Elementary School in the 80s

When I went to elementary school, teachers could still smoke in the teachers lounge. That rule, in fact, changed while I was in first or second grade.

The lounge was in a room off the cafeteria. We students could either buy hot lunch in the cafeteria or bring our own. If we brought our own lunch, we had places to keep it in the classroom, along with our coats and bags. There weren’t any fridges, so lunchboxes and thermoses were our friends, though some people brought bag lunches. Lunchboxes showed off popular cartoons or TV shows. My first lunchbox was a metal He-Man one. I later got a plastic one that had a plastic clasp instead of two metal ones. I don’t remember what was on that one.

Hot lunch cost one dollar. At some point, it increased to $1.10, though that might’ve been in middle school. Near the end of the lunch period, the cafeteria ladies would sell ice cream in the middle of the cafeteria and students could line up to purchase it. I think they initially cost 50 cents to buy. I believe this price also increased once before I left. 99.9% of the time, I’d get an ice cream sandwich. I got it so often the lunch lady would just ask me, “Ice cream sandwich?” when I got to the front of the line.

There were two lunch periods. The first lunch period was first through third grades (kindergarten was split into morning and afternoon classes and so didn’t have a lunch period). The second was fourth through fifth grades. There was a microphone that the teachers could use for announcements. The first through third graders had recess while the fourth and fifth graders were eating. After they went in for recess, the fourth and fifth graders went out for theirs. When I went to Japan, I was happy to discover that recess continues through ninth grade. In my school, it ended after fifth grade.

If we were being too loud, one of the teachers would get on the microphone and tell us to be quiet. Except Mr. Lessig. He was a fifth grade teacher. He’d just walk into the room and the kids would shut up (he only did this in the fourth and fifth grade lunch period. No need to scare the little kids). When I was in third or fourth grade, they installed a stoplight in the cafeteria. If volume levels got too high, it would change from green to yellow. Way too loud, and it’d jump to red. If it stayed on red more than a few seconds, an alarm would sound, and recess would be canceled. That only happened once or twice while I was at school. Even so, Mr. Lessig was a better deterrent than the stoplight. Ironically, he was actually a really sweet man who passed away while I was in high school.

Kindergarten didn’t have recess. Instead, we had play time. There was free time in the other grades, too, where you could grab a book and read if you finished all your work ahead of time. We had indoor recess if the weather was bad, so each of the rooms had games you could play. I remember there was a game called “Hi Ho Cherry-O” that I misread as “Hi Ho Cheeri-O.”

For outdoor recess, we had a playscape built for us between my second and third grade years. They’ve since torn it down due to worries about pressure-treated wood and splinters and put up a plastic piece of crap in its place. Adults always know how to make childhood less fun. It had a tire swing that kids would spin other kids on so much that for large chunks of time, it would be off-limits. They spun one kid so much that he threw up.

Recess attendants (who were teacher aides) would blow two short bursts on a whistle if they caught someone misbehaving during recess and give them a warning. Bullying still happened, though. A long blast on all the whistles meant we needed to line up to go back inside. When we lined up in the classroom to go anywhere (lunch included), we did it alphabetically by last name. For recess, we’d do the same, lining up by room. Or maybe we all just lined up together. It’s hard to remember what archaic activities we had to do back then, especially when they became second-nature.

I have many more memories of elementary school: of gym class and plays, of the book fair they’d have every year (I still have all of those books) and the Scholastic Book Club (I also have all those books somewhere), of the animated movies they’d show after school on what must’ve been 16mm with the sound turned way up (terrifying when watching boys change into donkeys for Pinocchio), of the short films they’d show in class, which was more likely 8mm (including a b&w version of A Christmas Carol and some Halloween shorts by Disney). In second grade, Miss Fisher drilled it into us not to clap after the movie was over. Luckily, I’ve since unlearned that practice, particularly for film festivals.

