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Rose Fanning Elementary School

Actually, I didn’t learn a single thing in junior high because…

I didn’t go to junior high.

We moved the year before I would have gone and the new school had kindergarten through eighth grade under one roof. I was bummed about missing out on this rite of passage.

During the years I would have been in junior high, though, I did learn a few things, to wit:

  • Landscape designers can and do err.

See those leaves framing the photo above? When I was attending that school, those trees were gingko trees, which had been planted around the entire block. For three seasons of the year, these trees seemed innocuous enough — lovely components of the overall landscape design, by all appearances.

Then in the fall, things got funky. While the leaves were turning a warm, golden color, the fruit of the female ginkgo trees were releasing their odor. Tree experts might tout that “the few weeks of unpleasant aromas are worth it for the beauty the trees add the rest of the year”, but I beg to differ.

You simply can’t justify planting gingkos near an elementary school when there exists a plethora of trees that don’t drop Stink Fruit! I could at this point describe the stench the small cherry-sized fruit released when squished underfoot by students pouring out of the school at 3:30, but it’d be pretty gross. And to make matters worse, boys sometimes thought to throw the nasty berries at each other, rendering the sidewalks a war zone, and me a scurrying refugee. So, NO GINGKO TREES NEAR SCHOOLS. PLEASE.

  • 1960’s girl’s PE uniforms were an amazing equalizer: they made everybody look bad. Everybody.gym uniform

Perhaps the worst fashion statement ever. They hit “homely” right out of the park. Only saving grace? Everyone was in the same boat.

  • By the time you get to seventh grade, there just aren’t many boys who can sing soprano any more.

The last holdout was this guy who was really smart, was a pitcher on city leagues for years, and who all the girls thought was cute. (In addition, he had very good penmanship — and you regular readers know how I respect excellence in the handwriting department). He was that kid who sort of defines “cool” in your peer group. And I’m thinking the other boys might have relished this irony.

  • Having a teacher for a parent doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll move to the head of the class.

I would have figured a kid could just know lots of stuff by osmosis if he or she lived with a real live teacher. But the classmate whose mom taught at a nearby school was just a middle-of-the-road, ordinary student. Color me surprised.

  • If you challenge the boys in your class to broad jump contests on the playground and proceed to jump further than all of them, you will get noticed, but not in the way you wanted.

(Don’t ask me why I expected it to turn out differently…)Milk-Milk-Straws

  • If you blew it with just right amount of force, you could get your straw wrapper to stick to the air intake vents on the lunchroom ceiling.

You just didn’t want to get caught in the act.

  • If you miss nearly two weeks during the first month of your eighth grade year, you might not totally figure out what’s going on in algebra the rest of the year.

Sigh. I really needed a tutor.

  • The prickly eighth grade teacher, who seemingly enjoyed intimidating students, was ill-advised to have taken issue with my reasons for being gone for nearly two weeks at the beginning of the year.

She apparently deemed travel to another region of the U.S. to attend an annual religious gathering with the family a poor excuse for my absence and hassled me about it. I mentioned this at dinner, and the very next day, my dad was at the school going head to head with her in the small unoccupied instruction room next to our classroom. (That he took off work to come to school during the day was a really big deal to me.)  I couldn’t hear the exact words spoken during their very animated discussion, but he had my back. The woman treated me right the remainder of the school year.

Praise the Lord and pass the 3-D grapher.

tailor-logoPTA

When I was a first grader at School #47, my dad was elected president of the PTA. I thought this was pretty heady stuff: getting extra attention from my homeroom teacher, seeing his name in newsletters and announcements that went home in book bags, and feeling like our family was at the center of what was “happening” at my school.

One memorable event the PTA sponsored that year was to stage a comedy revue. My parents were in several of the skits which I remember them practicing at home. Mom was to do a Phyllis Diller routine about stuffing a turkey for Thanksgiving, and she and Dad were to do a send-up of a popular talk show. There was another skit my dad would be in with the principal of the school. Dad was to play the part of a very near-sighted tailor and the school principal was to play the part of a customer who would come for alterations to his suit.

