When my kids started complaining recently about having to go back to school, I told them the same thing my parents used to tell me: “You’re going to look back on these days as the best of your lives.” Sometimes I find my mouth saying other shockingly unhip dad stuff like, “Are you trying to heat the whole outdoors!?” when they leave the door open, or “If your friend jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge?” (I say that whenever they’re thinking about jumping off a bridge somewhere.) Anyway, I was reminded of my sage advice this week when I got the rare chance to walk inside my old elementary school in rural Virginia for the first time in decades. The original building was built in 1916, and the whole place closed down in 1989. But on this day, part of the Millboro School was open for just a few hours during a fundraiser to help transform the complex into a community center and perhaps an old folks’ home.
As I walked into the gym, I immediately got misty-eyed, but not because I was remembering the good old days. It was more because I saw the old torture devices on the brick wall: the horizontal hanging ladder where I was unable to do a single pull-up, and the wooden climbing apparatus where I was unable to move a single peg. Then I flashed back to the rope that hung from that very ceiling, the one the farm boys climbed like Tarzan. But I, the more bookish type with biceps built up from butterfly collecting instead of hay baling, took a different approach: I hung on to the bottom knot of the rope for dear life, like a tick on a beagle’s ass, and worried about my classmates looking up my giant blue gym shorts, which hung gaping and limp on my twiggy frame. When my bony arms gave out, I inevitably dropped to the mat, red-faced and humiliated. Crumpled on the hardwood floor, I was able to see the stage where I lost the spelling bee, because I couldn’t spell the word “spherical.” Yes, I found a way to be humiliated both academically and athletically in the same room, not an easy feet. Or is that feat?
All of this came back to me in seconds, but the tour of my old stomping grounds was just beginning. When I walked across the gym and turned the corner into the old locker room, every towel snap, wedgie, and attempted swirlie I received back there in the early 1970s came rushing back. The center of my not-at-all-private hell was the shower room. I shuddered as I looked at the big old mustard-colored space where I stood around naked with the other boys after not being able to do pull-ups. It was wonderfully self-affirming to take showers in that open room with guys who reached puberty at age 11. I was what they call a late bloomer, meaning my voice didn’t really change until about sophomore year of college.
I was behind on pretty much everything. In fact, it was on the playground at Millboro Elementary where I first saw something I would later learn was called “pornography,” but what we called “dirty pictures.” Even then I had to agree with the quote attributed to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it” Wow. One of the mustachioed sixth graders showed me the lurid photograph he’d torn from one of his dad’s girly magazines. Then the group of older kids asked me if I’d rather be with that woman or go to Disney World. Without hesitation I blurted out “Disney World!” That was about 40 years ago, and I still remember the brutal Native American rub I got for my answer. For the record, now that I know what “be with” means, I wouldn’t choose Disney World. Though I have heard that new Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios is a lot of fun.
It was also on the school’s baseball field where the older Little Leaguers told me in my rookie year that the catcher’s cup was a device that helped you breathe easier. So I stood there and put it up to my face and breathed in and out for a while and couldn’t figure out why they kept laughing. I guess I must have been doing it wrong.
I don’t want to give the impression that everything was bad for me at Millboro Elementary. For instance, our principal was a really kind, good-hearted man. If he paddled someone with his giant three-foot paddle—like that kid who was caught in the restroom chewing gum or maybe even talking in class—you knew something terrible had happened. I also had many wonderful teachers, and the food in the cafeteria—much of it homemade—was fantastic. It was there that we used to jump up and try to write our names in the asbestos ceiling, and the fibers would fall like snow on the dining tables. Ah, memories.
Toward the end of my self-guided tour, I found a big, beautiful dead moth in an upstairs window that had gotten trapped in the school. He’d most likely beaten himself to death trying to get outside again. I could relate, because that’s sort of how I felt in that place as a boy. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to save it now. The buildings form a lovely old pair of stately brick salt shakers, and the lessons learned there over nearly a century prepared generations of people in my old hometown for life’s rigors. I also think it would make a wonderful place for the people in the community to gather in the future and, for some it would be a good spot to enjoy their dotage. But I’m pretty sure I won’t be among that number when I retire. I’d probably end up bunking with some of the same guys who used to stuff me into lockers and pull down my gym shorts.
But the real lesson I learned from my trip down home was that I need to reconsider the tired bromides I spit at my children when they complain about school. They are in those sometimes-tough transitional years, after all. Joe, 12, is starting middle school, and 17-year-old Grace is a high-school senior. If they whine again, I’m inclined to say, “You’re right. School does kind of suck. Yes, Joe, math really is stupid. You won’t ever use that stuff again unless you’re a math teacher. And yes, Grace, I don’t understand why you have to go to school so early either, and they do assign you way too much homework.”
After all, how will they regard their future if their own father is telling them that getting up at the crack of dawn so they can suffer through geometry half asleep and then receive a wet willie on the bus ride home constitutes the best years of their lives? From now on I’m just going to lie to them and tell them they’re not.
If you’d like to help save the scene of the author’s childhood humiliations, visit http://millboropca.com/.