Updates, Childhood, and Stephen King

Already knowing that I wanted to be a writer at a young age, I wrote a letter to Stephen King when I was eleven years old, asking for writing advice. This was long before he’d written On Writing. In fact, now that I think of it, I wrote it almost 30 years ago. Since I didn’t know his street address, I addressed it to “Stephen King, Bangor, ME.”

Back then, I was a huge Stephen King fan. Okay, so I’d only read one of his books at that point: my real King years would stretch from middle school through high school. Still, The Eyes of the Dragon remains one of my favorites, and I’ve read it more than any other book.

I don’t remember how long it took to receive a reply, but I did receive one, and it made me and my mom laugh hard, since it was a form letter that apologized for being a form letter and assured me that my letter had been read. With the form letter was the much sought-after writing advice I’d asked for, based on an article King had written. It was called, “Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully – in Ten Minutes.” And while you can find links to it online (such as this one), they don’t include the edit marks that are in my copy.

Flash forward to yesterday, when I watched the first part of IT, the 2017 movie (not the 1990 miniseries). While much is changed from the book (including a smart decision to update the childhood portion to the 80s), its tone and essence, and the camaraderie among members of The Losers’ Club, is captured much better than in the miniseries. And some of the details that are changed are for the better — at least when you don’t have over a thousand pages to play with.

Seeing the movie led to two realizations: I really want to read the book again (which I initially finished over the course of a summer), and my first novel bears similarities to King’s work — which would make sense, since I first conceived it in that style and it deals with evil in a small town, which tends to be a King specialty. In fact, one of the reasons I wanted to see the movie was to find out what worked (and why), and how I could use that information to make my novel better, since I’ve been working on it, off-and-on, for almost for two decades.

Another tool to jog my memory has been home movies. Over the course of the past few Christmases, my dad had all our home movies put on Blu-rays. Over the past week, I’ve been sampling one Blu-ray in particular, since it covers the same time period in my life as my protagonists. Some of what I’m picking up are speech patterns, but also, the FEEL of those times. You can capture all the details in the world, but if you can’t capture what it feels like to be your characters living in that place at that time, you might as well be writing a research paper.

Watching these movies has been odd. I remember the events portrayed in them, but I can’t remember much beyond what the camera shows. And then I’m looking at myself from almost 30 years ago, and I’m closer in age now to that of my parents in the video. And yet, I feel I’m closer to capturing the essence of what I originally wanted this novel to say than when I started it. Maybe all I needed was to be old enough to forget my childhood, so that I could be reminded of it again.

The Tree Outside the Window

It’s funny how memories work. My emotional state seems to have more to do with triggering a memory than circumstances, though similar circumstances trigger similar emotional reactions. Eating a madeleine might trigger an involuntary memory, but so might feeling a particular blend of happiness.

Recently, I’ve been comforted by memories from childhood. They are there, ready to be remembered, which makes me think that my new apartment is as comforting as the childhood home I left almost ten years ago. In large part, this has to do with the tree outside my balcony.

Growing up, I would wake from my bed (or, on a school day, be woken by my mother) and open the curtains (or, for most of my childhood, blinds) and see a beautiful tree outside my double windows. Past the tree would be the yard, then the woods, and — past that — the field, which I stopped playing in around the time that I left childhood behind.

I see this tree reflected in the tree outside the balcony. Like the one that grew past my bedroom window, one might see a bird land on this one, or a squirrel scurry through its branches — though I have yet to see the latter.

Sunlight brings more memories.  Perhaps it has to do with the direction and height of the windows in my new place, or the way the light filters through the leaves. Whatever the cause, I’m reminded of sun streaming through autumnal leaves from decades ago, and the memories I made under them. And if I open the slider during a storm, I can hear the rain, which must be one of the most soothing sounds in the universe.

The tree outside my childhood home no longer exists. It lost its life for the sin of growing too close to the house, after a surprise October ice storm made my parents extra-cautious about anything that could fall on their home. I only have the memory of it, and the emotions from long ago reflected in the emotions of today, and that is enough.