elementary school

Seven blocks of pure freedom

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As published in the Providence Journal, September 17, 2017.

Three brown-bag lunches sit on the kitchen counter, each one branded with my mother’s handwriting. My older brother, Rob, will take his to La Salle Academy where he is a freshman, while my younger brother, James, and I will carry ours to Robert F. Kennedy School. James is in first grade, I’m in sixth.

“Johhh-neee!”

It’s Chris, my best friend, calling from the driveway on the side of our house. James and I jump up from the kitchen table.

“Don’t forget your lunches!” my mother says, stubbing out a Tareyton cigarette. A talk-show host chatters on the radio atop the refrigerator, but it’s Mom’s voice that registers with me. “Keep an eye on your brother,” she says in a tone that guarantees compliance. “I’ll be back from work when you guys get home.”

James and I bound into the crisp September air and start up River Avenue with Chris. We love walking to school. There are no parents, no teachers – just seven blocks of freedom along the tree-lined streets of Elmhurst.

“Want a Starburst?” Chris asks. My friend is easygoing, and mischievous in ways I envy. He’s also nice to James. My brother and I grab the soft candy chews from him and, in seconds, eradicate any good we might have done with our toothbrushes earlier that morning.

At Moorland Avenue, sharp barks turn our heads. It’s Killer, our name for the menacing German shepherd safely penned in the backyard of the Cape on the corner of Moorland and Rankin Avenue. Even though we are almost a block away, Killer ­is on his hind legs, pawing the air and barking at us ferociously. The heavy chain that tethers him to a clothesline pole is taut.

“I have dreams about that dog,” Chris says. “Bad dreams.”

Killer’s barking fades behind traffic noise as we continue up River Avenue. We check the English yew in front of a shingled double-decker. The previous fall, Chris planted an orange Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper deep in its branches.

“Still there,” he says with satisfaction. All is right with our world.

We reach Smith Street and have to wait for the stoplight to change. It’s a tricky three-way intersection, with Wabun Avenue complicating the automobile-and-pedestrian ballet. Years earlier, as a second grader, my brother Rob had run into the side of a moving station wagon here. When I asked him what happened next, he said the car kept going and so did he.

“I was late for school,” he said. “And I didn’t want Mom to find out.”

Chris, James, and I, safely through the Smith Street piece of the intersection, pop into Haskins Pharmacy. I dig three pennies from my pocket and slide them into the red gumball machine.

Back outside, we have to wait for the stoplight to change again, this time to get across River Avenue. Charlie, an old, one-eyed beagle, joins us on the corner. He belongs to Mr. Siravo, the fruit peddler who lives near Haskins. Charlie comes and goes as he pleases; his ability to navigate city traffic is a marvel to us.

“Hi, Charlie,” James says, and the graying dog gives my brother a sweet, one-eyed look, his tail wagging.

The light changes and Chris, James, and I cross, with Charlie in step. At Nelson Street playground, half a block from school, the three of us jump on the swings and swoop and soar until we can go no higher.

Riiinnngg! The first bell sounds. We run from the playground to the schoolyard. There’s still time for a race or two – down to the chain link fence and back. Go!

Riinng-riinng! It’s the final bell. Teachers appear, lines form, shoulders slump. Chris and James fall in with their classmates, I with mine.

In Miss MacDonald’s classroom, I see the day’s schedule written on the blackboard. One word stands out, like a gold star on a spelling paper: dismissal. It can’t come fast enough.

Seven blocks of freedom await us on the walk home.

How My Second Grade Teacher Saved The New Kid’s Day

john print/cursive

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal on September 21, 2014.

Miss Martin said we were going to do spelling next, which pleased me – I liked spelling. But when she started putting words on the blackboard, my stomach tightened. Why was she writing so fast? And what were those hieroglyphs?

It was the first day of second grade at my new elementary school in Narragansett, and not much was going well. I didn’t like being the new kid in class. I didn’t like riding a bus to school. And now, sitting at an old wooden desk with its useless inkwell hole, I didn’t like that Miss Martin was writing words on the board in cursive.

I didn’t know how to write in cursive. At Nelson Street School in Providence, where I had attended first grade, we only used block letters. Back home, you didn’t learn cursive until you reached third grade.

My family had moved to Narragansett in August, to a cedar-shingled Cape about 200 yards up the road from Salt Pond. I was a world away from the double-decker in Providence where my grandfather lived upstairs and my best friend was next door. Now, when I looked across the road, there was nothing but uninviting woods. By bedtime, the solitary streetlight seemed only to accentuate the darkness.

Still, there was one upside to the move: we had gotten a dog. Georgie was 100% mutt, with a soft, black coat and watchful eyes. Each morning, she greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail. At night, she sometimes slept on my bed, and I kept my feet warm by sliding them beneath her.

But on that first day of school, with Miss Martin’s cursive spelling words vexing me, Georgie seemed as far away as our old Elmhurst neighborhood.

I said nothing as everyone began copying the words onto their paper. Eyeing the first one, I strove to duplicate its slanted lettering as best I could. Hmm… Not bad. On to the next word… And the next… And when I got to the last one, I was relieved – my words were a reasonable match to the ones on the board.

Miss Martin looked up from her desk. She had short blond hair and perfect red lipstick. Her voice was clear and friendly. “Don’t forget to put your name at the top of your paper,” she said. My stomach tightened again, only this time it was worse. What did “John Walsh” look like in cursive? I had no idea.

I anticipated the comments I’d hear from my classmates in the cafeteria at lunchtime: “Hey, there’s the new kid – can’t even write his name.” Cue the laugh track from the Charlie Brown specials on TV: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”

I squirmed in my seat, moved my pencil to the top line, and scratched out J-O-H-N W-A-L-S-H the only way I knew how: in stop-and-go print letters. When we passed our papers forward, I buried mine at the bottom of the pile.

That night in bed, I worried about what Miss Martin would think. I wanted her to like me.

The bus ride to school seemed shorter the second day. I made friends with a kid named Jeff. His teeth were crooked, just like mine. School was better, too. Miss Martin’s flash cards turned math into a game. And playing tag during recess was fun.

When we returned to our classroom, our spelling papers from the previous day were waiting on our desks. Holding my breath, I saw that my paper sported a red-ink “Good!” and a silver star. And below my blocky J-O-H-N W-A-L-S-H, Miss Martin had written my name in cursive as beautiful and neat as the dress she was wearing. That was the extent of her instruction – no summons to her desk, no classroom call-out; nothing but a sample signature delivered silently to me.

I appreciated Miss Martin’s discretion. I sensed it was filled with understanding, even love.

That night, as my brothers lay on the floor watching Lost in Space on our black-and-white TV, I sat at the desk in our den and traced Miss Martin’s sample signature over and over again. By bedtime, I had mastered my cursive “John Walsh.”

I went upstairs, brushed my crooked teeth, turned out the light in my room, and fell into bed. As I slid my feet under Georgie in the darkness, being the new kid in class didn’t seem quite so bad any more.

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