In the 1970s, I attended Harry S. Truman Elementary School in Parlin, NJ. That’s it up there. It provided what I would assume was a pretty typical suburban grammar school experience for the revolving groups of 5 to 11 year old children that passed through its doors and probably still does. Yet I have to assume that there is a world of difference between the grade school experience of 1977 and that of 2017. The people who designed, accommodated and stocked these schools with supplies when I was a boy had clearly forgotten how easily stressed grade school kids tend to be, not to mention that traumatic experiences at such a tender age will end up shaping a child’s psyche accordingly, assuring an adulthood marked by extensive psychotherapy and alprazolam prescriptions.
When I say that grade school was traumatic, I’m not implying that anything truly horrible ever happened to me there. The bullying I endured was mild and the teachers kept their hands to themselves. What I’m referring to is the expectation of a satisfactory performance in any given subject – including (maybe even especially) gym – when the supplies we were provided for our assignments were of such poor quality and design that every one of us should have been given a box of gold stars just for managing to connect a pair of tongue depressors without gluing our fingers to the insides of our noses (where, let’s face it, many of our fingers made their second home in those days).
The nightmare began at 9:00 a.m. when at the conclusion of the Pledge of Allegiance, we were all expected to fetch the required items for the upcoming class from our cubbies:
The ones pictured above are rather modern and brightly colored, but ours were Band-Aid hued hard plastic rectangular bins with our names displayed across the front in Magic Marker on bits of masking tape. I hated my cubby. Everyone hated their cubbies. How many times, since grade school, would you estimate you’ve used the word “cubby”? Probably never, right? Nobody says “cubby” because nobody uses cubbies for any purpose as an adult. Some of the shit we might be expected to retrieve from our cubbies would be items needed for an arts and crafts project, i.e. FIGHTING WITH AND OCCASIONALLY EATING ADHESIVES. We were all provided little tubs of paste whose lids and labels were invariably coated with the sticky residue of crappy art projects of the past. Some kid would always end up eating some of the paste and be sent crying to the nurse’s office because what the fuck else were we expected to do with this lumpy, white substance whose adherent qualities obviously only kicked in years after its application and even then, only to jar caps and Elmer’s labels, but never to construction paper?
There were, of course, many other glue-related abominations present in the classrooms of the era:
Gym class in elementary school during inclement weather was obviously what Colonel Kurtz was remembering when he intoned his ominous last words “The horror. The horror.” I probably don’t need to describe why indoor gym class frequently left me with severe rope burns on my palms because I’m pretty sure kids are still subjected to the seemingly purposeless activity of climbing “the ropes”. But do you remember scooters? Not proper, upright motorized or foot propelled scooters, mind you, but this miniature wooden dolly with a hole in the center that for some reason is only considered a scooter by K through 6 gym coaches:
If your fingers just recoiled into your fist, that’s because the visual caused your brain to call up a long-forgotten protective instinct that, if verbalized, would be: “Keep your fucking fingers away from the goddamned wheels!!!” We’d roll aimlessly around the parquet floors on these things crushing our own and each other’s digits beneath our poorly distributed weight until all 10 of our hand’s projections were bruised and sore while the coach admonished us for not following the “rules” of the non-existent game of scooter that is played exclusively on cheap wooden non-scooters. It was as if some guy walked into a sporting goods store in the 1970s and demanded, “I want to buy a scooter immediately.” “Sorry, ain’t got no scooters.” “But I want a scooter – NOW.” “I got a piece of scrap wood with a hole in it and some rusty wheels from a little girl’s roller skate.” “Yes, that will have to do. Slap those wheels on that sucker and hand it over!” The rest was history, but without all the romance inherent in the moment when someone first dipped their chocolate into a jar of peanut butter.
This is why it was actually a relief when the coach would instead choose to have us “play” with a big, round piece of patchwork cloth he called a “parachute”:
Nobody knew what the fuck we were supposed to do with this thing, but at least we survived the class with our fingers intact.
And it’s a good thing, too, because after gym class, we might have had to buckle down on our penmanship and when my blocky letters came out less than perfect, I was expected to remedy the situation with one of these:
These useless pieces of pink rubber actually managed to make the composition paper look worse than it did before I made the mistake. The last error lifted from a page by some other kid would re-smudge itself onto my assignment causing me to rub the thing even harder across the area resulting in a cascade of eraser detritus that I would then blow into the face of the unsuspecting kid sitting across from me.
Chances are, that kid was allergic to eraser detritus and shortly after weathering the storm of flying pink rubber confetti, he would become green of complexion, slap his palm over his mouth and run out of the classroom. It was at this point that I and the rest of my classmates would have a good laugh at the fact that someone other than us was vomiting in the hallway, the eraser schmutz-accosted kid would get sent home and the downtrodden janitor would be called on the intercom to schlep his mop and bucket over to the scene of the puke along with a big bag of this:
Vomit sand. Now that I think of it, maybe grammar school was far more traumatic for the janitor than it was for the rest of us. Perhaps I should count my blessings.