2012 by Carol Kloskowski
I parked in my car in the parking lot of a large older brick building. In ten minutes I have an appointment with an insurance agent whose office is here. The building used to be a school. I know because I used to work there. As I sit looking at the building, bittersweet memories take me back.
Lots of the kids who went to Oak School were first generation Americans with parents barely able to speak English. Some of the kids were immigrants themselves and most the rest were a mix of European and Hispanic backgrounds. Oak School was a lower middle class school with its share of problems, including two self-contained classrooms for children with behavior problems. I worked in one of them.
On my first day it was immediately apparent that the principal, Mr. Check, was crazy. No, not insane, just different crazy—not a typical principal type. His morning announcements often were done as if he were a disk jockey. The PA system would crackle into life five minutes before the bell, with music—peppy, popular music that the kids liked. As they entered the building, many would be dancing. Once the kids were seated in their classrooms, Mr. Check imitating some celebrity would begin the day’s announcements with “Good morning, boys and girls, it’s another great day here at Oak School!” and end with “at lunchtime we’ll be playing Beatles favorites as requested by Frank Di Angelo of fifth grade. (There was no Frank Di Angelo in fifth grade. Mr. Check was a big Beatles fan.) That was our beloved principal. He could be as funny as any comedian or as stern and angry as any situation called for. He didn’t sit in his office and hide. He was out there.
If you could have walked down the halls you would have heard noisy kids and teacher’s voices coming out of every classroom—except one, Mrs. Bailey’s room. Her third graders sat quietly doing seat work while classical music floated around the room from her audio cassette player. In the six years I worked at Oak School, whenever I went by or walked into her room, the children were eerily quite, even when the classical music wasn’t playing. What was her magic, every teacher in the place wondered? Did she put tranquilizers in the morning snack? Was it a good or bad thing that her classes were so quiet? I still don’t know, but it was weird for sure.
Further down the hall was the teacher’s lounge. Everyone congregated here: Terri, the secretary, Lincoln, the custodian, teachers, cafeteria workers, parents and volunteers. We were one big family, sharing and caring. There were no egos here, but there always were homemade goodies and a laugh or two.
At the end of the hall was the room I worked in, a self-contained BD (standing for behavioral disordered) classroom, one of the two in the building for troubled kids. Little 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders who couldn’t make it in a regular classroom shared the room with Linda, their teacher, and me, her aide. She never considered herself my boss though. We were a team. That’s how it was at Oak School.
There were usually eleven or twelve little kids in our classroom. Some of them were with us for the whole three years and came to be like Linda’s and my children. They weren’t bad kids, but they did have problems. Most of those problems concerned the grownups at home.
Nicky was one of them. He was a first grader, who on the first day of school told us quite seriously, “I quit this place.” Nicky’s parents owned a Greek Restaurant and worked very long hours. Nicky was spending a lot of time with his older teenage brother who wasn’t happy about babysitting his “brat brother” as he called him. One day Nicky came to school with a full set of human teeth bite marks on his arm. The authorities were notified. Nicky’s brother got in a lot of trouble. Nicky’s mom stayed home more then. And, no, Nicky didn’t quit. It was just an idle threat.
Ricky was a 2nd grader whose alcoholic father died the year before he came to our class. He didn’t say much about his mother or his sister. He was tough guy who would fight anybody, often for good causes, not just to be a bully. I came to love Ricky. My son, who was Ricky’s age didn’t appreciate all the talking I did about Ricky. Ricky moved after only being with us a few months. I never knew what happened to him.
There were only two girls in the class, Sara and Latisha. Sara was in second grade. She never did what she was told to do. “Do page three in your workbook,” Linda would tell her. She’d smile and play with the new bracelet on her wrist or color with the new markers she had. Everyday she brought or wore something new to school. One day a final straw broke the camel’s back and Linda got mad. This was the day Sara wore fancy new socks to school. Proud of her new treasures, she kept rolling and unrolling their ruffled cuffs, and trying to make Latisha and the boys, who weren’t the least bit interested, look at them. “You didn’t do the pages I told you to do, Sara. Sit down right now and do them.” Linda said, her voice rising.
“I don’t have too,” Sara shouted, and stomped her foot.
“Oh, yes you do,” Linda shouted back at her.
“You can’t make me,” Sara insisted, even louder this time. That was it. I’m sure Linda wanted to give her a swat on her behind, but teachers can’t do that. Instead she demanded, “Take off your socks, Sara. I’m going to keep them until your mother comes to school to get them.”
“You can’t do that,” Sara answered, whining now.
“Want to bet?” Linda knew she’d won. Sara went home that day without her socks. Linda kept them in the drawer of her desk until Sara’s mother came to get them. She promised not to send any more new things to school with Sara. I still can’t help laughing every time I tell anyone about “Sara’s socks.”
