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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Small Towns....

The following was written by a fellow who is a few years older than me (he graduated in 1982.  I graduated in 1990), but we grew up basically at the same time in Humboldt, Iowa.  His dad was the Jr High band teacher for about a million years, no joke....If you want a good idea of what it was like to go to a small town school in a small Iowa town, read on.

From the blog of Rick Jenkins:
Dreams are strange things.  They take us to places we’ve never been and help us remember things that we are sometimes not sure even happened in the “real world.”  I’ve heard and read many things about dreams; that they are a portal into the spirit world, simply the brain processing engrams, or maybe even just the imagination left to play while the body rests.  Whatever they are I was pleasantly, joyfully, and sadly visited with a strange, but wonderful dream tonight.

    I suspect the advent of this little adventure comes from my own brain processing the news that my dear home town of Humboldt, Iowa is building a new Junior High School.  Of course, they are using the more fashionable name of “Middle School” and kicking the 9th grade to good old H.H.S.  Anyway, I think that news tugged at some engrams and sent many memories to my imagination to play for a while.  I hope you’ll come play and remember with me for a moment.

  The adventure begins at the Northwest door of the building at 210 7th St. North.  It’s an unusual place to begin, but this was the door that I entered many times even before I was a student at Humboldt Junior High (HJH).  It was situated between the shop and the kitchen in a small alcove.  From my perspective in the dream the place looked huge, that of a mouse rather than a person.  I slipped in the building unnoticed behind Mr. Miller who, presumably, was there to give some early morning band lessons or practice with the Jazz Band.

  The first door I came to was the shop.  I ducked inside and wandered about the cold cement floor.  I remembered the semester that Mr. (Marv) Buhr had tried to teach me to make a metal funnel.  “A mouse has no patience for such things anyway!”  I told myself.  I received a “D” on that project.  In that same room I also remembered helping my Dad, Mr. Jenkins, cut masonite squares for the band room ceiling so the music would sound better.  Since I have always been somewhat dangerous rather than creative with tools I was thankful to have gotten out of with all of my fingers.  I left the shop and continued down the hall.

  In the band room I did indeed find Mr. Miller giving lessons but as I watched, the present day slipped into the past.  In my mind’s eye my Dad, Mr. Jenkins, (whom we all just called “Sir”) was there with a few young trumpet players and Mr. Bill Mekemson, one of the other music teachers.

“Bill, I can’t find the book The Indispensible Book for Trumpet.  Have you seen it?”  Dad asked.

“No.”  Mr. Mekemson said, rather matter-of-factly.  “I guess we’ll just have to get along without it.”

One of the greatest things about teachers; they always seem to get the job done, even without “indispensible” things.  They can do this only because they are the ones who are truly “indispensible” to the students and the community.  Making sure they have the tools just helps them be better at what they already do so well.  It is a wise community that knows when to let an old building go.  It is, after all, just a tool of the trade even though many memories have been built there.  And to those indispensible people and those who have memories of that building let us say with Gertrude Lange in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus:

"We are your symphony, Mr. Holland.
We are the notes of your opus.
We are the music of your life."

                I scampered down the hall and found the Art Room on the right.  On the left were the two rooms where Mr. (Orin) Van Langen and Mr. (Dean) Bitler had patiently tried to teach me how to do math.  As I looked at those two rooms I particularly remembered their patience with me and how welcoming they were to questions.  They would sit and try to explain something over and over again to any student who asked.  Indispensible.

                Now, here is where the story gets a little bit strange.  I slipped into the Art room and found that I was not the only small animal stirring in the place that early morning.  A tall slender salamander named Lyle (Schwendemann) was working on a fine piece of pottery that was almost ready for the kiln.  On the desk was a design for three medallions to be struck in bronze for the Iowa State Fair.  Meanwhile, all around the room the student’s projects were in various stages of completion.  Some were making rubber stamps.  Others pencil drawings, still others pieces in clay or paintings in watercolor.  Every town needs an artistic Salamander.

I proceeded to the end of the hall to the old gym.  I remembered many times in this place.  I’d taken more than one shot with a red ball to the face attempting to play dodge ball.  That was before I learned from the famous Patches O’Houlihan the “five D’s” of the sport, “dodge, duck, dip, dive, dodge.”   But here I’d also learned about archery and speedball, which I still believe was really soccer, from Mr. (Larry)Leibold. 

Most importantly, I learned about girls.  We had our Junior High dances in that gym even though none of us really knew anything about dancing.  I remember the custodian, Mr. Crowl, commenting that the place ended up smelling like sweat and Old Spice when the dances were over.  Still, I will forever remember that gym as a place where a certain young lady and I shared our first “slow dance” and our first kiss.  An indispensible memory.

Coming out of the gym and slipping down the South hall I came to the stairs of the “Center Hall.”  In these rooms Miss. (Jan) Brown taught us to cook and sew in Home Ec. class.  The boys hated it, but some did better at that than at building the funnel in shop.  One was also allowed to work more closely with the girls in that environment, something that was quite okay with me.  In that same hallway Mr. Lindemann could be heard playing a fine rendition of “Under the Double Eagle” on his guitar while extolling the virtues of left-wing politics.

A little further down that same hall was another indispensible critter, a tall and lanky Stork named Carl (Hansen) moved from student to student while hawking the necessity of vocabulary and reading.  Here I was exposed ENDLESSLY to the rigors of S. R. A. reading cards which were gigantically boring.  But the Stork was a man of gentle nature and consistent encouragement.

