right. Nothing had changed.
Lyle Hill is president of MTH Industries of Chicago. Mr. Hill’s opinions are solely his own and not necessarily those of this magazine.