In September of 1967, I started grade four at the Delmar Harvard Elementary School. We’d driven down from Boston earlier that summer and moved into our first house, a three-story brick house in Parkview; a leafy maze of streets and back alleys just a few blocks beyond the Saint Louis city line. Today, sites tout Parkview as an urban oasis, 11.5 square kilometers of gracefully curving streets and architecturally styled houses, home to many notable Saint Louisans. It was a world apart then. On one side, the ivy covered halls and lawns of Washington University and the rolling hills and woods of Forest Park. On the other, the commercial jumble of storefronts and businesses along Delmar Boulevard and the aging, smoke stained apartment buildings beyond. On the way to school I walked past a scattering of business left over from when the Loop was the last stop on the trolley: The Tivoili, Smith’s Hardware, Guccione’s market, Fishman’s Kosher Delicatessen, Klein’s Drug Store, Baton Music. Their owners watched the changing streets and looked up warily when the door opened. Maybe they were waiting for better times to come again, maybe they didn’t have anywhere to go. Either way, while city planners spun their urban renewal dreams many others had closed up shop and slipped away. Gas stations, fast food and a 7–11 filled the gaps they left behind.
1967 was the year Bob Gibson pitched the Cardinals into the World Series against the Red Sox. Historical sources now proudly claim Bob Gibson as a one-time resident of Parkview along with a Senator, various scientists, and Phillip Elkin’s dad who people said was a writer. They said it and always added, “Poetry.” Like it as something you could catch. We heard a lot that way, in fragments through a haze of static. The way radio stations that came in on the big tube radio my father liked to tinker with. Waves on distant shores. They said Bob Gibson didn’t find the house he was looking for. They said they were sure he was a fine man, what would the Cards do without him. But. You know. And then the whispers. I wonder now if maybe the real-estate agent asked Mr. Gibson if maybe he wouldn’t be happier living somewhere else. With his kind of people. I am sure they smiled and explained there were some excellent values in more modern neighborhoods. Perhaps they pointed out that some of the Parkview houses were getting on in years. Maybe they even showed him our house earlier that spring. Made a point of Mr. Gibson and his wife down the rickety steps into the cellar where the whitewash was coming off in huge flakes and the mortar in the foundation stones was crumbly. Maybe they made note of the dusty toilet partitioned off from the rest of the basement with rough boards, pocked with bare nails to hang clothes. Maybe they said, “Maid’s quarters,” and held the smile a beat too long. Whatever the reason, Bob didn’t live in Parkview that year. His daughter didn’t walk with the rest us kids from the neighborhood the few blocks along Delmar to school and back each day. I never saw her in Cantique after school buying a bag of penny candy or bright red wax lips or a sno-cone.
In early October, both grade four classes crowded around Mrs. Mueller’s little black-and-white TV to watch Bob Gibson pitch game seven. All of them, whether they cut across the glass strewn vacant lots from the ranks of apartments or walked down the hill from the big houses along the ridge, cheered for every strike Bob Gibson threw and every base Lou Brock stole.
I watched from the back. Boston still felt like home and my only sports experiences had been the Harvard lacrosse and rugby games my father took us to. Baseball was a mystery to me.
“You’re from Boston, Benjy” said Mrs. Mueller. “You must be a Red Sox fan.”
The entire class turned to look at me. Except for a fly buzzing against one of the tall windows in the back the room was silent.
It was a little after the Series and a little before we made the Indian corn seed mosaic turkeys for Thanksgiving that Sergey joined the class.
“Sergey and his father have come from the Soviet Union,” Mrs. Mueller told us.
Sergey stared back at us dark eyed and silent, his eyes just showing through the fringe of a ragged bowl cut. Mrs. Mueller had him sit in the empty seat next to me and told me to share my Weekly Reader.
The cover of our Weekly Readers that week featured an article on Surveyor 6 and the first ever soft landing on the Moon. Inside, a smiling General Westmoreland explained how America was winning the war in Viet-Nam. Not a word about the nuclear testing in Nevada, or the launching of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, or Eugene McCarthy’s announcement that he would seek the Presidency on an anti-war platform.
I glanced at Sergey and asked if he was done and was it OK to turn the page and go to the puzzles on the back page. He stared straight ahead, arms crossed, silent.
The next morning I saw his father walk him to the chain link fence at the edge of the empty lot across the street. Sergey clung to his father until his father pulled his arms away and pushed him toward the crosswalk. His father stayed watching as Sergey joined the group of kids waiting for the crossing guard to stop traffic. Watched until the bell sounded, and we lined up to go inside. Sergey caught me looking as we walked through the doors. His father was still there, hands in the pockets of his long dark coat, fur hat pulled down over his ears.
When we were in the coatroom, Sergey tried to say something then stopped and shoved me against the wall and hit me in the stomach.
I know we had a health unit and learned about personal hygiene. We read a story about Thomas Jefferson or George Washington giving some founding fatherly advice about the right length for fingernails. I looked down and hid my ragged, bitten nails.
We read a table of expected weights and heights for kids. I was the only kid in fourth grade who weighed over a hundred pounds.
We learned about the food pyramid and made menus. I chose spaghetti and mashed potatoes.
“Isn’t that a lot of starch, Benjy?” asked Mrs Mueller.
I started to tell her she asked us to make a menu for our favorite meal but she was already down the row and talking to someone else.
I don’t remember math or science or the books I read.
So many of the intended lessons seemed like they were written for a class that hadn’t shown up when the school bell rang. Instead it was us at the door. We sat attentively, said yes ma’am and no sir. We washed the boards and banged the chalk out of the erasers, covered our hands in gloves of glue and slowly peeled them off like snakes shedding old skins. Pledged allegiance to the flag each morning. But what happened between the pledge and the bell to go home seemed like it happened in some distantly parallel universe. Separate, pale, and distinctly unequal to the life in TV shows, or on the streets and in the alleys of our neighborhoods.
One grey, rainy Friday in April I came in early. The school yard was empty and I had the feeling I was late already. The building was oddly silent and Mrs. Mueller’s door was closed. I hesitated at the top of the steps. Someone was crying in Mrs. Johnson’s fifth grade room across the hall. The door was ajar and I looked in. Mrs. Johnson held Mrs. Mueller like a child. Rocking her slowly, stroking her head. Her thick black fingers smoothing Mrs. Mueller’s permed and perfectly set blonde curls. The windows were streaked with rain and it seemed like it must have rained inside or they had the window open because their faces were wet too.
“They shot him Ida,” sobbed Mrs. Mueller.
“Oh, honey,” said Mrs. Johnson. “I know. I know.”
“But why, Ida? Why?”
I watched them, framed in the soft light of early spring, with the glow of morning about them. Watched them comfort one another, and wondered at the lessons even teachers have to learn. The unintended lessons that stay with us — the ones we carry forward and, if we remember in time and if they happen to be at the door - pass on to those who come after.