Recently, Mayor Emmanuel Rahm of Chicago has publicly lobbied for lengthening the school day. I publicly yawned when I heard that.
In September, 1964, at the start of 7th grade in a private school in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, yours truly was about three weeks short of his 12th birthday and got a rude awakening to long school days. Until then, the school day was easy to take. I lived less than a block from grammar school and it was over by 3:15pm. That was enough time to rush home and catch the second half of the Three Stooges tv show hosted by Bob Bell dressed as an old caretaker of an even older theater building.
Now that I was officially in junior high- although in those days we still thought of it as grammar school- a day of formal education lasted until 5:30pm. What complicated the process for me was that I had to take two buses and two El trains in each direction to get where I was going. On good weather days, it meant no more than a 40 to 45 minute trip. On very rainy, or worse, icy below zero weather, it could take more than an hour. There were days I didn’t get home until close to 7pm.
Sometimes I would travel with other kids who lived near me who also went to the same school. Other times, I soloed in my journey. These were still the days before social unrest, riots, drug-induced crazy people and whatnot. An 11 or 12 year old could travel alone through half the city, I guess.
Living in the Austin neighborhood on the far west side of the city, I walked down Quincy Street a half block until Central Avenue. I turned left and went the half block to Jackson and crossed to the other side of the street to catch the bus going southward to the Rapid Transit terminal station for the train that ran in the median of the Congress Expressway. (It would be several more years before they changed the name to the Eisenhower). I probably could have walked the three blocks to the terminal but a little guy carrying books in a school bag- these were the days before backpacks- needed to conserve as much energy as possible. There was a discipline to master for all types of weather.
The school provided CTA bus cards that gave us a discount over regular rider fees. For 17 cents, we could travel for a maximum of one hour with a transfer. We needed the transfer to go from the bus to the Congress El to the Howard El to a shuttle bus from the Belmont station to Belmont and Broadway. The transfer was 5 cents for all riders. The 12 cents was a discount from the regular 25 cent fare. Thus, it cost $1.70 each five day school week to get to and home from a day of education. With a three dollar allowance, this gave me a little room to buy a bottle of pop- yes, in those days no one was worried about too much sugar in the diet- at lunch as well as candy and whatever pen and paper supplies that were needed. I think that at the school supply co-op in a corner of the lunchroom, I could purchase a Bic blue ink pen for seven cents and a bag of potato chips for five cents.
Riding public transportation was no picnic. I had to put up with a lack of available seats, smelly co-riders and noisy conditions, especially for the portion of the Howard El train ride that was underground. The screeching of the wheels against the rails made it almost impossible to try to catch an extra 400 winks on the way to school or to do last minute studying up on the homework that should have been done the night before. C’mon- there was important television to watch and a kid has to know his priorities.
After that first year, a decision was made by those of us who shared the same miserable ride that we would now switch over to the Lake Street El to get downtown on our way to ultimately transfering to the Howard El. This meant that instead of turning left at the corner of Quincy and Central, I turned right and headed north to the corner at Adams to wait for the bus to go to Lake Street. Whereas on the Congress, we rode at street level, the Lake Street El was elevated all the way downtown. A benefit of the decision to switch was that the Lake Street route was in the process of acquiring fancy looking brand new train cars that were cleaner and had better climate control, especially since the windows did not open. You could also now hear what the conductor was saying when he announced the next stop or told passengers to be careful and stand clear of the doors.
The reality was that in 1965 it was already safer to take the Lake rather than the Congress route. One feature of the Congress journey had required that we walk through a tunnel when we got off the train to switch to the Howard train. After we got to the other side of the tunnel, we had to go upstairs and then climb to the Howard’s elevated tracks in the loop. Ironically, once that train left the loop area, it went underground until it reached just before Fullerton and then emerged into daylight. A passenger had to be on his toes in awareness because the Fullerton stop was the last in which the A and B versions of the route shared the same station. A would stop at Belmont, B would not but instead at Addison, unless, of course, it was baseball season and then both stopped at Addison. But that didn’t help with regard to Belmont. If I nodded off into a nap and forgot that I had got on a B train because I wanted to get out of standing in the freezing cold downtown, I would soon realize the mistake if I didn’t get off at Fullerton and wait for the A to roll in.
Sometimes, to break up the monotony, instead of taking the noisy Howard El, once downtown, we would walk to Michigan Avenue and take the 152 Outer Drive Express bus and get off at Belmont and Sheridan and walk the half block to the school building. This was a much more congenial, pleasant atmosphere method of getting to school. It was much less noisier and more relaxing. Even though it was not as fast as taking a train that did not have to deal with stop lights, it made up for time because half the route depended on using the Outer Drive alongside Chicago’s lakefront.
Often, coming home from school, especially on Fridays when we wanted to unwind from a miserable week in classrooms, we’d do the reverse route back taking the bus instead of the El train to the downtown exchange. Waiting on Sheridan Road, we had several choices to make. We could take the 152 Outer Drive Express, which was the quickest, or the 151 Sheridan local, although it did partially use the Outer Drive and the 153 La Salle, which meant that we would pick up the Lake El at the La Salle Station instead of State and Wabash.
These travel options did us well until Mach, 1968 when all hell broke loose with race rioting. It was no longer safe to go anywhere on the city’s West Side. Rather than take the Lake El downtown and risk being shot at by snipers along the route, we made a decision to ride the Central Avenue bus all the way north to Belmont Avenue and then take the Belmont bus to Broadway. This added an extra 15 minutes to travel time but it was worth it. When school officials were made aware of the length of our travel time, they hired a person to drive the few of us in a station wagon at least in the mornings to school. As we all got out of school at different times on different days, we were left to taking the buses home in the evening.
At the end of the summer of 1968, we moved to the North Side of the city and travel times as well as safety were no longer a concern. So, Mayor Rahm, you wanna talk longer school days? I’m ready to lecture to the crowd whenever you need me. But, will you pay for my carfare to downtown and back?