Memories of a Jungle Gym
You can't go back to grade school again
October 21, 1977
Asked about old school experiences, I reply that grade school, not high school or college, was my favorite. I could walk from home—my first adventure in a wider world—I had some fine teachers, and I grew to feel about the building in ways I never felt about my house.
Matheny has long been closed. A local entrepreneur bought it with grand hopes to convert it into some kind of community facility but those plans came to naught. So it stands still. How I would love to be able to go inside and walk those halls again.
They tore down the jungle gym sets at my old grade school a few weeks ago, leaving a gap in the landscape thereabouts as conspicuous as the absence of a tooth in the smile of a friend. The school is Matheny Elementary, which, for those readers who do not know it, is located at 2200 East Jackson across the street from Washington junior-high-turned-middle- school-turned-seventh-grade-attendance-center. It’s a three-story brick school, of the type customary in the early years of this century. It was not a small school, not like the ones my parents attended anyway; the principal, for example, who was expected to sign the report cards of all the students under his care, did so with a rubber stamp. It was, however, small enough that every kid there knew every other kid his or her age.
I’d been bicycling by recently when I noticed the demolition and stopped for a few minutes. 1 was five years old when I first set foot in the building and eleven when I left it, though it seemed longer.
The teaching staff—in accordance with the times mostly women, working under a male principal—were figures of Dickensian dimensions. The principal was Louis McFadden, who wore double-breasted suits and looked like a farmtown banker who’d just heard that the crops had failed. With him were Elsie Rogge, a towering woman (this is no child’s refraction of memory; she stood at least six feet tall) whose stockings always sagged. Every week she’d ask her pupils if they’d gone to church the previous Sunday, and the kids always said they had even if they hadn’t, because it was safer to lie and face God than to tell the truth and face Miss Rogge. Also there was Thelma Spratt, art teacher, who wielded a wooden paddle with as much artistry as she wielded a paint brush; Miss McBride, kindergarten, whose habit of taking misbehavers behind the piano for punishment ruined the taste for music of more than a couple of five-year-olds; and Ruth Leka, a gently and endlessly solicitous woman who gave her students an idea of what a teacher should be like that her successors rarely lived up to.
I parked my bicycle and walked around the school yard. Across Jackson Street to the north is the field used for gym classes. I still carry the scars from a spill I took on the cinder track that circles it, a track which, because there is a better track elsewhere now, has been surrendered to weeds. On the south side of the school is a much smaller asphalt playground. I’d left something of myself there when I advanced to junior high—literally, because I knocked off part of a front tooth when I ran into a fire escape while chasing a girl my fifth grade year. I’d fought the only fist fight I ever won on the playground, though as I stood there I couldn’t remember exactly who I'd fought or why, which proved that I'd managed to put that event into perspective at least.
At the rear of the school is the all-purpose room. Parents used to get involved in school activities with an exuberance that’s hard to credit nowadays. Dad's Night, I remembered, was an annual event. One year my father, who was then a warrant officer in the Illinois National Guard, arranged by some secret corruption of the regulations for the ING’s 33rd Infantry Division Band to assemble for their weekly drill and rehearsal in Matheny’s gym. Also on the crowded bill that night were skits in which otherwise sane and sober fathers and husbands were persuaded to clump around the stage with their trousers on backwards, doing pantomime imitations of Jerry Lee Lewis, and dragging frogs around on leashes. Rarely, one suspects, did the obligations of fatherhood weigh so heavily as they did that night.
The gym was the scene of triumphs and defeats that were magnified beyond all proportion by their having happened in such a small place. Like the night Robbie W. failed after three tries to hit a concluding low note in a clarinet solo during a PTA show and ran in tears to the kitchen at the back of the gym like a rabbit darting for the protection of his burrow. Or the sixth-grade basketball game in which Dave R. closed his eyes and flung a hook shot through the hoop from the right corner, a shot so extravagantly successful that the memory of it sustained him through several subsequent seasons of defeat.
I left the gym and walked back to the front of the school. This year District 186 has had to convert Matheny into an attendance center for kindergarten, first and second grades. Because state law prohibits housing kids that age on the third floor (in case of fire), and since the lower floor classrooms cannot accommodate all the students, the district had to truck in six temporary, trailer-like classrooms. They squat on the school yard like giant sleeping dogs, tied to the school by leashes of black electrical cable. As I walked by one of them I stopped and gave it a kick, hoping it might get up and walk away. It didn't so I left. □