Woog's World: Square dancing, rope climbing and assorted intimidations of Westport school daze
Updated 6:14 am, Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Do they still square dance in elementary schools?
It's a question I wonder about, now that the first week of school is in the books (ho ho). I'm decades removed from Burr Farms Elementary School -- that hastily assembled, tin-and-plastic building that was as great inside as it was goofy on the outside, and is now the site of athletic fields and large homes, just off Long Lots Road. But as a new school year begins, I can't help thinking about old ones, back in the day.
Square dancing was deemed a Friday afternoon "reward" by our third-grade teacher. He was a great guy, but on Friday afternoons I don't think he was thinking clearly. There may be less appealing activities for 8-year-old boys than promenading that pretty little maid, but I can't imagine what they might be.
At Burr Farms, square dancing was like Jason in "Friday the 13th": a recurring (and super-scary) theme. Our sixth-grade "graduation" ceremony featured Culver Griffin and the Farmhands. They were not one of the British Invasion groups so popular at the time, but rather a hokily named local square-dance band. Our teachers must have thought this would be a fitting end to our elementary school careers. Our teachers were idiots.
Of course, square dancing was not all we did at Burr Farms. There also was gym. In keeping with the bizarre architecture of the school, our gym was about as big as a boxing ring. Which was appropriate, because one of our activities was boxing. That's right: We were outfitted with boxing gloves (no mouth guards), and with minimal instruction were commanded to punch each other's lights out.
This was, I should note, in the pre-Title IX days. Gym classes were decidedly not co-ed. I have no idea what the girls -- who had gym at a different time -- were doing. Perhaps square dancing.
When we were not boxing, we were swinging on rings and climbing ropes. Fortunately, the gym ceiling was so low, even I could reach up and touch it. This is another gym class activity that has gone the way of the rotary phone. The only rings today's elementary school kids know are the ones on their cellphones, and the only ropes they'll climb are when they're sent to an outdoor leadership camp as 17-year-olds. But if you are of a certain age, you no doubt remember rings and ropes.
My friends and I survived all these Burr Farms activities. As well as "new math," and color-coded SRA reading assignments that let everyone in the class instantly know how bright, or non-bright, each student was. We even survived walking to school every day in sixth grade. We could have taken a bus, but we made a pact to tromp through back yards and woods (and across the Staples High School athletic fields, even in knee-high snow) to prove we were cool. It was a very "Stand By Me"-type adventure, even though that movie would not be made for another couple of decades.
After that scintillating, square dancing graduation ceremony, we moved on to Long Lots Junior High. It's the same place that's now an elementary school, though it, too, has been renovated and modernized with actual building materials replacing the original plastic (and tin).
My first impression of Long Lots was terror. We coddled Burr Farms students were thrown in not only with Greens Farms Elementary kids -- a much more socioeconomically diverse bunch -- but every ninth-grader had biceps and mustaches. (The guys, that is. The girls had fully developed breasts, which was even more intimidating.)
The Long Lots gym ceiling was normal height, making climbing the ropes truly challenging. We had to carry a magic marker in our teeth, and write our name on the crossbeam at the top (unless we toppled down). Yet even that paled in comparison to the pre-class ritual, when the gym teachers made us snap our jocks to make sure we were wearing them. And even THAT was not as bad as actually having to tell our mothers they had to buy jocks for us. After all that, square dancing would have been a walk in the park.
Another big Long Lots memory was of a French teacher from Puerto Rico. She said things like "Louis Pasteur invented a cure for rabbis," and implored us to "stop looking at the moon of Valencia." Her Spanglish was far more entertaining than the ALM records we "learned" from. Like millions of baby boomers, my knowledge of French is limited to phrases like "bonjour Jean, comment vas-tu?" "allo, Passy vingt-deux quinze?" and "la neige est belle aujord'hui."
Long Lots also marked the end of my square dancing career. By graduation, we were doing the frug.