My parents may have noticed I had some reservations about their scripts, because I remember them assuring me that their lines were indeed funny and not to worry — the audience was going to love their schtick. Apparently this explanation alleviated my concern, because I remember really looking forward to the show.

On the night of the big event, I had a front row seat. (I was doubly excited because it was yet another occasion to dress up.) The skits went just like the rehearsals at our house and my parents had been absolutely right: the audience roared with laughter. My mom was especially hilarious describing the disaster she had created in her kitchen in an attempt to wrangle and truss a turkey. Then came my dad’s piece as the nearly blind tailor. He came out on stage with a tape measure hanging around his neck and very thick glasses. Mr. Snyder entered the “shop” and began to explain that he wanted his suit pants shortened. My dad got down on his knees, began measuring and talking a mile a minute in an attempt to convince his new customer he was just the man for the job.

Mr. Snyder stood there while his pants were being “fitted” and my dad reached for his sheers. Mr. Snyder wasn’t able to see what was happening below as my dad began snipping away. The pants legs got uneven and, in an attempt to make things right, he feverishly kept shortening one, then the other, until they were half way up the man’s calves! And, as predicted, the audience loved his antics and filled the auditorium with gales of laughter.

The evening was a huge success. Some days later, however, I could be found sitting out on the front porch writing to Mr. Snyder.

“Dear Mr. Snyder,” my letter began, “I’m sorry my dad cut your pants too short.”

Unfortunately, I had never seen the men rehearse the actual cutting part of the skit and so I was mortified by what my dad had done. I was also scandalized that the audience had laughed about it. I couldn’t believe my dad would actually ruin the suit of our school’s head administrator. Right there on stage. In front of everybody! That they had, no doubt, found an old suit at a thrift store just for the gag never entered my thinking, and consequently, the “joke” was completely lost on me. The letter was my attempt to do what I could to make amends.

“I hope you get a new suit very soon,” I continued. “Sincerely, Linda Burns.”

When I finished the letter, written with my very best printing, I folded it up to send to him. It was then that I realized I had neither an envelope, nor a stamp, nor an address. And I couldn’t possibly tell my parents I was doing this and thereby obtain the needed resources — they’d never understand. After all, they were the very ones who had erroneously considered this whole business quite funny. So, hitting a dead end, I did what any seven-year-old would do: I tucked the paper in between the cushions of the glider I was seated on and turned my attention to a comic book. (Follow-through has never been my long suit.)

The letter stayed there for months and months before my mom found it and brought it to me. That was when I confessed to her that my sensibilities had been offended by the whole sordid affair; she gently explained that Mr. Snyder was not upset because had been “in on the gag,” and that I needn’t worry. I could tell by her demeanor that she found my consternation slightly amusing.

Tally another one in the Color Me Clueless column of the ledger. Sheesh. I can’t quite believe how many things my parents said and did that I just didn’t get. As I’ve been writing these stories from my childhood I realize this happened a lot. I’m sure my parents didn’t realize how often, because I didn’t even think to tell them I was confused most of the time. Sigh. The up side to it all: now I’m the one who’s amused as I bring these incidents out of moth balls and appreciate the humor in my cluelessness.

But I never did let my dad help me hem my skirts.

Fifty years ago today, I wasn’t quite old enough to understand the significance of the massive gathering taking place on the mall in Washington, D.C. Nor was I old enough to understand the magnitude of the sweeping movement kindled by the refusal of a solitary Birmingham woman to yield her seat on the bus. However, a couple years later, I was old enough to figure out what I needed do in an awkward situation.

