Unphotographic Memories

by Larry Teren

Recently I gave Ma an assignment to find my grade school class pictures. Doing a great job, she handed over to me a manila folder containing items I had not seen in  more than fifty years:  my kindergarten class group photo, the diploma that certified I was ready for first grade and another handful of grammar school class pictures. One important element,  though,  was missing- my memory.

The kindergarten photograph was a revelation. I had no recall that there were sixteen kids  in the group. In my mind’s eye I only could remember a half dozen classmates, freezing out any strand of recognition of the others. Looking at the pictures didn’t change it. What it did do was make we wonder how many of the unknowns had I bumped into over the years without any hint of thinking, “do I know you from somewhere in my past?”

Those that I did recall were mostly because we continued as classmates for a couple of more years before heading to other neighborhoods. Each at some point triggered an occasion that caused me to file them in my memory bank. I was sure somehow we’d bump into each other later in life- it’s a small world afterall, as Walt Disney preached. The truth was that I also probably had little interaction with those who I didn’t remember.

For one thing, most of the kids had a half year head start getting to know the others before I joined the group. In the 1950s, grade schools in Chicago were employing the A/B semester system. This had to do with making the calendar date cutoff to start a grade at the beginning of the September school year. I started in January, kicking and screaming my way into the dungeon basement of a dilapidated mansion on Chicago’s far West Side. That is, I threw a fit until I turned away from Ma for a moment and caught sight of the vision of loveliness who was our teacher. Undeveloped male hormones kicked in and I immediately felt a certain comfort. All would be fine for the daily time spent away from home and our television set as long as the pretty and friendly teacher was there.

There were very few moments that jog the memories of that kindergarten winter of 1958. One did stand out- we used tempera paints to smear onto construction paper for the sake of art appreciation. Apparently I had a disagreement with one of the girls as to who had the rights to a specific paint bottle. The next thing I knew, I was escorted to another room and commanded to stand in the corner by one wall. The teacher said she would let me know when it was okay to return. The room was also used as a lunchroom by older students who had their classes on upper floors.

While standing and whimpering, the principal happened to come downstairs to have a go at his sandwich. He looked at me and without missing a beat, smiled and waved and enjoyed his lunch. When done, he simply offered his goodbye and went back upstairs.

Another kindergarten staple moment occurred more than once and provided an important lesson in human interaction. The teacher had us sit in a circle and play the game of “telephone”. One would whisper into his or her neighbor’s ear a simple declarative sentence. The recipient would turn to the person on the other side and repeat the same sentence (hopefully). By the time it reached full circle, the last person would have to say out loud what was whispered to them and the first person had to repeat their initial sentence and see how it changed. It taught me at the tender age of five never to trust when someone says they understand what you say. More often that not, it went in one ear and out the other.

I learned another lifelong lesson a couple of years later that did not take place in school. At some point in second grade, my family moved closer to school- now a half block away. Those first few weeks or so I quickly made friends with the kids on my block- all from different cultural backgrounds. It didn’t make a difference what religious holidays we observed or what food we ate. We all played together. There was one girl who lived across on the other side of the street.  We really hit it off- that is, I thought so. But then, she was gone. Her cousin lived at the other end of the block yet I never found out where she moved or what ever happened to her. That’s the way it was- when you moved elsewhere, you left your old friends behind and made new ones.

The same as in kindergarten. I have no idea if any of these lost connections could have changed how I patterned my life. But I still have my pictures.

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