We carried “Brady Bunch” and G.I. Joe lunchboxes to school, and watched “Happy Days” and reruns of “Gilligan’s Island.” We ate Mars bars and drank Tang.
Back then, Montreal had a baseball team and Florida didn’t. We had nine planets and our fathers were working.
When I was in school, if a freckle-faced boy or girl barfed in the hallway, we all knew that the custodian, Mr. Glen, would come around shortly to cover it up with some dark-red sweeping compound. Then he’d let it sit there long enough that we’d have to walk around it on our way to the lunch room.
If a toilet backed up and ran all over the bathroom floor, we’d all watch for the maintenance man, Mr. Johnson, to come walking down the hall carrying a plunger. We’d often see Mr. Johnson in the hallway on top of a ladder, changing a light bulb. In spring, we could watch him on his riding mower, mowing the lawn. In winter, we’d see him spreading salt on the steps or shoveling the sidewalk.
Mrs. Beltran and Mr. O’Malley were our noon parents. They were the volunteers who kept order on the playground at lunchtime.
Mrs. Beltran was always yelling at me and my friends — Mike, Larry, Donnie, Pat and Doobie — to leave the girls alone. “Those girls are playing nice,” she’d say. “You boys go play baseball or something.”
We called her Mrs. “Smells-bad.” It didn’t rhyme or even sound like Beltran, but we were just a bunch of elementary school boys with underdeveloped brains who thought everything was funny. We never called her that directly to her face, but we were sure she heard.
Mr. O’Malley we called “Sally.” He never seemed to mind because he seemed to know that we were just a bunch of elementary school boys with underdeveloped brains who thought everything was funny.
As long as we left the girls alone, and weren’t destroying school property or trying to climb on the roof, Mr. O’Malley left us alone. He let us hold Big Time wrestling tournaments until our faces were red and our clothing was torn. In the winter, he let us form a human chain of boys laying on the ground, while another boy got up a head of steam and lunged over a snowdrift to see how many boys he could clear — like Evel Knievel jumping over buses.
Mr. O’Malley would also let us line up, then run and slide on a slick patch of ice. Like I said, our brains were a little underdeveloped. But when I slipped and hit my shoulder on the ice, it was Mrs. Beltran who took me to the school nurse.
Mrs. Hendershot, which I always thought was a cool name for a nurse, made me lie down on her big leather couch. She’s the one who put ice on my shoulder, and called my mother to come and get her child of little brain and take him to the hospital. My shoulder was fine, but I always remember Mrs. Hendershot in her white nurse’s uniform and pointy hat, coming to my aid like Florence Nightingale.
When I moved up to junior high, I forgot the combination to the lock on my locker. Dripping wet and shivering, I told the swimming instructor and, within a few minutes, the maintenance man we all knew as “Harry” showed up with 3-foot-long metal snippers. I don’t know if Harry was his real name or not. He was tall, had long straight hair and a full beard, and wore snug flannel shirts that showed his sprouting chest hair.
It was just a skinny kid and a harry hippie in a quiet, damp, chilly locker room. K’chunk! Off went my lock.
“Thanks,” is all I said.
Harry held up two fingers in a wilted peace sign. He looked at me through slits. “It’s groovy, man.”
I was grateful that I didn’t have to ride the bus home in my swimming trunks, even though I remembered my locker combination five seconds after he left.
When I was in school, the students knew the principal, teachers and secretaries, of course. But we also knew the custodians, the maintenance personnel, the noon parents, the food service employees, the bus drivers — and, yes, we even had a nurse.
It was a different era, before budget cuts and job eliminations. Those people were the fabric of the school. They were busy replacing floor tiles, filling paper towel dispensers or applying Band-Aids. They were a visible presence. We saw them every day and it made us feel safe.
I hope all the privatizing that the schools are doing doesn’t take away from my children’s sense of community and security. I hope that the individuals who help maintain the school structure aren’t strangers; but are a constant presence like Mr. Glen, Mr. Johnson, Nurse Hendershot and Harry were for me.
I hope that, if my children ever call the noon parents “Smells Bad” or “Sally,” they’ll know they’re just kids with underdeveloped brains who think everything is funny.
— By Grant Berry, Tribune community columnist