Like it was yesterday

I recently met up with some kids I went to elementary school with, and not one of them looked a day over 13 — which is amazing, since we all graduated from St. Joseph’s School in New London in 1971.

But that's what happens when you get together with people you first met when you were all 6 years old.

A couple weeks ago, a dozen out of the class of 60 met for an impromptu dinner. I saw the gray hair and noticed that not all of us are as svelte as we once were. But about five minutes in, everyone looked the same as they did back in eighth-grade when we ruled the school, gave our teachers gray hair and laughed at each other's jokes like we were the funniest people in the world.

Back in the day at St. Joe's, we had a half day on the first Friday of every month. We attended Mass, spent a couple hours maybe in music or art class, and then we were released. We spent the afternoons at Ocean Pizza House, where for 70-cents you could get half a cheese pizza and a bottle of Coke, and have enough money left over to split a package of Hostess chocolate cupcakes.

So it seemed fitting that when one of my old classmates was in town for a visit from his home in Vermont, we agreed to met up at the school for a tour and then go out for pizza.

The school hallway smelled the same. We recognized the old clocks, the cabinet in each classroom where paper supplies were kept and the cloakroom where we hung our coats and stored our lunches - which were eaten while we sat at our desks.

I wasn't prepared, though, for the water fountain being two feet off the ground. It was there that, as a second-grader, I fainted after slamming my finger in the heavy wooden classroom door. My teacher, angry because I had not used the knob to close the door, told me to run my throbbing finger in the drinking fountain in the hallway. The next thing I remember, I was on the ground, looking up.

That was one of my long forgotten, or some would say repressed, memories of eight years of Catholic school. And each of my classmates had similar recollections.

There was the statue of St. Mary where we all posed after First Communion, Confirmation and graduation. The playground looked the same, except for the fence around the steep embankment we were never allowed to run down. Some of us remembered banging our heads, inadvertently, into the blacktop or the side of the brick school at recess and actually seeing stars.

We looked for the paper airplane that had gotten lodged in a light fixture in the auditorium during a class competition and had remained there, some said for at least 20 years. But it was gone.

The auditorium also doubled as our gymnasium on rainy days, when the boys would play basketball and the girls would be relegated to the five-foot-wide perimeter - girls didn't play basketball in those days.

One classmate remembered a nun throwing an eraser at him to get his attention. Another said he used to get called out of class to fix broken lightbulbs in the projector. For a while, he was the school's maintenance man, or janitor as he was called back then. He ended up eventually handing his keys over to the father of another classmate who took the job.

In seventh grade, we had a succession of science teachers. We believed, but have no proof, that our unruly behavior drove each one off. And we remembered being proud about that.

We passed notes, shot spitballs at each other, argued in the school yard and sent Matchbox cars careening down the chalk ledge of the blackboards in the middle of class. We were all suspended one year, the entire class, because no one would say who stole the science final off the teacher's desk. If nothing else, we were loyal.

During our reunion, we walked from the school to nearby Ocean Pizza. We passed what was once Basci's store, where the elderly (at least it seemed to us at the time) owner would charge "a-penny-a-tax" for each candy bar we bought. None of use could remember how to spell Basci.

Ocean Pizza, where we spent hours on those Friday afternoons, still looked the same. And although we remembered giving the waitress there a hard time, none of us could remember getting kicked out, or leaving a tip.

For eight years, we were there for each other when someone got in trouble, broke an arm, won a basketball game, lost a parent. Those were the times of first kisses and crushes; learning to get along and working out differences.

Even today, although we hardly ever see each other, when a baby is born or a family members dies, we all feel it. Like we are family. Which I guess we are.

When we run into each other, the conversation picks up right where it left off, whether it was a month ago in the grocery store, 10 years ago at another class reunion, or that day in June more than 40 years ago when we graduated and said goodbye to St. Joe's.

We went on to become mothers, fathers, teachers, principals, sales people, real estate agents. One is a monk; another a foreign diplomat. Some have remained devoutly Catholic. Others have questioned the Church and turned away.

But there is no doubt that what happened during eight years in that two-story brick building on Squire Street was an education that has carried all of us through our lives and molded us into the people we are today.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

Kathleen Edgecomb covers the city of New London for The Day.

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