The lessons I remember from childhood are lessons from relationships, not from textbooks or math scores. When I was in sixth grade, a couple dozen of neighborhood kids ages six-to-twelve spent our days in and out of each other’s yards, playing softball and tag, and hitting each other with sticks. On summer evenings, when the days were extra long, we played outside forever, barely stopping for supper before we raced back outside again. I remember playing tag in the dark one night when I ran into a clothesline neck-first. I hit the line full speed: One second my feet flipped into the air and then I hit the ground hard. There I was, flat on my back, surrounded by laughter, and clean socks and underwear. The next day I had a pretty impressive burn mark across my neck. Instead of being the kid who got beat up by laundry, I pretended I was a convict who cunningly escaped from the noose on the day of his execution.
The clothesline accident occurred at “Stan-the-Man’s” house. Stan-the-Man had become my best friend that year for several reasons: (1) His dog had only three legs. (2) His house was underground — only a basement with an above-ground door. (3) We were both in the same grade. (4) We had a lot of things in common like gopher trapping and hitting each other with sticks. (5) Did I mention his dog had only three legs?
My two older brothers, Huey and Duey, were just entering high school so I don’t remember seeing them around much those days. They had jobs at a local A&W and bought a small motorcycle they would occasionally drive around the neighborhood trying to run the slower kids down. When Huey and Duey had free time I think they sat around the house listening to Captain & Tennille on eight-track tapes.
My brother Spartacus hung out with the younger kids and he helped us learn to trap gophers in the big field near the football stadium. We’d set the traps over a random hole at night and go the next morning to magically find gophers struggling to get free. (Some weren’t struggling but it was still awesome.). I think it was Spartacus who suggested we transfer all the wounded gophers to the empty yard across the street from our house. By the end of the summer there must have been forty or more slightly lame rodents forging a new life in that abandoned lot. Normally gophers had to worry about being chased by nearby dogs, but the closest dog to them was Stan-the-Man’s dog who only ran in circles.
I liked school that year because I didn’t feel left out as much as I had in the past. In previous grades it was like I was one or two assignments behind the other kids, like I was never on the right page, like everyone else got something that I didn’t. But Miss Van Hook showed interest in a awkward little kid whose only talent was telling stories and trapping gophers. One day she even let me bring a fresh gopher to school for dissection — how cool was that? She encouraged me to enter stuff in the art show (fun) and later had me try out for the choir (horrifying). I’m not sure why she paid attention to me — maybe it was because my best friend had a three-legged dog, or maybe it was because I wore a pair of shiny green bell bottom pants with white pockets. Whatever her motive was, Miss Van Hook made me want to come to school for reasons beyond just lunch and recess. I think she did this for a lot of other kids, too. Miss Van Hook made me feel like I had something to contribute . . . like I belonged. Good teachers impact kids in ways that cannot be tested. And forty years later, the most important lessons will not be forgotten.
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Calvin G. Roso © January 2014