A new kid had joined our seventh grade class. It wouldn’t have been all that unusual, given that every fall the new homeroom teacher would introduce a new kid or two, but, this new kid was the “Ruby Bridges” of Rose Fanning Elementary School in St. Louis. In 1965, the same year as the Selma-to-Birmingham voting rights march, K.R. single-handedly desegregated our all-white school. I haven’t a clue what the teacher or any of the other students thought about his arrival because no one ever mentioned it. I do know that I was fascinated by it.

I had heard enough racist comments through media and from adults in my world to understand the negative stereotypes. Yet within the first month or so, this young man managed to bash all of them with his dignified demeanor, superb elocution, academic prowess, razor sharp wit and, my personal favorite, probably the finest penmanship in our class. To top it off, K.R. was warm and engaging and made friends easily.

Every school year the P.E. staff taught a six-week unit of square dancing sandwiched in between units of tumbling and basketball, etc. It was the only co-ed unit. I always enjoyed learning the square dance calls and mastering the new dances, so I was really looking forward to it. We entered the gym that first day and the teachers instructed the girls to line up on one wall and the boys on another, and then each boy was to ask a girl to be his partner for the duration of the class period.

Now, you’d think that the big people — in this case, the teachers — would have had the foresight to coach us as to how to handle the very next scene in the script: K.R. was the only African American in the class and if he was going to participate in the unit, he was going to have to select a white girl to be his partner — there was no other option. Maybe the awkwardness of this situation hadn’t occurred to the teachers beforehand, because it surely hadn’t occurred to me, but one sort of expects the big people to be a little more on the ball. The instant I saw him walking in a straight line toward me, I realized I had a dilemma.

Using arguments that sound dreadfully absurd nowadays, the church my family attended had a “separate-but-equal” position on civil rights. This meant that if I accepted K.R.’s invitation to dance with him I would do so in defiance of the church’s teaching. There might even be repercussions for my parents, should I be found out. To make matters worse, I also suspected my dad wouldn’t have wanted me to do it either. (Many years later, he and I would have a talk about this). Needless to say, I was a little nervous standing there.

Yet, as soon as I was face to face with K.R., I had no doubt about what to do, despite the religious dogma of my upbringing. In a split second, without giving it another thought, I said yes and took his hand. And for the next six weeks, at the beginning of every P.E. class, K.R. made the same bee line for me and I accepted every time. I guess he figured he shouldn’t change a winning ball game — at least he knew he wouldn’t be rebuffed. While I knew it was right, it wasn’t necessarily comfortable. I wondered if the other kids thought we were an item. (No other boy danced exclusively with one girl for the whole unit.) I wondered if he secretly wished there were at least one African American girl in our class to relieve the pressure of having to navigate uncharted waters. I wondered what might happen to me if my parents or other kids in our church who also attended my school found out what was going on.

Yes, I wondered, but it didn’t change anything, because here’s the deal: by some inexplicable grace, I somehow concluded that, while I needed to respect my parents, ultimately, I didn’t answer to them. Nor did I answer to some crotchety local pastor. I even concluded that I didn’t answer to denominational muckety-mucks. Nope, I possessed a strange but quiet assurance that eventually, on the far side of the Pearly Gates, my case would be heard by a loftier tribunal and my position vindicated. I believed my refusal to further wound the heart of a young man abandoned between a rock and a hard place would be validated.

Just yesterday I attended the screening of a new documentary on the life of a civil rights activist in our own city of Columbia, Elliott Battle. This gentle yet determined man paved the way for others in many situations: he was the first African American faculty member at the all-white high school, the father of the first African American students to attend their local elementary school, the first African American home owner to desegregate an all-white neighborhood. These firsts didn’t come without a cost. The film shared the reality of those times and the pain visited upon his family. (On one occasion, their beloved dog was shot by an antagonistic neighbor when it got loose from its leash and ran onto the man’s property — in full sight of their young son.) In one part of the film, Mr. Battle explained that the children who led the way in the desegregation of schools were referred to as the tender little warriors of the civil rights movement. Hearing that phrase for the first time brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. Later it occurred to me: I myself had a close encounter with one of these tender little warriors.

