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Woog's World / Recalling a time when life was elementary

Published 10:22 am, Monday, March 18, 2013
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I am far removed from the "all-day kindergarten" debate now raging at Board of Education meetings, in elementary school parking-lot car lines, and on local blogs. I do not have a kindergartener, nor have I ever had one.

I hear the arguments on both sides, and both sides make sense. I am glad I am not the one making this decision and glad it is not the central worry in my life.

But, like everyone involved in this issue, I once went to kindergarten. In fact, I went to kindergarten right here in Westport.

For the life of me, I can't remember how long our school day was. My kindergarten memories are vague. I recall our classroom -- at one end of newly opened Burr Farms Elementary School, a supposedly innovative steel building constructed in about a day-and-a-half at a time when Westport's elementary-age population was exploding -- and I know that my teacher was Mrs. Fuller. To my 5-year-old eyes, she seemed ancient, which means she was probably 28 years old.

There were rugs, games and building blocks. There must have been some learning going on, because my most vivid memory from that year is waving my hand wildly when Mrs. Fuller asked who knew the days of the week.

"MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturdaySunday!" I shouted triumphantly.

"No, Danny!" she sternly replied. "The week begins on Sunday. You must always start the week on Sunday!"

If this was 2013, and not the Stone Age, intense parent-teacher conferences might have followed her harsh response. I was momentarily stunned, but brushed my 5-year-old self off and scampered to recess.

Being somewhat contemptuous of authority -- years before asking LBJ "how many kids did you kill today?" -- I vowed to myself that, as long as I lived, I would always start my week on Monday. And I always have.

I'm not sure what relevance that has to the all-day kindergarten issue, other than to point out that it's amazing what stays with you, and what doesn't. I got a great education at Burr Farms. Despite its Lego-type construction, it was a school filled with wonderful people.

Nearly everyone who went there shares fond memories, and understands in hindsight how loved and cared for we were. How much we learned, too.

But --and I think this is true of most people -- when we look back on our elementary school days, what pops out are not specific facts or lessons. They're random memories, which taken together prove the enormous impact teachers have on all of us.

Mrs. Reitano's second-grade class was interrupted the day a first-grade teacher burst into the room, laughing hysterically. She could barely speak. Finally composing herself, she told Mrs. Reitano that one of her first- graders was reading aloud, and pronounced the word "Mrs." as "merz." The teacher thought that was so unbelievable, she raced out of the room to tell someone else. In front of her whole class.

Third grade brought Mr. Melillo -- a warm, wonderful and very caring man, beloved by every student. So what do I remember most about his class? Friday afternoon square dancing.

On another Friday afternoon -- this one in November -- someone announced that President Kennedy had been shot. A girl -- presumably with Republican parents -- spontaneously clapped. Our fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Parker, whirled around and smacked her across the face.

While most elementary schools are filled with women, Burr Farms stands out -- in retrospect -- as having plenty of men. Besides Mr. Melillo, there was Mr. Mahakian. What I remember from his class is not reading or math; it's that every so often he took us duckpin bowling in Fairfield.

Mr. Rudd made his library a welcoming place. I must have read hundreds of books there. But I remember just one: a biography of Abraham Lincoln. And all I recall from it is that his mother died when he was very young.

Coach Dorsey was the phys ed teacher. Gym class was filled with the usual -- dodgeball, shimmying up ropes, "Presidential Tests" with the dreaded 600-yard run -- but for some reason my sustaining memory is of coming into school early every morning in sixth grade, and winning pull-up contests against my friends.

The stuff you recall from elementary school is indeed selective. I loved Burr Farms, and loved learning. Yet the image of that school that comes to mind first is recess. Playing baseball in fifth grade -- and beating the vaunted sixth-graders -- might have been the highlight of my seven years there.

Kindergarten -- all of elementary school -- is vitally important. It provides the foundation for much of the rest of life. Is it a shame I can't remember more than the most random moments from it? Or is not remembering the whole point after all?

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.