Turning to my right and left I saw the mountainous stairway that led to the upstairs auditorium.  On that small stage I remembered performing in variety shows like VO-BA-CHO, Jazz Mania and Soundsation that, from my mouse’s point of view and my memory, were productions to rival Andrew Lloyd Webber and the Carol Burnett Show.  On that stage we were rock stars.  We were soloists, dancers, and actors.  It was a place where we started to play out the roles of the people we hoped to become, or not.

An empty stage is a wonder-filled place.  In fact, it is not really empty at all.  It is filled with dreams.  Here the impossible becomes possible, even if just for a little while a few times each year.  It’s the place where that creative spark given to us by the Author of All Things turns imagination into reality.  In that tiny place, even a mouse can say “Let there be light.”  And the light comes.

Moving on to the next hall I came to the science room.  Here, once again I started meeting with some of the indispensible critters that inhabited the place.  A slender-faced frog named Mildred (Henry) was busily working on her lesson plans.  Simultaneously she was watching her well-balanced aquarium and reviewing her notes for her first class that morning on parallel and series electrical circuits.  During the lesson students would also be building their own batteries from lead plates, wax paper, and acid all in a plastic cup.  It’s amazing what a mouse can do when a Frog sets him up to succeed.  My electric car actually worked!

A little further down that same hall I met a gruff old Bulldog named Eugene (Smith) who was in the English room proudly hanging a poster proclaiming “This IS the YEAR OF THE BULLDOG.”  I had not the heart to tell him that this is actually the Chinese Year of the Rabbit.  I suspect he would have not listened to a young mouse such as me anyway. 

From the Bulldog I learned that I actually could understand Shakespeare.  His promise to us was true.  “You CAN understand this!  It is, after all, written in ENGLISH.”  His standards were high, and he expected ours to be as well.  No write-overs.  No cross-outs.  In the world before computers that was much harder than it is today. I also learned from him that writing can be fun, even healing.  That reading widely expands your world, and that reading all of the directions BEFORE one starts a test does make things easier.  These were truly indispensible lessons.

Hidden back in the far corner of the building was another kind soul.  Mr. (Ken) Robinson referred to himself jokingly as “the retarded teacher.”  Of course in the current mode of political correctness he would probably not say such things.  But, it reflected at that time his sense of humor and, I believe, his need for lightheartedness while seriously tending to the needs of developmentally disabled students. 

From the door of his small classroom and shop I watched as he helped some kids with craft projects.  He could help those students create what could almost be described as quality furniture out of industrial cardboard.  He had few helpers that worked with those classmates who had disabilities, but mostly it was his responsibility.  One boy was in a gate trainer learning to walk.

“You’re doing well, Bruce!  Keep it up!”
A young girl was getting ready to make a cut on her project.
“Mandie!  Be careful with the tools!  Safety, Safety, Safety!”  He said firmly but kindly.

Moving on from there I made my way down the North hall past the Teacher’s Lounge, the Meda Center and the Lunch Room.  I didn’t stop at any other classrooms, but I did pause a moment at the door to the “Custodial Engineering Department” where unofficial teachers like Orville Anderson, John “Beagle” Walley, and Phil Crowl quietly taught us these lessons:

·         Clean up messes right away, otherwise they get worse.
·         Cake sometimes isn’t.
·         Lockers are not REALLY locked if you know who has the bolt cutters.
·         “The cigarette is what smokes, you’re just the sucker.”
·         You don’t have to be a teacher to help a kid retrieve forgotten homework.

                These men taught me that sometimes the most important critters in our lives are the ones who are quietly doing what they do in the background without asking neither for praise or thanks, but we owed it to them anyway.  We may not notice what unofficial teachers do at all until, quite suddenly; they’re not able to be there to do it anymore.

                At the end of my dream I walked out the same door by which I had entered.  I was no longer the mouse of the story, but as I am today, a forty-something guy with some great memories.  For just a moment I swear I could see many old friends now young again mounting their mopeds and riding off into life.  I am not sure where many of them rode to, though I understand that some are still there trying to be the indispensible critters for the next generation.

                Even though I don’t live in Humboldt any more part of me wants to save my old school.  But the parent I have become knows that it is, as I said before, a tool.  It is a wise community that knows it is, in the end, just a building.  Even so, somewhere in the school of my memories a little mouse and some other indispensible critters will always be.  Even if the building they inhabited is not.
 If you grew up in a small town, you can relate. of the most interesting things about growing up in Humboldt is that everyone knows the same things.  You might be from the class of 1976 or you might be from the class of 1996, but the basics of Humboldt are the same.  Most likely the same teachers taught.  Most likely, the older siblings passed the "kid traditions" on to the younger siblings, who have in turn passed them along to their kids, who are doing the same things today.

By and large, Humboldt has remained unchanged.  Sure, there is some progress, but the traditions and the memories that made Humboldt home are still there.  The names have changed, in some instances...Frank's is now Pete's, but it's still the Knotty Pine.  The Fireside is still the Fireside.  The Jr. High is moving, but it will still always be the Jr. High, regardless of where it's located.  And the town will always be home, regardless of how long one has been away or how often one comes back.

If you want a glimpse into what it was like growing up in a small town, you just got it.  If you want a glimpse of what it is like to be from a small town, just ask.  They are going away, but the people that made the small towns still exist and move through the world and we shouldn't forget what made us who we are.

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