The open field at Linda Elementary School in Linda, California is almost gone, filled with portable classrooms, which never seem to go anywhere. I tried to remember how the field used to look with all the wild flowers that attracted bees, butterflies and lady bugs. It was the lady bugs that got me and my “girlfriend” in trouble.
One day we decided to study lady bugs instead of going to our kindergarten class. Mrs. Shaw, unimpressed, stormed out of her classroom and walked briskly to where we were enthralled in our study of nature.
“Get to class right now!” she shouted. “You’re late again. I’m going to talk to your parents!”
I’m not sure if she ever followed through with that threat, but after her scolding, our lady bug gathering days were over.
I was standing beside the field trying to bring back memories, because my sisters and I had come to our alma mater for the school’s sesquicentennial celebration. While my sisters went off to the multi-purpose room, I remained outside and re-visited the days of my youth.
There I stood at the flag pole, while my buddy Joey hoisted up the American flag. It was a Norman Rockwell moment: me with my bright red hair, dressed in my Cub Scout uniform, saluting as Joey hoisted Old Glory.
Across the schoolyard sat my second-grade classroom. In my imagination I could see Debbie, the prettiest and smartest girl in school, sitting on the front step and there I was standing next to her, giving her something– a ring. A ring so precious in my eyes that I had stuck about thirty staples around the edge of an envelope to protect it.
“What’s this?” Debbie asked as if I was annoying her.
“It’s ..uh..uh.. ..a present,” I stammered.
“What are all these staples for?”
I could no longer speak, and simply stood there staring.
She opened the envelope with great difficulty, removed the ring, looked at it, put it into her pocket and didn’t say a word. I turned and walked away sheepishly. Oh, the troubles of a love-struck second-grader.
It’s probably a good thing nothing came of my advances to Debbie. About fifteen years later I saw her at a bar in Yuba City where she appeared to be doing something illegal with a white powder. Debbie had become a heroin addict. She spent most of her adult life in a wheelchair and died in her early fifties.
I turned away from the classroom steps and walked down a corridor. As I walked past some steel pillars that were used to support the corridor roof, I wondered which one I had held onto while Mr. West, my fourth-grade teacher, gave me some swift and powerful swats to my backside with his paddle.
I continued down the corridor and walked into the multi-purpose room. The room appeared to be a lot smaller than I remember, but it was still the same.
For the sesquicentennial celebration, the multi-purpose room had been decorated with streamers, balloons and pictures from the past hanging on the walls. A video of memorable school activities played on a monitor while current and former teachers chatted at a table. As each visitor walked into the room, you could see the teachers looking them over as they tried to remember if he or she was a former student. I didn’t recognize any of the teachers, they looked too young to have been around in my time.
On a table sat some yearbooks. I walked over to the table and looked for the years when l attended Linda Elementary, but couldn’t find anything.
“Your yearbooks are probably over there where all the black-and-white ones are,” a young Asian-looking woman commented.
“Do I look that old?” I chuckled.
“That’s okay…. just teasing”, I replied.
I went over to the table and found a yearbook for the year I was in Fourth Grade, and opened it. I found my class and looked at the black-and-white images of my former classmates. I then turned the pages, and looked for other people in other grades. I recognized Peter, Terry, Stephen, Debbie, Sherrie, Joey, Jimmy, Greg and many others.
I knew very little of what happened to most of the children pictured in that yearbook. I do know that some have raised families, are working hard and volunteering in the community and in their churches – salt of the earth.
As I continued to gaze at the photos, all of a sudden I was overcome with immense sadness. There was Joey, such a bright and capable kid, shot while robbing a liquor store. There was Jimmy, the class clown that faced a life-long battle with alcohol; Stephen, the star athlete that died of a drug overdose; Susan who fell into the wrong crowd and Debbie, who had so much potential. I felt like the survivor of a major tragedy. It was as if someone punched me and took my breath away. Why me? What makes me so special? I took a deep breath, closed the yearbook, and laid it back onto the table. I then told my sisters I was going outside.
I went outside, walked over to the concession stand set up for the celebration, and bought a hot dog. I then went over to a small bench, sat down and looked out into the courtyard of my former school. There were adults and children laughing and smiling as they visited classrooms. Most of them appeared to be of Hmong descent. I thought about the parents and their difficulties in leaving the hill country of Laos to come to America to a safer life, not too unlike the parents of many of my former classmates, who had been economic refugees from America’s dust bowl, all in search of a better life.
I also thought about the children. I wanted to grab them and show them my old yearbook.
“Look what happened to him! To her! Don’t be like that!” I wanted to shout, but knew I couldn’t.
My sisters walked by and said they were getting ready to leave. I got up and followed them to the car and got in and my sister drove away. I sat there in silence thinking about the people in that yearbook. I also thought of how I would like to get to know more about people.
“You’re awfully quiet,” my sister commented to break the silence.
“Yeah, I was just thinking how little we really know about others,” I replied.
“I’ll bet you don’t even know I’ve been thrown in jail over fifty times, do you?”
“No, I don’t. How’d that happen?”
“I’ll tell you someday,” I sighed.