Something about the air and sky this morning made me say immediately after waking, “What time is it Mr. Fox?” as I looked at the clock on my bedside table. I don’t know if you played that particular playground game as a child, but it was one of our favorites at St. Stephen’s School.
Our playground, as I picture it, was split into three parts. Near the first grade classroom was the “little kids” area. Next to that was what we all called the “boys’ yard,” and then the “girls’ yard.” To get there, we filed out of our classrooms in two straight lines, like Madeline in the children’s books, for mid-morning recess and again after lunch. There was no playground equipment — no balls, bats, or rackets supplied by the school. We played games that needed nothing but energy, and brought our own balls for baseball, chalk for hopscotch, and ropes for double dutch jump rope. Two nuns in long black habits watched us and policed the area. In the winter, when we were in our snow pants, jackets, and boots, they wore knitted shawls as the only concession to the cold.
Framingham, Massachusetts, home to St. Stephens, was also home to Dennison Manufacturing, a company that made such things as adhesive labels and speciality paper products. One of the things Dennison made was decorative stickers. You could buy these stickers at stores around town, or, if you were lucky, your parents worked at Dennison’s, and would be able to bring some home to you. I was not so lucky.
The girls at the school all collected stickers. We kept them in envelopes or boxes, and brought them out at recess to admire and trade them. The more and different your stickers were, the higher your status in the school.
When we reached seventh or eighth grade, we were pretty much over stickers and Mr. Fox. Instead we would hang around the invisible line that ran between the church and the school and divided the boys’ yard from the girls’ yard. The boys hung around on the other side. If we wanted to be coy, we commandeered the nook between two huge trees behind the church, where we could fit four or five girls and gossip the recess away, glancing at the boys’ yard from time to time.
As is often the case with memories, there is one playground event that stays with me. Our classmate, David O’Brien, was playing ball with the rest of the boys when he suddenly fell writhing to the ground. As he moaned and yelled, we all gathered about. The nuns hovered, and one was finally able to discern what was wrong with David. He apparently had been planning to go fishing after school, and had ill-advisedly put some fishing hooks in his pants pocket. One of them poked into him as he played ball, and fishing hooks being what they are, the barb had embedded itself in his flesh and would not come out.
Back in those days the ambulance didn’t come for less than a two-car crash, so the priests were contacted at the rectory across the street, and Michael Murphy the janitor drove David in Monsignor Callahan’s car to the hospital to have the hook removed. It was all quite exciting, and David, who was already the tallest boy in the class, seemed even larger for a few days as we all speculated on what it must have felt like to have a fish hook stuck in your leg.
Now the old church is torn down, replaced by a new one across the street. The school closed as an elementary, and is now some sort of office building. The playground, which always doubled as a parking lot for the church, is now strictly for parking, all the little voices quieted, and the memories hidden under layers of subsequent events, unless the air and sky are just right.