A man I'll call Henry Williams answers the buzzer at Bret Harte Elementary, my old grammar school in Hyde Park on the south side of Chicago. He cautiously opens the big doors and then looks me over carefully. It is no surprise that I'm not recognized. After all, it's been more than three decades since I last walked through this door into the dark hallways to attend kindergarten through sixth grade. I was not Bret Harte's best student, but I may have been its best dreamer.
Except for some brightly-colored, plastic playground equipment and new border plantings of trees and bushes, Bret Harte and the surrounding area looks the same as it did in the early 1960s. Ed's tiny hotdog stall and a busy Checker Cab stand are both gone, but the Illinois Central tracks still rise above the school, which was built in 1931. Lake Michigan gleams in the distance down 56th Street, and the Museum of Science and Industry sparkles in the distance in its turn-of-the-century grandeur. The neighborhood of Hyde Park is still integrated, a demographic that would serve me well as I ventured out to the inter-mountain West, into a world that for the most part was-and remains-white.
Henry is Bret Harte's head custodian and he accompanies me into the dark halls with apologies, "We're redoing the floors and the place is a mess."
Classes won't be in session for another month. Mississippi Delta blues wail from a construction worker's boom box. Desks, globes, slow-moving clocks, and dog-eared textbooks spill out into the hallways. The way the light falls across the rooms, the smell of floor wax, and the angle of the staircase create a sensory overload of nostalgia. The memories are not entirely pleasant. Chicago schools were not as yet part of the nation's educational reform movement. Classrooms were hot and oppressive, and teachers were not trigger-shy about meting out harsh discipline to daydreamers. One second-grade teacher would place malcontents in cloakrooms behind sliding chalk boards. I still recall with horror being left alone in the pitch black, my tear-stained face buried among my classmates' coats and hats. This isn't fair. How can the world allow this?, I asked. No one answered.
For my mother, brother, and me Hyde Park was the best of times and the worst of times. Divorce shattered our family into four pieces. My father eventually left for a good job and a new family in New York City, while the three of us that remained found a way to survive in oven-hot apartments that looked out into a canopy of shade trees.
I can't speak for my mother and brother. Survival is personal. My mother worked hard to support us and made sure we knew how to cook meals and do laundry and dishes. She also taught us the value of the diversity we took for granted, and the lessons of right and wrong so that we mostly stayed out of trouble. As the man of the house, my brother turned over his paychecks to my mom from his job at nearby dry cleaners. Practicing responsibility and virtue was the way he survived.
Dreams are what sustained me, and the freedom that young children were given back then to play with friends anywhere in the neighborhood. From my desk at Bret Harte I daydreamed about the freights and passenger trains clacking by heading for unknown western territory like Kansas. "Mr. Lyons!, "my teachers would call out. "Mr. Lyons! Are you with us today?" No, I wasn't with anyone at that time. Like my dad, and those west-bound freights, I was long gone.
I played war games with stick guns in Jackson Park and regularly visited with a homeless man who also didn't have a nose. I roamed the Museum of Science and Industry with my buddies. Together we dreamed of being locked inside the museum after hours and having the entire run of the place without parental supervision. We would go the coal mine and man the submarine. We would raid the gift shop and finally have all the model kits we could not afford.
Unlike school, neighborhood libraries expanded my interests, which centered on Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg, and the entire roster of the Chicago White Sox. Near the University of Chicago campus, the mysterious Oriental Institute with its real mummies contributed to my young, if not easily distracted, intellect. Across the street from the institute on south Woodlawn was Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, whose architectural significance was lost on me. All I knew about the house was that it had a narrow ledge in front, a perfect balancing beam for a pretend mountaineer.
Passageways between apartment buildings connected sidewalk to alley and decorum to street play. This was our geography and we knew our boundaries. And always stretched out in front of my young boy's life was Lake Michigan, a body of water so vast that the other shore was hidden like an ocean's. What was on the other side? I wondered. Then I dreamed up my own answers.
The passageways are now fenced and locked. Rental apartments have gone coop and sell for more money than I'll ever make in my lifetime. There are too many cars and not enough places to park them. Distances seem shorter, buildings and parks smaller, the air and the lake are cleaner, and the city's skyline has been remade. Those trees that grew up with my family are now mature and substantial. Am I substantial, too? Have I matured enough?
Montana poet Richard Hugo once wrote that he wanted to end up with a "simple grief I can deal with." We go out into the world, we live our lives, time passes, and someday we return to our beginnings: places by which we measure our progress. This is not easy work. Thirty-five years ago I was taught to read and write, to add and subtract, and to respect diversity. But the most valuable lesson I remember today is how I could create a life that could survive whatever the world threw my direction. You can only learn that lesson by living.
Henry Williams leads me past the
combination gymnasium and auditorium down a small flight of stairs into
Mrs. Boone's classroom, where in 1963 we were told to place our heads on
our desks because "the President's been shot." Suddenly I'm in
third grade again. My eyes are closed and I can smell the desktop:
varnish mixed with tears and gum erasers. This is no dream. I have to
keep very quiet.
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