Latisha is another story—a small, black, first grader, who was as tough as they come. “Don’t you mess with me,” she’d sneer and tell anyone bugging her. They wouldn’t. I never saw her fight anyone; she didn’t have to. Everyone was scared of her. Even so, she was still very much a little girl. One day I found her under one of the long tables in our room with an opened Elmer’s Glue bottle. There was a layer of dried white glue all over her little brown face. “I’m playing beauty parlor, Mrs. C” she told me with a smile as the glue cracked.
Mike, a second grader, was the smallest boy in the room. His father was in prison. He was a quiet child and never a problem. I wondered why he was in our class. One lovely spring day Linda decided that the class should take a walk outside around the playground. As we walked, Mike picked a tweezers up off the ground. “Put the tweezers down,” I told him. It’s not something to play with.” Mike gave me a strange look. “Don’t you know what this is, Mrs. C.?” he asked, holding the tweezers up to give me a closer look.
“Sure I do, Mike,” I answered. “It’s a tweezers.”
“No it isn’t” he assured me. “It’s a roach clip.”
“A roach clip? What’s a roach clip?” I asked, thinking he must be joking. Tweezers had nothing to do with cockroaches.
“You know, Mrs. C, you use it to smoke marijuana,” he informed me matter-of-factly. Well, I didn’t know that back then, but thanks to second grader named Mike I found out. How embarrassing that was.
I’ll never forget Jerry. He was a first grader whose parents were divorced. He lived with his mother who worked nights. Most of the time she couldn’t afford to have a babysitter stay with him while she worked. Often he had to go to work with her and spend the night trying to sleep in the locked car. He would always fall asleep in school the next day. When we found out what was going, the people at our school helped the mother find someone who would babysit for free. Jerry didn’t fall asleep in school anymore.
When I think about Bruce and what he said one day at our “group,” I have to smile. Once a week, a psychologist would come to our classroom. On that day, the children, Linda, I, and the psychologist would have “group.”
All the kids were invited to talk about things that were bothering them or things that were going on at home…whatever. We just wanted them to talk. It really was helpful for many of them. On this “group” day, Bruce began to tell us about his father. His parents were recently divorced. He lived with his mother and went to his father’s on weekends. “My dad killed my dog,” he told us. There was a very sad expression on his earnest little face. “He fed Blackie poison. When Blackie died, my dad buried him in the yard.” Bruce was crying by this time. Everyone felt so sorry for him. We gave him hugs and candy and his classmates were very kind to him for the rest of the day. The next time Bruce’s mother came in we asked her about the dog. “What dog?” she asked. “We never had a dog.” After learning that, Linda and I decided Bruce definitely could be an actor when he grew up.
Besides being a classroom aide, I also had lunchtime and recess playground duty. Some days I loved it—the days when the kids were good and we had fun. Some days I definitely didn’t love it.
And on other days, incredible things happened, like the day a 1st grader brought a dildo to school. I discovered him showing it to his very interested classmates. (Yes, you read that correctly. That’s what it was.) I immediately took it away from him, and said something I hope was appropriate, but I have no memory of what that could have been. One of the other playground monitors whisked the item to the principal’s office. He was at lunch at the delivery hour. We could just imagine the phone call he was going to have to make to the boy’s mother. “Hello, Mrs. ----, guess what we just took away from your son on the playground?
After that recess, I realized I was very happy just being an aide; I wouldn’t have wanted to be a principal that day for anything. Everyone in the teacher’s lounge who heard about the incident found it hilarious. The kids walking past must have wondered what was so funny.
Our school staff and parents were a collectively sad group when we found out that our school was going to close. We had worked so well together; we had an incredible principal, and the parents were always there when we needed them. The kids here were kids we all loved, sometimes good, sometimes naughty, and often incredibly funny.
Many staff members and parents, who felt the urge, wrote their good-bye thoughts about Oak School for the final issue of the school newsletter, “Oakscope.” I wrote the following poem that was put on the last page.
Not just windows, not just walls
But good people, big and small
Noisy kids with smiling faces,
Filling halls, all going places
Lunchtime---MADNESS—like a zoo,
Playground time, kids walk with you.
Their happy chatter makes your day,
so you feel guilty about taking pay.
In the classroom work’s being done
And for most kids that isn’t much fun.
It’s hard to work on a lovely spring day
The teachers agree, but cannot say.
When needed the principal’s loud booming voice
Made naughty kids shiver and teachers rejoice.
There was Secretary Terri, and custodian Lin.
What would we ever have done without them?
What makes a great school? I truly know.
It’s a place where both teachers and kids want to go.
It has a great leader, and teachers who care,
Good parents to work with. Oak had more than it’s share.
building has closed, but it never will be
more than the building that closed to me.
I know I’m not a great poet, but every word came right from my heart.
I’ve spent enough time remembering. The insurance agent is waiting. Time to go into the building and face my ghosts.
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