Canterbury Grade School, in Cleveland Heights, sat at the end of my street. A large two story complex of red brick and gun metal black roofing. A monument to the open classroom movement of the early 70s, long streaked windows and all the sharp edges of playgrounds waiting to be childproofed by the safety moms, waiting in the PTA wings.
The grade school is notorious for its smell. It soaks into everything, clothing, book bags, and even lined paper. The smell is sweetly pungent, a burning sensation of an organic chemical. Fertilizer made of poop and flower pedals.
Canterbury holds a particular resonance in my personal mythos – it is pivotal to my origin story as it relates to Princeton Road. Canterbury, over the years, would function as a weekend play destination; a waiting room; a labyrinth of caves and hiding places; a safe landmark on the blurry horizon.
Though for right now, Canterbury Elementary exists as the foundational vortex of panic and anxiety. I was frightened of everything as a child. Big kids in other grades. The possibility that I forgot something (like permission slips or gym clothes). Academic Expectations (like paying attention or spelling my mom’s name right on the Mother’s Day drawings). Or the playground gossip that had certain teachers annihilating little kids with shame and notes home.
But those are all far better stories which I should tell you someday.
What got me thinking about all this was the shower this morning. Well, not really. See while waiting for the hot water to cover the mirrors in steam, I smooshed a spider. Then flushed the spider corpse down the toilet.
I have an imaginary fear, meaning I really an not afraid of it at all, but enjoy pretending that I am paralyzed by it for my own personal amusement, of “Toilet Spiders.” The whole imaginary fear started because I refused to poop in rickety old outhouse stall in the basement of our old Blanche House. Remember that one?
Watching the toilet paper coffin being swept away into the water system, I thought about the questions I might field from a little kid worried about the spider’s return.
“How do you know that spider was really dead? How do you know that spider will not crawl back up out of the pipes? What if it does and waits under the toilet seat? And when I sit down what if that spider bites me?!”
All that, in turn, reminded me of a film we were shown in, maybe, third of fourth grade. The film was one of those clickity clack numbers that hummed just loud enough to drown out some of the staticy soundtrack. I am sure if you think hard enough you can see the old aqua green and flecked gray film projector that was necessary to screen it.
I am sure you can put yourself in the afternoon stuffy classroom, as well. The long shades pulled down and the lights snapped off. Maybe a bee or fly is trapped between the shade and the window, its ping ponging slightly distracting.
Or maybe you can’t. I dunno. ANYWAY, getting back to this disturbing educational film…
I clearly remember the opening scene. A little boy in a dark winter hat, the knit kind we all wore because that was the style in those days.
I used to pull mine all the way down over my head, then peel up the front like a helmet’s windshield visor. This left the back of the hat hugging my neck at the hair line and totally covering my ears. I never understood how some kids could wear their winter hats, neatly on their heads. With the little fold, perfectly rolled evenly around their head.
Which is exactly how I remember the kid in the film wearing his. Or maybe he was not wearing a hat. Probably not, now that I think about it.
So the first scene. This kid, who is really sad looking, a smudge really, steps off a school bus only to fall flat dead on his face. Really. Dead. Just like that, the film starts with a dead kid. You kind of got to love the 1970s, huh?
This was a message movie. And the message of this movie was that sometimes the kid sitting next to you in class, the freaky one that smells a bit like uncooked hotdogs and has greasy hair and gets picked on, when he is noticed at all, might DIE.
I am not sure if the film was an anti-bullying screed, since even that was a thing back when I was in school. Or if it was some veiled religious message about loving everyone, even the smelly. Or maybe it was produced by some child abuse intervention group funded by the Carter Administration.
Child advocacy and abuse education groups seemed to spring up all over the country in the mid-70s, spurred on by “stranger dangers,” the recovered memory movement, and the daily threat posed by cult rituals requiring child abductions.
The film’s educational content consisted of flashbacks telling this poor child’s story. He was seen neglected, ignored, and bullied. Then at the end, he falls dead getting off the school bus. I imagine some plaintive narrator sternly warning us to take care of one another, so that this would not happen to anyone we knew!
Of course, the first question asked, after the excitement involving the lights buzzing back on and the window shades being stretched and raised, was something along the lines of, “Miss Crabtree, can someone really die like that?”
I do not envy the teacher who had to explain the film’s obvious metaphor to a group of imaginatively literal grade schoolers. But, I suppose she knew what she was in for by choosing this canister from the AV closet. Or maybe she was still hungover and just grabbed whatever movie was on top of the pile on the shelf and was now mentally adding up all the ways that day could get any more annoying.
Plus, I wonder if I went home and in my super vague, withholding-the-most-important-point-of-the-story-way, laid into my over-anxious mother about the potentiality of sudden death and broken hearts. I am sure there was much confusion and some worry involved, thereafter.
Weird thing to think about first thing in the morning, huh? But that movie has stuck with me. And I would love to see it again, if only to correct the very vivid memories I have involving it.
Hope you have a perfectly good Mother’s Day.