Newsletter 15: Memories of Elementary School, “Slotter” and the Letter People

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. Here is a newsletter from August 2016, about my son William’s first day at pre-K reminding me of my own elementary school experience. My younger son Wynn started pre-K this week. It’s on the mind.

The first school I ever went to was Columbian School, 2709 Marion Avenue, Mattoon, Illinois. It was a K-through-6 school, just down the street from Mattoon High School, a seven mile drive away from our home out by Lake Paradise. I spent seven years at that school, two at Mattoon Junior High, four at Mattoon High School and four at the University of Illinois, which is all to say, it’s the school I went to for longer than any other. I was there from age 4–12, which is a massive, and massively important, amount of time to spend going to the same school. A four-year-old is different than a 12-year-old the same way a duck is different than a doorknob. They are barely the same species. My transition from a duck to a doorknob all happened at that school.

It occurs to me, as I type this, that I can name off the top of my head my teachers for each grade of Columbian School:

Kindergarten: Mrs. Jett
First Grade: Mrs. Burton
Second Grade: Mrs. Pikowitz
Third Grade: Mrs. McRoberts
Fourth Grade: Mrs. Douglas
Fifth Grade: Mrs. Lawyer
Sixth Grade: Mr. Francis

This was not information I knew my head contained, but contain it it does.

Columbian was one of seven schools in the Mattoon School District, and look I can name them too: Columbian, Bennett, Lincoln, Washington, Hawthorne, Humboldt and St. Mary’s. My cousin Denny, my best friend before school, went to Bennett; my cousin Shelly went to Columbian, which made my parents less worried about me. (I have a lot of cousins.) My bus driver’s name was Joy. The bus number was 10. I sat in the third seat from the back. There was a line in black magic marker on the window of the seats that let kids know not to drop the adjustable window below that spot. Whenever we’d get close to Columbian, there was a kid who sat in front of me named Thomas who would always start jumping up and down in his seat and yelling, “I see the school! I see the school!”

It floods back without me asking it to. We all gathered in the gymnasium before the first school bell rang, everybody with their classes; some kid always was chewing gum and stuck it underneath the bleachers before school started, and it always grossed me out. Mrs. Lawyer had a paddle, a big nasty wooden thing that featured the signatures of everyone she’d ever punished with it. It had holes in it and looked to be about 400 years old; I never got it myself but I remember Keith Atchison getting it out in the hallway. The classroom door had a small window up top, and you only saw the top of the paddle as it went up, and then WHOOSH it was out of frame then SMACK … then a moan. Then again and again. Keith got 10. I think he had waited until a girl was about to use the water fountain and then blew the water into her face as a joke. She started crying, and Keith had to face Mrs. Lawyer’s wrath. That paddle was pain; we were terrified of ever having to face it. The paddle was the end of history.

I remember playing dodgeball, except we didn’t call it dodgeball, we called it “slaughter,” except I thought it was spelled “slotter.” My skill in this game was being able to catch the big rubber balls; I couldn’t throw very hard, but I could catch whatever you threw at me. The trick was to toss one ball high in the air so your target would be concentrating on catching that while one of your teammates whacked him in the face while he was looking up. It was also fun to catch someone in the feet when they jumped; they’d often lose their balance and land on their head. We played this game every day at recess, the game where you threw massive rubber balls as hard as you could as the faces of seven-year-olds, and god was it fun. I got a bloody nose after being popped one time, and they didn’t send me to the nurse’s office. I just sat there until it stopped, then got back in the game.

I got in trouble for reading ahead on The Letter People. I had a little crush on Sarah Jeffries. My friend James changed his name from “Jame” between third and fourth grade and we spent the whole year making fun of him for it. There was a kid with Down’s Syndrome in a class for a few weeks, but only a few weeks. I remember my mom, who had been laid off from her job at General Electric, coming into work as a substitute teacher occasionally. I hated those days; she was fine, but I always felt like all the other kids were looking at me strange because she was there. My sister started kindergarten when I was in the fifth grade; I pretend like I didn’t know her when she’d see me on the playground. Two kids got in a fight at the park across the street, like a real fight, with actual punches; most of them were just an awkward hug and then nothing but this one got Eric’s face all scratched up. The computer bus would come by once a week; I got “I love you Mom” printed out on dot matrix paper, though I think I lost it on the way home and never gave it to her. One time a kid was grabbed right in the middle of class by his parents, who came into the room screaming and crying. I don’t think I ever found what happened to him. A few weeks later I scored a penalty kick goal for our soccer team and we beat Hawthorne and everybody was so happy it was awesome it was the best.

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On Tuesday, my son William started pre-K here in Athens. The school is a 15-minute walk away from our home, and it has already become a pleasure to walk with him every morning. He will be in this school for seven more years, and then he will be in another one, and then another one, and then he will be gone. I don’t remember anything in my life before I started school; life was just a series of vague unorganized activities that drifted from one place to another with people who popped in and popped out. But once school began, there was structure, and order, and a steady foundation and routine on which I begin to form meaningful relationships and surprisingly lasting memories. I’d been alive for four years before school started, but life really started when school did. It was how life was structured for the next 18 years. And those particular 18 years, they’re pretty important years. This is where it’s starting for him. Life’s starting to count now.

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They tore down Columbian School about 10 years ago. Mattoon only has two elementary schools now, Riddle and Williams. (Williams is named after Arland D. Williams, a Mattoon native who died when Air Florida 90 crashed into the Potomac River in 1982. Williams survived the crash but perished in the river after giving the rescue rope to several other passengers.) 2709 Marion Avenue is now just an empty lot; If you look up Columbian School Mattoon on Google, this is what you get:

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I wonder how many memories would come back if the school were still there and I walked its halls. They’re all still up here, I’m sure of it. They never go away. It’s now William’s turn to make his. I can only pray they are good ones. Shame they don’t play slotter anymore. I bet he’d be terrific at it: He can throw super hard.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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