Being home over the holiday got me thinking about school and the town I grew up in – and Happy the beagle.
I used to take that dog to school. My brother Jeff and I would walk there – it was about a mile – and back in those days, before leash laws, Happy would follow us and hunker down under my desk, until he got bored and went out the door on the side of the classroom and headed home.
Living in Hanover, NH, near Dartmouth College, our house a short walk to the banks of the Connecticut River, we raised beagles and watched as our female Sally went into labor and delivered six, seven, eight pups, wet, eyes closed, their coats bright against the blankets of Sally’s birthing box. Happy was one those pups.
Happy was not with us when we walked home from school, which was never in a straight line. We stopped at Omer and Bob’s Sports Shop on Lebanon Street, and most of the time both Omer and Bob would be there. We got hard candy and tried on skis and patted Omer’s dog. We’d then be off to our next stop. It might be Leverone Field House, over near Dartmouth’s football field, or Davis Rink, where my father was putting his team through drills. In the back of the rink, the Zamboni dumped its snow, and we’d pelt each other.
At Kiewit Computation Center, if there was a terminal open – Dartmouth students had preference over eight-year-olds – we’d sling our books under a desk and pull chairs around so that we could play the computer games of the ’60s. First, you decided which to play: Football or Monte Carlo car racing. Then, we fed a punched tape through a reader, to boot up the game. Play was simple: When asked by the computer – and keep in mind it was a paper teletype, not a CRT screen – I typed in the MPH I wanted my car to speed around the first hairpin corner. My friend John would do the same and then, with great noise and shuddering, the teletype printed out a screen shot of where each of us was on the race course – or we had wiped out, spinning out of control due to our speed. If we played football, it was programmed to pause at some point, typing out that a dog had got out on to the field. Maybe it was Happy.
I wish that I could remember more about the elementary school and my time and classes there, as I think they were fairly idyllic. In kindergarten class we built this huge replica of the Santa Maria – it seemed huge to me – one that we could get inside and play on. In the third grade we had a large Greek history unit, with a culminating festival at its end. There was food, a procession, costumes.
What I remember more is wandering that town – our playground – which suggests that our wandering, that our play, impacted me far more than school. It was more rich than school, it seems. We might be down at the banks of the Connecticut, damming some rivulet with sticks. Or walking on a dark snowy morning to hockey practice and directing traffic since the stop light was out. Or at a frozen Occom Pond, our mother leaving us for the day, with our skates and sticks and helmets and lunches. She retrieved us well after dark, the lights on at the pond. No matter how cold we were, she always had a hard time pulling us off the ice.
I guess there’s nothing wrong with this picture, since I turned out all right. But it reminds me that our kids – my kid – have the same tugs, between in-school and out-of-school. I also understand that my small-town experiences of 40 years ago are very different than for many young people, as their out-of-school world can be very lonely, very scary. This 2009 piece by the Afterschool Alliance begins by stating that for many adults “thinking about the hours after the school day ends conjures up memories of doing homework, playing pick-up basketball, taking guitar or dance lessons or going home to Mom and a snack. But for millions of children today, those images are nothing like their reality. In fact, each day in America, some 15 million children – some as young as five years old – are without supervision at home or on the streets.” My memories are of out-of-school; for many children their memories are made in school.
My mother recently gave me a photograph, one of me and a friend playing wiffle ball in the side yard, near the weeping willows. Just after she took that picture, a moose marched by our house. It had come up from the river, and my friend and I followed it up Maple, over to Sargent, before it crashed back into the woods. Did I bring that sighting to school with me, as I did my dog? What did I tell my teacher? And what did she tell me about moose marching up streets?
My son and I decipher experiences all the time – the red-tailed hawk being chased by crows, water striders and their use of surface tension, the decomposition of a squirrel road kill – and I want there to be a seamlessness between the outside world and the world of school. I know that some schools and many skillful teachers knit them together brilliantly, and what comes from that knitting can be deep and meaningful learning for young people. Metaphorically, school needs to be a place where Happy the beagle can still sit under a student’s desk.