Saturday, April 20, 2013
By the time I was a seasoned seven-year-old and in the second grade, I knew both routes to school, Arch and Walnut Streets. I knew where all the stores were that sold penny candy. I knew enough children now to walk to school with and I knew how to dodge the coal trucks crossing the streets.
In second grade, I had two teachers. One was older and motherly and the other was a tall young woman with chestnut hair. I remember them as good teachers, no temper tantrums like Miss Brennan in first grade. They drilled us in spelling and times tables, overseeing our laborious Palmer Method lessons so that we would have legible handwriting some day. They taught us songs like "In the Gloaming", "Flow Gently Sweet Afton", "Reuben, Reuben" and my favorite, "Mr. Frog He Did A Wooing Go." They read stories, coached our halting reading and organized plays like The Three Little Pigs which we acted out. They were firm but kind and overlooked our occasional whispering, giggling or our tablet paper sticky from taffy lollipops.
Most of the children in this grade I knew from the year before. There were Margaret, John, George, Lorraine, Catherine, Hilda, Bessie Mae, Harry, Mary Jane and Shirley. There were a few new children also.
We were an interchangeable group at that age, too young for boy-girl interests and too young for outright warfare. We mixed easily and were friendly as only seven-year-olds can be.
Near me sat Paul, freckle-faced and fun, whose last name began with the same letter as mine and we giggled and whispered that fall, passing an occasional note or piece of candy. He marched ahead of me in the Halloween parade where we went around the block in our costumes to the admiration and amusement of housewives, mothers and grandmothers who stood on their front stoops and commented as we passed by. We returned to class and had a small treat before we went home for the afternoon. Paul and I shared cupcakes.
One day in mid-November, Paul was absent from class and the teachers gravely told us that he was in the hospital. He had run into the street after a ball and had been hit by a coal truck.
We greeted this news with stunned silence. All of us had been warned about trucks and running into the street, but not many of us had heard this kind of news before about someone we knew. We were very quiet doing our lessons that day. Each succeeding day we would be told of Paul's progress.
His neck had been broken, the teachers said, and he was in very guarded condition. At first he was unconscious and then he was slightly better. We heard later that he was worse and, if he recovered, he would never walk again.
At Thanksgiving time they said that he had asked for some pumpkin pie. When his mother brought it, he could only taste it and spit it out. He couldn't swallow properly and had feeding tubes in him. This homey bit of news brought the enormity of it home to us and we were again sad for him.
A few days after this, we were told that Paul had died. The teachers carefully explained that we would go as a class to see Paul for a last time. If our mothers didn't want us to go that was all right, too. My mother thought I should make my farewell with the others, so the following afternoon we put on our coats and hats and marched soberly out of school, across the street and down two blocks to Paul's house.
Inside, in the dimly lit front parlor, was a small, open casket with a few flower arrangements near it. Inside the casket lay a sleeping Paul in his Sunday clothes, hands folded neatly on his breast.
He was too still. His family stood clustered in the back of the room and watched mutely as each of us walked past and said our silent goodbyes to Paul.
It was sad and strange and sobering but altogether normal, somehow, for the second grade to bid farewell to one of their own. We returned to school, still in silence, picked up our school books and went home.
We began to forget Paul as second grade went on and time went on. We grew older. Children don't do this sort of thing any more, too morbid it is thought, but I see it now as one of the very normal steps we took in growing up.