Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Skills Most Necessary For The Life To Come

When we arrived at the front gate, I was sure it wasn't the same place. I even said, "I don't think this is it." If I'd just peeked in at the gate as I'd originally intended, I'd likely have shrugged and walked away, but we had an appointment so we gave the guard our identification in exchange for visitors' passes and passed inside.

I attended the American Community School (ACS) in the Chilandri neighborhood of Athens during the early 1970's when I was in 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. Once we got through the security gate (which is new since my time) things began to look familiar. Although it seemed smaller now, I recognized the facade of the 3-story elementary school building with its exterior stairways that invited us to race down at breakneck speeds. I taught myself to really barrel down the stairs, having, as a 4th grader new to the school, identified speed on the stairs as a "status" thing.

All I'd really wanted to do on my first return to Athens in 40 years was "look" at the old school. Really. That's all I'd intended, but John, my thoughtful host, had organized things, and as Principal Cathy Makropoulos showed us around the place, it all came flooding back: so many things I'd forgotten. 

We had played a lot of what we called "German Dodgeball" (prison dodge ball) on those playgrounds, huge games involving dozens of boys, hurling those rubber balls at one another, dodging, catching. This was not PE class dodgeball -- the only people playing were the kids who chose to play. You could throw the ball as hard as you wanted and no one complained. We took it seriously. In fact, as a 10-year-old, I don't think I'd up to that point in my life ever competed at such a high level athletically as I did in those entirely child-created, child-managed games. I remember being counseled by an older boy to "keep the ball low: it's harder to catch." Excellent advice, but my greatest strength was being able to actually catch another guy's best throw, sending him to "prison." There was another older boy who had taken it upon himself to attempt to be my tormentor, he came after me with a hard, low throw and I was able to cradle it just off the ground. He looked at me in shock for a second, then shook his head in disgust before jogging off to prison. I didn't have problems with him after that.

Of course, it was on these playgrounds that I also learned to play soccer, or more properly, football. I was never one of the best players (those guys were mostly the Greek-American kids), but when I returned to the States where the sport was just catching on, it was as a skilled player: skilled enough to be captain on an Oregon state championship team. That was a big deal in my life -- still is!

I learned to play the clarinet while there. Our music teacher was very temperamental, although no one really took him seriously. For a time, I was "first chair," but one week I simply didn't practice at all, and as he dramatically pointed me to "last chair" he hit an actual chair so hard with his baton that a piece of dried chewing gum fell to the floor. We all laughed while he fumed. I continued as last chair for the rest of the year, experimenting with the role of class clown, then gave up on the instrument altogether.

More intimidating was when Telly Savalas' brother Teddy, a 5th grade teacher, called a student meeting to discuss the 50 drachmas that had gone missing from his wallet. He didn't yell, but was nevertheless quelling in his firm, earnestness: "It's not the amount of money. It doesn't hurt me to lose it. What hurts is the idea that someone from this school would steal it." It almost made me wish I'd been the one who had taken it so I could, as he offered, return it anonymously to his desk. Later, after I'd played the character John in a Thanksgiving Day production, it was Mr. Savlas' complements that meant the most.

When I'd been a student, there had been a public street that ran right in front of the elementary school, dividing it from the rest of the campus. Shepards regularly walked their sheep along it. On the opposite side of the fence where we played soccer on a gravelly pitch, there had been some run-down houses where gypsies lived. We called them gypsies, at least, and Principal Makropoulos, an ACS graduate, remembered them that way as well. We were told to leave them alone, to not interact with them through the fence, and for the most part we didn't, but it was hard to ignore what looked to us like extremely disadvantaged lives. Now there are apartments where the gypsies used to live, but I still think of them when I think of poverty.

As we took in the rest of the campus, meeting the teachers, many of whom said they planned to attend my Friday night presentation, people kept asking if I remembered this teacher or that teacher. Some of the names sounded familiar, but I couldn't put faces with them. The faces of my classmates, however, and their names flooded over me as I rounded corners and ascended stairways. It was my classmates that came back to me the most.

The library had been remodeled, but the shelves looked the same, and as I began to remember, I saw a row of study carols from the past where we had taken turns putting on those giant headphones that plugged into a turntable, and where we listened to the very first Cheech & Chong comedy album as 6th graders. Even after only a couple hearings, we all had it memorized ("Dave? Dave's not here," and "Class . . . Class . . . Class . . . SHUT UP!"). The pothead aspect of the humor went right over our heads, but we knew it was hilarious because all the high schoolers were talking about it, and all we needed to do is evoke Sister Mary Elephant or Fifi the sexy poodle to elicit laughter.

I don't suppose anyone is surprised that I wasn't likewise flooded with memories about the worksheets I'd completed, the chapters I read, or the tests I took. I know my education was a good one, because ACS was and still is an outstanding school, full of dedicated teachers, but curriculum isn't the kind of stuff that sticks with a person, although that's not entirely true in the case of my time at ACS.

There were no walls between the classrooms on the 5th grade floor back then. It was called the "open classroom" concept, something that struck our whole family as experimental and radical at the time. Our literacy and math curriculum was branded Independently Prescribed Instruction (IPI). I've never been so aware of a curriculum as we all were then. We all talked about IPI. "It's time for IPI," the teachers would say. The basic idea was that you were handed a package of lessons as a 4th grader that represented the entirety of what you were expected to get through during the next 3 years, with the idea being that everyone worked at his or her own pace. You read the materials, did the exercises, then, when you thought you were ready, you took the test.

I don't recall any of the specifics of what we were learning, but what I do clearly recall is this process: if you passed the test you moved on to the next lesson. If you didn't, you reviewed the material until you felt you were again ready for the test. When I realized how this worked, I simply plowed through the entire "English" part of the IPI program so that within the first few months of my 5th grade year I was done, completely, meaning that I had "free time" instead of IPI; time I mostly used to play marbles with a kid named Aki Baez while the others worked on their lessons. As the year wore on, more and more boys began to complete their English work, motivated I think by the prospect of joining Aki and me playing marbles on the blue-grey carpeting. It was high stakes gaming in that we played for "keeps." As the year wore on, we developed a kind of "marble boy" culture, one with its own unwritten social rules and expectations: we were building a democratic, or perhaps meritocratic, community together, down on our knees amidst the table and chair legs, off the radar of the teachers, our own independently prescribed instruction in what is, frankly, the most important thing of all: getting along with the others.

This is why we have class reunions, of course, not to reflect on the formal parts of our education, the school work, but rather the extra-curricular parts of our time together. No one gets together with high school chums to reminisce over a test score or a text book. Sometimes we may celebrate a teacher, but only if she was a person who was warm, funny, inspiring; someone who rose above the academics.

As I enjoyed my reunion of one, touring the campus that was so warmly opened to me, I was overwhelmed with the realization that this, after all, these memories of people, of the things we did together, of the community we made together, this is what school really is always all about. The academics, frankly, are the excuse, but it's through learning how to live together that we develop the skills most necessary for the life to come.

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Unknown said...

This post had me take a small trip down memory lane myself! Years of school brought me the best friends I could have ever imagined. Through these friends and learning to make new ones has opened many great opportunities in my life. These skills are extremely important! Especially in college when "networking" becomes an important topic.

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