Grade School

[In the midst of packing boxes, photos will have to come later!]

I’ve already written about my wonderful experiences in our Desnoyer Park neighborhood and our three-room Desnoyer Park school. It seemed as soon as I got comfortable with the school, it was time to move on to another school. That became a pattern in my early life and very well led to me being a bit of a wandering soul in my adult years. I am also convinced that it caused much insecurity and shyness due to always being a new kid at school.

After third grade, all the students at Desnoyer Park had to move on to other schools. In our neighborhood, the closest school was Longfellow. It was over a mile away, probably a bit closer if you could cut through the Town & Country Golf Course. Most days I rode my bike to and from school. That include a good part of the winter months as well!

The fourth grade was an interesting year for me. Not only did I really get to know my friend, Toran, but that was the year that my sister Pam set me up with the evil principal. I became somewhat of a class clown that year, but not until one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Johnson, left mid-year. Upon returning from Christmas vacation, we returned to a substitute teacher. We were told that Mrs. Johnson was not coming back. No further explanation was ever provided. For the first few weeks we had a succession of substitute teachers. Finally, we got one who stayed. Unfortunately, I don’t recall anyone liking her. That, together with the principal fiasco, led me becoming a class clown.

I did pretty well in classes that year. At that point, school was pretty easy for me. I don’t recall anything particular about the year, except for my friend, Harry, barfing right next to me and the black man who came to talk to our class one day. This was in about 1970, not long after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so race relations were still rather difficult across the country. At that time, St. Paul, Minnesota, was still very white. Our speaker talked about the difficulty of being a black man in society. I found him fascinating. My favorite story was when he talked about walking through a mall and a little white kid came up and bit him. He said the kid had thought he was chocolate! The class roared with laughter, but the lessons of race relations, kindness, and respect stuck with me. Many years later I remembered that story vividly when accompanying a black friend to a store in Kaposvar, Hungary. Little kids stared at him and followed us, as if they had never seen a black man before.

It seemed that as soon as I got acclimated to the new kids at Longfellow and the new teacher, summer vacation was upon us. During that summer, we moved from Desnoyer Park to our new home on “stately” Summit Avenue in St. Paul. That meant a new school for me and my sister. Our new neighborhood school was Linwood elementary. Linwood was a Kindergarten through Sixth Grade school in the central part of St. Paul. This time it was all new kids. At least from Desnoyer Park, most of the kids moved on to Longfellow. Now it was all new kids.

I never liked Linwood and never really fit in. My mom insisted that I join the band. I did not enjoy that at all. It also was somewhat ostracized at that school, at least among the kids in my grade. As the newbie, I quickly fell in with the wrong crowd. My new best friends were involved in drugs, petty theft, and other questionable behavior. I spend most of my time with Calvin. His family consisted of an older brother, a younger sister and a single mom, who worked her ass off to support her family. I don’t even remember much about Calvin’s dad. Calvin was not a bad kid, but had some bad influences in his life. Calvin’s older brother was in high school and was heavily into drugs. As a result, marijuana and hash were easily obtainable for us.

For whatever reason, I never really liked the idea, but smoked my first joint at about the age of ten! The best part about it was Calvin really was a good friend. Whenever the group would smoke pot, Calvin was okay with me not participating and he backed me up any time others would try to force me to join in.

Calvin provided a number of positive influences as well. He was an outgoing kid, so we always had other kids around. He got me very interested in sports. I was already an avid baseball fan, but never really played any sports. I was a small and short kid, so was often the last kid picked whenever teams were chosen. By playing baseball, football, and basketball with Calvin, I started to realize that I had some natural athletic ability. That still needed a lot of honing, but it was a start. Calvin and I spend hours and hours in the summer playing catch with a baseball and football in the fall. Calvin got me signed up for the local little league baseball team and, while I was still not too good, I learned the game and eventually got pretty good.

Calvin’s family was also very interested in downhill skiiing. His mom had been a ski instructor, so I got to tag along every time they went to Alton Alps or other local ski areas. There were some winter months that we skied at least one per week. I finally had learned a winter sport that I enjoyed!

Somewhat surprisingly, Calvin also got me interested in religion. I had always attended Catholic Mass with my father every weekend, but it really didn’t mean much to me. Calvin’s family went to a baptist church. I tagged along and was encouraged to get to know Jesus. It was in a baptist church that I first recall dedicating my life to Jesus and was “saved.”

After time, my relationship with Calvin started to sour. He became more involved in the drug scene and I moved on to other friends at school. After sixth grade, he moved on to the local junior high school and I followed my sister to St. Luke’s Catholic School. Fortunately, some of the kids from Linwood also moved to St. Luke’s, but there I was at yet again another grade school. By the seventh grade I was in my fourth new school.

During the second half of sixth grade I started a paper route. My first job! I remember trudging up and down the streets at around 5AM delivering papers in the cold and snow. I continued this into seventh grade and made friends with another paper carrier, Martin, who was from St. Luke’s. So, at least I had one friend when I started the new school. Since I was new to the school, I knew nothing about the school’s football team for seventh and eight graders. Martin joined the team and encouraged me to sign up, albeit a couple days late. Sadly, the coach didn’t care much for Martin and wouldn’t let me join the team. All of the “cool” kids were on the team, so I was again an outcast. That team went on to win the Twin Cities Championship in the Catholic school league during eighth grade, so this was a longstanding and bitter point in my life.

I became a bit of a loner in the seventh grade. I spent a lot of time alone at home throwing baseballs and footballs and shooting hoops in our oversized yard on Summit Avenue. I fashioned a ball yard in our back yard and would toss and hit balls for HOURS on end. Very quickly, I had to change from baseballs to tennis balls due to the many broken windows in our house. Due to the configuration. of the “field,” there was no left field and the living room windows were in right field. As a result, I quickly learned to hit to dead center field (and too often to right). I also taped a square on our brick house to throw tennis balls in an attempt to improve my aim. Again, I spent hours and hours every summer throwing tennis balls against the house. All this would later pay big dividends when I started playing competitive softball!

During my second year at St. Luke’s, despite not getting a football champion jacket, I did finally learn more about my Catholic faith. I was confirmed as a Catholic and learned Catholic sacraments. In addition, I got involved in theater and, overall, finally felt more a part of a school community. Most importantly, though, I became friends with Pat and Jim, both who would have a tremendous impact on me and become my high school buddies and lifelong friends. MUCH more about Pat and Jim later . . . .

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