A short while back, I was invited to First
Avenue School to talk with the 8th graders about invention and technology.
There were over 100 students assembled in the auditorium for my
2-hour presentation. Looking around I realized that 42 years had
passed since I last stood in that assembly area. But no matter,
the kids were warmed up to my talk and had a bundle of super questions.
I had a blast.
The teachers took me on a little tour of the place, which to my
delight was graffiti clean, and in great physical shape, even with
over 800 students in attendance. The 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades are
now out in modular classrooms located in the playground. Newark
schools seem to be bulging with kids. What also amazed me was that
many of the kids who went to First Avenue when I did were now teachers
at the school! Now that is team spirit. Even their principal is
a past graduate.
I stood under the basketball hoop on the gym floor, remembering....and
then that old familiar swirling and fade-out feeling took hold.
There was no doubt about it. I was going back to the early 1960s...
The first person I saw upon arrival back in 1961 was our white-haired
gym teacher, Mr. MacNaughton, or "Mac" as we called him.
Already advanced in years and close to retirement, Mac was more
like a kind uncle than a teacher to us. Whenever our worn sneakers
starting losing traction, Mac would douse some alcohol on a soft
rag and rub the bottoms of our "sneaks" and we got plenty
of traction again. Never forgot that old trick. Came in handy when
we played basketball on that shiny floor.
My favorite activity was touch football in the cold weather. We
played in just T-shirts and pants with our sneaks on, even in late
Fall cold weather. Try that today with mama's little darlings! You'd
get your pants sued clean off. Back in the 1960s, that was an invigorating
morning workout. We loved it, but boy that ball could sting if you
caught it wrong! After an hour or so of that we came running in
and used that shiny gym floor to practice some sliding. We'd get
a good head of steam up and hit the deck and slide maybe 35-40 feet
into the gym mats hanging on the walls under the overhead stands.
Mac would come in and find us all piled up in a heap laughing and
trying to untangle ourselves. Simple fun.
In the warmer months, we played baseball outside, and basketball
too. It was a great playground, now vastly smaller with the modular
classrooms. At night during the summers and all through summer vacation,
the playground was open and supervised with all sorts of games being
played. It was our neighborhood gathering place.
I also remembered the formal drill marching we did, which is probably
never done in gym classes today. We all knew how to march in military
style and practiced it to Mac's commands.
"To the quarter left, harch!"
On it went, round the gym.
Then Mac would close drill us with a flurry of quick maneuvers....
"Stand steady men, don't lean into the command. Straight
and stiff until the command is given!"
I wonder when they stopped all that neat stuff? That rhythmic
cadence sound reverberating off the upper seats and tiled brick
walls, sounded almost comforting. There is a certain pleasure in
completing a drill session in perfect step and formation. I kind
of liked the activity.
In bad weather we played softball in the gym, using a rubber-coated
ball, or maybe just played basketball.
And during the year, the gym doubled for dances on a Friday night.
I could hear the sounds of Doo-wop and many of my favorite oldies
as I felt myself being zipped back to the present………
As I left the gym, I noticed the home economics room and wood
shop are both gone now, obvious relics of a time when students used
their hands. The need for classroom space in an expanding student
population took precedence. Even the basement was filled with new
classrooms. I do think the kids ought to work more with their hands,
to get a sense of accomplishment, but parents and educational experts
don't seem to share my enthusiasm for the head and hands approach.
But more folks are trying to return to those days. I think such
things will make a return.
One of my school year jobs was to populate the bulletin boards
in the main entrance with interesting stuff for all students to
see and read as each season changed. Happily those boards were still
there, littered with tons of thumbtack holes in both the aging cork
and the wood trim.
What really impressed me though was how much natural wood remains
in good condition in the classrooms and most especially in the office.
It felt just like home, and seeing that gold stenciled "Principal"
on a nicely varnished dark wood door reminded me of my old principal
Mrs. Trussel. In my graduation class picture, she stood next to
me that bright May morning in 1962.
Now there are plans to raze the old Coca-Cola factory on First
Avenue and build a new school for the area. Abington Avenue grammar
school is also overcrowded with over 1100 students and what used
to be Garfield grammar school is also busting its seams. The new
school seems to be the logical approach. Sure it will look different
without that old factory there, but time moves on.
On the way home I took a ride past my old house and around the
neighborhood. Italian is no longer the immigrant language, mostly
Spanish and Portuguese now; but there is robust home construction
in progress on almost every block. The First Avenue teachers tell
me the downside of all this building is more school kids and larger
classroom sizes. But judging by the smiles on their faces, I know
they love their jobs. The future seems to be in very good hands.