This is where I went to elementary school and junior high between 1974-1983. My classmates and I were bused to a middle-ish school in a neighboring town during fourth and fifth grade, but I spent the bulk of my childhood here at La Harpe Elementary. My parents and siblings went to school here, too, as did most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and possibly even grandparents. My dad taught P.E., coached, and and was principal here for decades.
And it's going to be demolished soon.
My cousin Tyler took the photo above, and as I write this he is attempting to receive permission to show his photos of its now-damaged interior. [Edit: he got permission! I'll share more of his work as the photos arrive; two are below.] The idea that this building will not be around anymore triggered a wave of nostaglia that woke me up this morning. As I mentally walked from classroom to classroom, dozens of memories and "firsts" piled up, and I think I'm going to drive myself crazy unless I write some of them down in a series of disjointed paragraphs. I apologize if you've read any of these anecdotes before. I just wanted to see them all in one place.
We had to fill out worksheets according to instructions played on a tape recorder. These were called "Listening Lessons." One of the items was a pig that we were told to color pink. Knowing that pigs were more of a peach color, I colored it peach and was deducted points. I have been a realist since the day I was born, damn it!
Across the hall was a girls' bathroom with four or five stalls. A rumor circulated among the girls: if the seat was up, that meant a boy had used it, and we should avoid it because, yuck, boys. Much later I realized that the seat was up because it had been recently cleaned by the janitors.
(I'm in the back row, far right, next to teacher aide Mrs. Yetter, blinded by the sun)
The class made a cookbook where each of us described how to make our favorite meal and were quoted verbatim in a dittoed booklet. My recipe was for spaghetti with meat sauce. I remember being interviewed for this like it was yesterday.
Kelly: Brown the hamburger...
Mrs. Y.: How much?
Kelly: The whole thing.
And so on.
I learned how to read! Our teacher Mrs. Strand must have taught us by osmosis, as I don't remember much about the process, but I do know that a whole lot of flashcards were involved. A small group of us were seated around her, and the intimidatingly big word "something" came up. None of the other kids knew what it was...but I did, and I thought to myself, I really know how to read now.
I was shy and always waited for other kids to ask me to play, except kids don't do that. They just start playing and do not issue engraved invitations. Lonely and frustrated one day, I sat on the bleachers and cried. A sweet girl named Sara (front row, green dress) sat beside me and said she would be my friend.
Teenagers fascinated many of us, and we were able to observe the high school kids during lunch in the cafeteria. We idolized the ones we recognized from swing choir, who were every bit as good as the people on the radio and were basically superstars already, and the cheerleaders when they wore their purple and gold uniforms to school. We went bananas for Judy Bradley, this blonde, sunny creature with feathered hair and a great big smile.
I read a story called "Great Day In Ghana" and came to understand that the world was larger than I could ever imagine, and people lived in places that were vastly different from all-white, small town Illinois.
One time Mrs. Eckhardt used my name in a sentence during a spelling test. "Blue. Kelly is wearing a blue turtleneck." It has stayed with me forever and will most likely be my dying thought.
Jimmy Blue (back row, orange shirt) wrote a poem about spring that was better than mine. Then he moved away, tragically, and I decided to focus on writing poems.
Reva (front row, aqua shirt) and I decided that if we had to get married someday, we would marry each other, because yuck, boys.
We were the favorite class of teachers. One time I overheard an exhausted-sounding Mrs. Eckhardt talking to our third grade teachers about us. "Enjoy them!" she concluded.
Mrs. Wernecke forced us to listen to tape recordings of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson every day after lunch. During this time I drew microscopic comics on folded-over, 2"x1" pieces of paper for the amusement of Sara and Michele (back row, red dress, standing by me).
Mrs. Wernecke was a tough customer who also forced us to say, "May I go to the lavatory?" None of us had ever heard of a lavatory before, and many simply called it "the laboratory."
My poetry had improved to the point that Mrs. Wernecke created handmade blank books for me. I wrote my poems inside and illustrated them, and that was terrific. But then she wanted me to read them aloud to my class and the other third grade section, and any hope I may have had of being popular flew right out the window (second floor, west side).
During an open house my art teacher, the mysterious and very old Mr. Soule, told my parents that "this one is special."
By the time my class entered fourth grade, our teacher Mrs. Smith (at our building in Terre Haute, which is pronounced, appallingly, as "terry hut") was amazed at the amount of math catch-up she had to do with us. And that was kind of understandable, what with all the nonstop poetry going on in the lower grades.
