September 1960 … I am six, starting first grade at Garfield School.
We live on Grant Street, just north of Lincoln Park. My sister, Connie, is a sixth-grader. We walk together down English Street to Gilbert Street, where our big brick school is.
The 1960 presidential campaign is underway, as is the Cold War. Public service announcements appear on TV, telling you what do in the case of a nuclear attack and how to detect radioactive fallout.
I’ve been thinking back on those long-ago days this week, because District 118 is closing Garfield School, a landmark since it opened in 1902. It’s the last neighborhood school, extensively modernized and remodeled after a 1999 fire. But pigeons are flying down the chimney, some bricks are loose, and because of falling student enrollment, the district has too many classrooms.
Such was not the case in 1960. There were two rooms full of first-graders. Mine was at the northwest corner of the upper floor. Miss Doris Swaim was my kind and grandmotherly teacher. Like her students, she walked to school each day.
David H. Radcliffe was principal. A little store, with pencils and penny candy, was next door.
We had no computers or TV screens. Each of us had a box of paper letters. We would be given words, then we sifted through our letters to recreate them.
We practiced our writing on tablets with large ruled lines. We would make rows of big As and little As, big Bs and little Bs … on and on until the letter forms came naturally. I found that if I made my lower-case As with that extra tail on top – as they appeared in our reading book – a coveted gold star sticker appeared on my paper.
We always had time for the finer things, too. Each of us had a large match box, the kind that wooden “farmer’s” matches came in, for storing our clay. We made clay dogs and cats with it. Miss Swaim had a pitch pipe, which she would blow to get us in tune for singing “On the Merry-Go-Round,” “Asham Was a Tootin’ Turk,” and “A Paper of Pins.”
We walked home for lunch. The school playground featured swings, teeter-totters, a merry-go-round and other contraptions, plus concrete culvert tiles that you could run through, climb and hide within. Girls wore dresses, jumped rope and played jacks. Boys were boys – loud and monkey-like.
Each first-grader had a throw rug. Every day, we’d roll them out and take a little nap while Miss Swaim sat at her oak desk and graded papers. It was lovely.
In January 1961, my family moved to Westville, where my sister and I walked to old Edison School.
My first report card survives. Under “Teachers Comments” is this notation, dated Jan. 20, 1961: “Kevin is a good worker. I am very pleased with his progress. Miss Swaim.”
Thank you, dear lady. And thank you, Garfield School.