[This will be a two-part series.]
Part 1: Is it the community and social life?
I miss the Center Street Gang.
My elementary school years were lived out in my own utopia – small town New Jersey. We walked to school and walked home for lunch. The mothers were all home for the most part. We’d eat lunch with mom and when the fire station whistle blew, we all walked back to school. No adults walked with us. Our crossing guard, Hank, was our communal grandpa.
When school was over, there was always someone to play with on our block. We called ourselves the Center Street Gang and felt a significant sense of belonging and identity. We created our own library that functioned out of Ruthie’s house – she got to keep all the fines for late returns. We had a newsletter which Danny edited. We played street football – I was the quarterback. Flashlight tag in the summer evenings was perfect between the Garber’s house and ours. I still know the best hiding place. A stile made it easy to cross into the backyard of Amy’s house. Playing ring-and-run at Crabby Lady’s door was not nice and is, I’m sure, what made her crabby. The mix of Italians, Jews, Irish Catholics, immigrants from Armenia and middle class Protestants made for festive holidays and excellent block party food. All ages played together. Three-year old Eugene always tagged along and thirteen year old Andy liked to help him out.
In elementary school, I was on the basketball team, sang in the chorus, and played the flute in my band.
This is the experience I want for my children. I yearn for those tight-knit community experiences where every neighbor is known and woven into the tapestry of life. I miss the Center Street Gang.
But Jeff keeps reminding me: that world doesn’t exist anymore.
Sure, you can go to a mega-school where hundreds of students play in a marching band; or athletes are drilled from elementary school to win a state championship.
But that’s not what my early public school was like. It was more caring than a mega-factory school. Maybe that was just part of living in a time when communities were more closely knit and families weren’t so busy. Pockets of this reality do exist, but not where I will be living any time soon.
I have asked myself, “What are my children missing by attending Acton and not an excellent public school?”
They definitely are missing the large group experience of same-age students being together all day and living in the same neighborhood. They are missing out on the experience of twenty-six students working with one teacher and getting a new teacher every year. They are missing the after-school playground experiences of students staying late because they don’t need transportation home, if that still happens. At least in elementary school, they are missing out on having a school band and school sports teams. They are missing out on homework and summer required reading lists.
Is this my “missing” or theirs?
Over the past four years, I have decided that my nostalgia is simply that. It is mine. Charlie and Sam often say, “tell us another Center Street Gang story.” They listen happily and without envy. I don’t sense that they wish it for themselves. Their world is different. They are happy coming to school and being in charge of their learning journey. They love their community sports groups. We tried the drums and piano but neither stuck like I wished. They are not missing those lessons. Charlie does want an Acton Academy football team. (Interestingly, when I’ve offered to move him to a large middle school so he could play, he tells me of the dangers of playing with such big guys. My reverse psychology worked that time.)
There must be some irony in the fact that I found my calling in building a school that is quite the opposite of my “utopia.”
Or is it? Haven’t we culled what is best from the “Center Street Gang idea” and built it into Acton Academy? Working to build a tight-knit community while having fun, testing boundaries and learning about the world with a diverse group of people – weren’t these the best parts of my New Jersey life?
If only we all lived within walking distance of school and each other. But then, wouldn’t I miss the intrigue of having people in our life who living from a different script? Isn’t what we are doing more interesting albeit more challenging?
Kaylie came up with a great idea to invite parents to play after school at the new campus so that it becomes a gathering place like a neighborhood park. Yes, let’s do that. As for the sports and bands, we Sandefers are creating our own mini-communities for our extracurricular lives. It takes more work for me as a parent, but it is rich with meaning and individual freedom. As a parent at Acton, I have to make an effort to arrange playdates since so few classmates live in walking distance to our home.
So maybe “missing” is simply part of life. My mother always told me that “missing” is a good thing. I can still carry the Center Street Gang in my mind and in my hopes as an idea. I also can stop wishing it upon my children. They are learning how to be a friend in a community that is a slice of the real world. There are times when they feel alone within the community and times when they feel tightly woven in. I know well these divergent feelings even within my adult world. Oh, and I remember feeling that even on Center Street.