So, K.R., wherever you are, I acknowledge that probably more often than not, the role you filled was less than thankless. And today, on this special anniversary, I thank you for giving our class a real-time lesson in race relations by letting us observe you up close, for just being yourself and inviting us to interact with you. Thank you for having the courage to blaze a new trail in our school and making it a better place.

And thank you for calling forth the better person in me.

From all that I’ve shared about growing up among a bunch of boys it might seem like I didn’t have any interest in playing with girls. Au contraire; I loved having girl playmates. It’s just that I had this problem…

Back in the day, children generally weren’t shuttled around in minivans to soccer games, tae kwon do classes and scout meetings. (Well, actually none of us were shuttled in minivans since Detroit hadn’t designed any yet. But that’s not my point…) Most of the moms I knew were stay-at-home moms who considered having their children play with other children in the neighborhood to be both enriching and entertaining. On nice days, they scooted us out the door right after breakfast and didn’t expect us to come home until lunchtime, then out the door again until dinner. Because they wanted to keep us near enough to hear the dinner bell, we weren’t allowed to leave our block.

Our duplex was in the middle of a rather short block, the residents of which went like this (from one end of the block to the other):

  • On the corner, an old lady who didn’t socialize with kids (we were all scared of her, although I now suspect, looking back, that she may have gotten a big kick out of her scary persona, because if we rode our bikes past her fenced yard while she was watering the lawn, she would spray us with the hose).
  • Next to her, a house with four teenage girls with no interest in a little girl like me.
  • Beside them, a couple in their 50’s whose children were grown.
  • Then our duplex, housing my brothers, plus four boys in the other half.
  • Continuing down the block, a widow in her 50’s who was very kind to us kids (she’d invite us to enter her fenced yard every once in a while to pick a bouquet of flowers for our moms).
  • Beside her, a single man whose daughter visited on some weekends and during school breaks (she was my brother’s age, and a tomboy; I loved it when she was around).
  • On the opposite corner, one last house. For the life of me, I cannot recall who lived there. Which merely signifies that there weren’t any kids.

Now, if you were keeping track, you noticed there were exactly zero girls for me to hang out with on a daily basis. Any girlfriend time had to be fitted into the adults’ plans. Fortunately, this wasn’t too difficult, since my dad’s boss had a little girl my age and they arranged for us to get together from time to time. (She is the only other girl in the picture of my birthday party posted along with On boys, baseball and bags.) I always preferred visiting her house to her coming to mine because at my house the boys would inevitably lure her into playing their games, which she relished, not having boys around at all. Sigh.

In contrast, visiting her house was simply dreamy because she, as an only child, had a bedroom chock full of dolls, little kitchen appliances and furniture, dishes and the like. From the moment I arrived until the very last minute, we played with an intensity and focus usually reserved for air traffic controllers or neurosurgeons. After all, I had to make sure the girly “fix” would last me a good while. I also had numerous girlfriends at school, and quite a few girl cousins, on both sides, but again, play times were at the discretion of the big people.

I would eventually get my heart’s desire: a daily-basis-type-girlfriend. Much to my delight, the little sister who was in elementary school when I left home, and in junior high when I got married, became an adult! Being six years my junior, my relationship with her while still living at home had centered mostly on looking after her. But once she “caught up with me,” she became the best girlfriend I would ever have.

We’ve done our share of girly stuff together: making jewelry, planning big parties, designing room makeovers, etc. These things have been highly enjoyable. But it’s really about the sharing of not only genetics, but myriad life experiences; it’s her being enough like me to “get” me, yet different enough from me to balance me; it’s her validating me in all the ways that matter most; and it’s her embracing me with that huge heart of hers in my downs as well as my ups. These are what I truly treasure.

Ain’t no friend like a sista friend.

Little Sister