I was reminded of an episode from my childhood recently while reading aloud “Mary Emma and Company”, the ongoing saga of Ralph Moody that took place about 100 years ago. The Moody family had just moved from Colorado to Boston, Massachusetts. On their first day in town, thirteen-year-old Ralph is at a local grocer trying to get a job. When Ralph tells his prospective employer how many hours a day he would be willing to work, the grocer informs him that the truant officer would not think too highly of that. Ralph isn’t quite sure what a truant officer is, but he assumes that means he will have to go to school. When they were living in Colorado and struggling to make ends meet after Ralph’s father died, his mother would let him stay out of school if he had a job earning more than 50 cents a day! No truant officers came calling.
While recognizing that much good has come from child labor laws and public education, reading Ralph Moody’s story, I am struck by how much he gained from his early exposure to work. Ralph’s mother wisely struck a balance between making sure Ralph had an education while allowing him to be a resourceful entrepreneur. Though his formal education in his elementary years was spotty, what Ralph learned in the ‘school of hard knocks’ more than compensated. I am hard-pressed to think of a book about childhood, fictional or not, historical or contemporary, where a school boy actually enjoyed being in school. Rather, it is almost universally portrayed as something to be escaped from. This makes me wonder why it is that when children are miserable in school, the grown-ups who run the system assume there is something wrong with the child. As an elementary aged school boy, I experienced that desire to escape on a regular basis. It wasn’t until about age 11 that I made my first attempt.
When I was in 6th grade, my closest neighborhood friend was Edward Moss. He was a few months younger than me, which put him in 5th grade. His older brother Tracy was actually in my class. There was also a third Moss brother, who by then was in Junior High and had even less appreciation for school.
It was a time in the school year when the weather was balmy and the memory of summer freedom still fresh. The Moss boys and I were grousing about school one afternoon when the oldest brother suggested a novel solution: why not just stay home? To my innocent mind, this was an astounding notion. How could we NOT go to school? As it turned out, quite easily. Although we were not much more than a mile from school, a classic yellow Bluebird school bus wheezed its way to our trailer park every school day, no doubt to ensure that smaller children would make it safely to the hallowed halls of learning. Still, walking was an option we often used as preferable to the noisy confines of the bus.
We came up with a deceptively simple plan. I would meet the Moss brothers at the entrance to the trailer park where the bus stopped. Of course, there would be other kids gathered there. We would tell them we were walking to school. Then, on the way, we would detour into one of our favorite hang-outs — the old cemetery that was just a block or so down the street from the trailer park entrance.
That is just what we did. It was astoundingly easy. Once out of eye-shot of the bus stop, we dashed into the cemetery. Then, we ducked behind a large mausoleum in the middle of the grounds and watched as the bus came and went.
At first, our freedom was glorious. We wandered around, reading epitaphs, engaged in nonsensical conversation. While all those other losers were cramped in a hard chair behind a desk, we were breathing deep the fresh air wafting through the old pepper trees and musty marble of the cemetery. That is, until the oldest Moss boy pulled out a handful of cigarettes from his pocket. He had snagged them from his Dad’s supply. Today was to be a day for breaking rules. So, we all in turn lit up. I had seen enough public service announcements to know smoking was BAD. In spite of that, peer pressure was highly effective. I tried a puff or two. Even though these were a filtered menthol brand, I can still recall the mint green label, the experience was decidedly un-mint-like. For a boy prone to asthma and allergies, breathing smoke was a poor fit. I never tried smoking again.
|No, it never was...|
That diversion got us to what we assumed must be about lunch time. None of us had a watch, but the sun was high overhead. Since our master plan had not gone beyond our initial escape, we had not anticipated such basic needs as food and water. I had brought a brown bag lunch. On that particular day, I was the only one so equipped. Whether we had money or not didn’t matter. In our present circumstance we couldn’t go anywhere in the public eye. By the time my meagre lunch was divided among our truant band, it didn’t make much of a meal. I wasn’t particularly hungry, in any case. The combination of lurking anxiety about being caught and the after-taste from smoking had effectively dampened my appetite.
Boredom crept in with the oppressive warmth of the afternoon sun, the only possible explanation for what we did next. We headed out to the street by the trailer park entrance, looking for relief from our monotony. By the entrance was a rectangular pit in the ground built of cinder blocks and covered by heavy gauge steel plating. Cut into the steel was a hinged trap door which was conveniently unlocked, but steel plating is heavy. We managed to pry it up enough to get a grip and, with all of us lifting, got the door open.
Tracy — always good for a reckless endeavor — volunteered to climb down into the pit for a look. He had just dropped down onto the concrete floor several feet below when someone hissed: “There’s a car coming out of the park!”
We dropped the door with a thunderous clang, leaving Tracy inside. The three of us made a mad dash across the street and flung ourselves onto the ground behind scanty cover of brush and rock. The car creeped up the drive and turned toward town. Once it passed out of sight, we clambered to our feet, only to see another car coming up the street in our direction. Again, we waited. The ground was warm and the smell of dust and sage and sweat began to mingle as we lay there with the sun beating down. Car number two finally disappeared into the park.
Cautiously, we raised our heads and scanned the street closely before dashing across to see about Tracy. Again, we pried the door up, taking a bit longer since we were missing Tracy’s help, who could barely reach the door from below. Tracy’s face glowered up at us, dripping with perspiration.
“What took you so long? I’m roasting down here!”
Those were his kinder thoughts. The rest of what he said is unprintable: “#$%&@“ and variants thereof.
We hoisted the apoplectic Tracy out of the hole. Peering in, I saw a large pipe crossing the length of the pit with a complicated steel contraption bolted in the middle, part of the system providing domestic water and fire protection for the park. Hardly worth the trip across the street.
The interminable afternoon drug on for another couple of hours. We wandered around a nearby orange grove for awhile, tossing oranges at each other and eating a few to ease our hunger. Finally, we heard the bus making its return trip. We could safely end the extended game of hide-and-seek where apparently nobody was interested in finding us. My long day was over. It would be a much longer time before I attempted to skip school again.
|Certainly, I was NO ordinary boy. But, just what planet I came from is still open to debate.|