I have a warm place in my heart for St. Patrick’s day. When I was in grade school, you got to bring a treat to share with the rest of the class on your birthday. Cookies or brownies or rice-crispy treats.
But my birthday is in July, so I could never bring in treats. I can’t remember why this was so important to me as a kid, but it was.
So my mom, rather than being relieved at having one less chore in her busy life, came up with the idea that I could take cookies to school on St. Patrick’s day, because my name was Patrick. That was the sort of person she was.
So we made sugar cookies shaped like Shamrocks and frosted them with green frosting. I helped. Or at least I remember helping. More likely I tried to help and got in the way instead.
So I got to bring cookies to school once a year, and my standing in kid society was saved.
As I write this, I realize not everyone might have done this at their schools, growing up. Maybe it just happened in my little corner of the sky.
I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, just outside Madison. The Town of Burke, unincorporated. Lots of land, not many people.
For most of grade school, I went to the modern equivalent of a one-room schoolhouse called Pumpkin Hollow. No, I’m not kidding. It was called Pumpkin Hollow School.
It had four classrooms, one each for first through forth grades. The entire faculty consisted of four teachers, the aid, and the lunch lady. We borrowed music and art teachers from a bigger school district and they came out to visit us once a week.
I think this small school was a very special thing, though I didn’t realize it back then. We had a really active group of parents that would organize great things for us. We went to see the Nutcracker Ballet every year, and we had little fairs in the springtime with craft booths and little games.
I remember the playground. You’ll never see a playground like it these days. The equipment was good, old-fashioned dangerous, or made out of tires, or both. We had a tire swing. A real one that hung from a high branch, and because the rope was long you could really whip people around on it. We could have killed ourselves, but we didn’t. It was fun. Good lord I miss recess. When did play get squeezed out of our daily curriculum?
It wasn’t a perfect place by any means. I don’t mean to imply that. Even small groups of children can be cruel. There was one girl that everyone said had cooties, and we teased her though I didn’t care and I was her friend anyway. None of the cool guys liked me very much, which sucked.
Ms. Otto, the aid, had strong old-school views about propriety, and she didn’t approve of the boys and girls playing together. We could mingle together on the equipment, or play tag, but we couldn’t cluster together in and make up our own games. A boy who played with the girls was given the worst punishment possible: he was forced to sit on the steps.
I spent a lot of time on the steps. Don’t misunderstand me. I was not a young Casanova. I just preferred the company of girls. Generally speaking, I still do.
Once I brought an old Indian Spearhead to school to show the other kids. It was real, we’d found it when we were digging in the garden. But when I took it out to recess, I showed it to a girl and told her that it was sharp and it could cut her. I wasn’t really threatening her, but I wasn’t exactly *not* threatening her either. I was being tough, and slightly wicked, and I knew it.
The girl told Ms. Otto, and I had to sit on the steps and they took the spearhead away. Later that day, my teacher Miss Anderson gave me a serious talking to and gave me the spearhead back.
That was it. I was deeply ashamed, and I knew deep in my heart that what I’d done was Wrong.
I also felt like I’d dodged a bullet because they hadn’t told my parents. Everything worked out smoothly, and I learned something. These days, they would have called homeland security, put me in therapy, and installed flint detectors on all the school doorways.
It was, everything said, a good place to grow up. It was too small for any severe social stratification. When your entire class is only 18 kids, the cool kids (Like Chad VanEss) still weren’t that much cooler than the uncool kids. And the prettiest girl (Jody Mulcahy) wasn’t that much prettier than the least pretty girl.
They closed Pumpkin Hollow not long after I left. Probably for budget reasons. I drive past it every once in a while when I’m at home. A small business has set up shop in the building, and I always want to stop and ask if I can look around. But I never do.
But in my dreams I go there. Sometimes the school is abandoned as I look around. Sometimes the new owners let me in and I see the old school half-hidden under the renovations. Sometimes I’m with someone, showing them around, saying, “This is the room where we had art class.” “This was Ms. Stewart’s room.” “Everything is so small. How did twenty kids ever play dodge ball here?”
They are melancholy dreams, full of a deep, slow sadness. They always end the same way. After moving from room to room, I lay down on the floor and cry. Not for anything, or about anything. Simply because I am full of sadness, and I miss something that is so long gone that I can no longer remember what it was, or put it into words.
I would give each of you a shamrock cookie today, if I could. But that is beyond me. So instead I wish each of you happiness, joy in the changing of the seasons, dreams free of melancholy, and hope of new friendships on the near horizon.