East Side Students arrived in bundles. Cully and Trystan rode the same bus and students arrived at the large school as early as 7:25. Early arrivals were housed in the school’s gym until at least 7:45 when they were dismissed to their classrooms one bus load at a time. Students were to sit quietly with their fellow bus companions in straight lines and order was maintained to a reasonable degree by the adult attendants’ threats of holding unruly busses till the end if the children were incapable of displaying proper waiting behaviors. As a rule the teachers and their aides practiced a FIFO system, first in, first out, but unruly groups learned the threat of having to wait until last to be paroled from the gym prison to their awaiting classroom cells was not idle: The system maintained a reasonable degree of decorum.
A group of half a dozen girls entered Mrs. Feldt’s classroom, spied Joe and froze. The tallest of the girls was one Joe thought he recognized from Becky’s notes and he quickly checked the names of students she had listed as being ‘known behavior problems.’ Sure enough one of the names corresponded to the image he had spied of the class on the wall of the room and Joe walked up to the gaggle of girls and with a big welcoming smile said, “Good morning, ladies. How are you? Oh, and pardon me, aren’t you Katherine Miller?”
The girls’ heads swiveled to Katherine, to Joe and then back to the girl. “How do you know that?” Katherine demanded, hands on hips.
“Mrs. Feldt of course. Please, come in. My name is Mr. Kleen and I’ll be your teacher today. So nice to have you all here. Please take your assigned seats and get going right away on your handwriting worksheets. Thanks!”
Even though East Side Elementary was larger than the junior high school he had attended the morning rituals that had dominated the opening half hour of school remained much as they had been two decades earlier. When Joe started kindergarten in 1966 no one rode a bus to New Britain’s Smalley Academy Elementary. He, like all of his peers, walked the few blocks from their homes to school in the morning, home at lunchtime, back to school after being served lunch via mom, auntie, grandma or other and then walked home again at the end of the day. Eastside students did not go home for lunch.
At exactly eight o’clock Joe’s voice boomed out, “Good morning! My name is Mr. Kleen and I’ll be your teacher today. Mrs. Feldt left us some wonderful things to do and I look forward to having a productive and fun filled Monday.” Joe walked to the class wall chart where students could select their lunch preference and glancing at it added, “It looks like most of you have selected your lunch choices but a few of you either haven’t made up your minds yet or you forgot. Sit, please!” he boomed in response to the four children who bolted up from their seats. “You’ll have plenty of time to do that right after I call role.” Even though Joe had a seating chart in front of him listing each of the students by name and a group picture that he could reference for a face he was about to engage in the age old task reading off each of the students by name.
He would call roll for three reasons. The primary was because Mrs. Feldt had written that he should do so and he hoped to vary from her routine as little as possible. The second reason was that he used roll as a way to put a voice, name and face together. “Okay, everybody. When I call your name you need to answer, ‘here’ but you also need to tell me one and only one special thing about yourself. That thing might be what your favorite color is, how many people are in your family, what your favorite food is or if you have a new baby in the house, right Trystan?”
Trystan had been whispering to the boy next to him and Joe glanced at the seating chart and asked, “And how are you, Craig? With a name like Sultenfuss you must be an Irishman. Good morning! Okay, roll call.”
New Britain Connecticut’s Smalley Academy had been built in 1908 and by the time Joe was finished with the school it was tired enough that his ‘graduating’ class of 1972 laid the elementary school on Talcott Street to rest. A much larger, new and improved version of the school that he’d attended for seven grades was built just around the corner from the original and opened for business the fall of 1972. The school’s playground was built where Joe had learned the easy lessons of reading, writing and arithmetic while struggling with the much harder for him life skill of sitting quietly for extended periods of time and he often thought of the ghosts that must haunt the swing sets and slides.
When Joe first attended Smalley all of his teachers and fellow students had been white. New Britain was a more racially diverse town now than it had been in the sixties but Joe was surprised how few of East Side’s students were of color. Atlanta was far more cosmopolitan and diverse than the New Britain of Joe’s youth. Becky Feldt’s class consisted of three children that he would identify as African American and two that looked likely to be Hispanic. That left the class at over 80% white which surprised him a little.
The similarity in responses from the children as he read off the seating chart list and received comments about what made each child special surprised him a bit too. Pizza was by far the most likely answer Joe received and he was thankful for the smatterings of, “I like trucks,” or, “I have dance practice every Tuesday and Thursday,” that saved him from dull monotony.
One of the three African American girls, a tiny little girl that watched him intently, was named Betty Carew and when Joe called her name she said, “Here. And I am going to Liberia over Christmas break to visit my grandparents.”
“Wow! Well how exciting for you, Betty! Have you visited them before?”
“No. My mother and father were both born in Liberia but I have never been.”
“Well I hope you have a wonderful time. Maybe I’ll see you again after the trip and you can tell me about it. Liz Bennet?”
“Here, and my mother is a witch.”