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Going old school

I was watching my brother’s kids for a week, and it was all going swimmingly. I stayed at their house in my hometown. The first day, I made breakfast and got the kids to school, the same one I had gone to. Dropping them off in the morning was no big deal, but to pick them up in the afternoon, I had to show a signed permission slip to a woman holding a clipboard at the door. She had a hard time letting go of her suspicions about me until the third day.

I got there early every afternoon and sat in the lobby with other people, waiting for the bell to ring. Once school let out and kids began streaming into the lobby, I noticed something about backpacks. Parents would reach into them immediately before they even get to their cars — sometimes before they’d even had a chance to say anything to their kids. Parents seemed a little frazzled as if there was a lot riding on the contents of those backpacks. There were questions right out of the shoot. And meaningful pointing to papers.

I pictured me in the last half of the 1950s, right here in this lobby, holding my book bag, walking down these steps with my friends. After a half-hour meander home — I’d say “hi” to my mother and eat a snack before going back outside to play. When she asked how school was I could say “Fine” without having to come up with any evidence.

There’s something transcendent about being in your old school after these many years have passed, and mostly it’s the universal school smell, which hasn’t changed one bit. Of course, everything looks smaller than you remember it, but not as disappointingly puny as the brontosaurus at the Museum of Natural History turns out to be, especially after you’ve told your kids, “You won’t believe how huge it is!”
For the first few days of picking up my niece and nephew in the afternoon, none of the other mothers said anything to me as I sat down. Mostly they stared as if I had Danger tattooed on my forehead and just spoke among themselves.

Then on the fourth day, when it seemed they were running out of things to talk about and the pauses between comments were getting longer, one of them looked up at the stately portrait hanging above us. She said, “Who was Raymond J. Lockhart anyway?” Before I could realize no one was looking in my direction, or that Dr. Lockhart had been dead for thirty years, I piped up helpfully, “He was Superintendent of Schools when I went here.”

Everything got quiet. All eyes averted from me. Luckily, the school day was over, and the bell rang, and soon backpacks were being unzipped, and papers were careening slightly through the air. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought questions would follow, questions like, “So . . . What was this school like then? What were kids like back then?” And it wouldn’t have killed any of them to tell me I looked good for my age. And I had some good stories about this school I loved. We had more in common than they would know, but I understood.

— Linda DeMers Hummel

Linda DeMers Hummel is a Baltimore-based freelancer. This piece is from her memoir, I Haven’t Got All Day. You can find more of her writing on her blog

Reflections of Erma