Two years later we returned to the elementary building in La Harpe for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade.
Study hall, late September, Mr. Doyle's room (social studies): I was reading/devouring a Judy Blume book and paused to look out the open third floor windows. Golden afternoon light bathed the trees across the way, and out on Main Street a car drove by, blasting Late in the Evening by Paul Simon. And I felt so content, sitting there, reading my book, loving that song and feeling somehow older.
Dad was my P.E. teacher and coach, and he spent a lot of extra time at school after hours. Sometimes I sat at his office desk drawing cartoons, or my brother and I goofed around in the gym. I distinctly remember trying to figure out how to serve a volleyball on the day after John Lennon died, sadly thinking about his then-current song (Just Like) Starting Over.
It was a bad year for assassinations, and later that spring attempts were made on the lives of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul. We watched TV coverage of both in our school's big study hall, and to help us cope with the violence we were instructed to write a poem (of course) called Assassination. We had to take the letters of assassination and make each one begin a new line. This was an excercise in futility because (1) the word contains a ridiculous number of repeated letters, and (2) the word contains a ridiculous number of repeated ass-es.
Dad is basically synonymous with La Harpe Elementary. The number of times he carried televisions up and down those stairs and the number of times he put Vom-Sorb on messes when janitors could not be found would boggle the mind. To be in the school with Dad as he closed the place down at night after a late ball game was always discombobulating. The cavernous black hallways creaked with scary "building settling" noises that I relive in nightmares to this day. And yet I always felt fortunate to be there at night, like I was seeing a secret side to the school that most kids never saw.
Mrs. Logan, our reading teacher for sixth and seventh grade, seemed like--heck, was and is--a perfect human being. She was kind, thoughtful, interesting, and generous. Her easy smile lit up the room, and she selected books for us that were exactly the right books. Mrs. Jones was like a dear aunt who taught us grammar via a series of handwritten dittos that I adored. She encouraged me as a writer and praised my "dry" sense of humor. She died nearly twenty years ago, and I still think about her all the time. Her room is on the left side of the hallway (photo by Tyler).
I won the school spelling bee in the study hall, memorized the countries in the Middle East, was intimidated by algebra, touched a computer for the first time (a Radio Shack TRS-80)...
...read dozens of books from our library (including an account of the Salem witch trials that freaked me out for days), and was misinformed about the pronunciation of the word "duodenum" (it's this not doo-oh-DEN-um). My science teacher said it a lot, along with "uhhh." I used to keep a running tally and doodled spectacularly to stay alert. I experienced my first migraine headache and accompanying wave of nausea while taking an English test--luckily no Vom-Sorb was involved.
Our particular arrangement of teachers and sports-related activities created a pressure-cooker. I was obsessed with learning new things, even the dull stuff, and did at least two hours of homework each night. With a handful of exceptions, my relationships with my peers had become a bit shallow or competitive. Most students were friendly in a "hey how's it going" kind of way. But during my years at the top floor of this building, I could feel myself separating from the rest of the group, who most likely didn't care about the pronunciation of "duodenum" and probably weren't even listening in the first place. My differences didn't matter as much to me as they used to, and the twenty-one girls and seven boys who were born in 1969 along with me started to seem more like a group of random kids rather than the most important people in the world. I still longed for the kinds of friends I would eventually find later in life, but in the meantime I wasn't going to sit on the bleachers and cry about it. My thirst for knowledge was that voracious and overriding, and this evolution began at La Harpe Elementary.
To augment his teacher's salary, Dad spent many of his summers painting the walls, ceilings, and sometimes floors of our school, and he let me help him. He did the roller work, and I took care of the edges. We listened to the radio and worked happily in the old, hot building. Not content to simply paint a room beige, Dad figured out how to create snappy racing stripes in a variety of bright colors and patterns, making each room unique. Our work is buried under thirty years' worth of additional paint [Edit: no it is not! We painted those stripes up there!], but that summer job made me feel intimately connected with my school, and I'm sure Dad feels the same way.
La Harpe Elementary is a structure much like hundreds of other Illinois schools built during that period in a style that did not set the architectural world on fire. Vandalism and decay have set in after its doors closed for good three years ago. But like thousands of other former students who spent their sometimes-happy, sometimes-sad formative years there, I can't help but shed a tear knowing that part of my childhood will soon vanish.