“The world is the great gymnasium where we come to make ourselves strong.”
~ Swami Vivekananda
A couple years ago I found a photo of the Gladstone, Oregon Pow-Wow-Ettes. You read that correctly. We were green and white, sequined, baton-toting twirlers who strutted with pride. We represented our town, Gladstone, the group named after an historic tree. It was the late 60s.
We marched in local parades and for my family, it was an event. My mother made the outfits my sister and I wore; I wouldn’t be surprised if she made several others. Mom was an exceptional seamstress. She marched right along side us as we twirled. Neither she or dad missed a parade, or rarely any event.
Before the days of backpacks, mom carried anything we might need: Band-aids, a metal thermos of water, Bactine, salt tablets, white shoe polish. Our shoes had to be white. Not dingy gray like mine; they had to be white. Polish stunk. Maybe because I required extra. I recall the squish from marching with wet toes, the polish having leaked through my thin shoes and socks. Mom was forever after me with her bottle of polish, telling me to stand still so she could apply more.
Dad was a writer and photographer who stood behind the camera, capturing much of our childhood. While he did not take the following picture, he took and wrote about many others.
I saw where a social media friend recently copied and shared the group photo above, the one I posted a few years ago. As it floated around again and we collectively tried to recall names, I thought about my roots. The building in which we posed for those pictures is now gone, a place where gym and band classes were held. We called it “the old gym.” I believe it was Gladstone’s original grade school building.
Our band teacher taught us to play the black, plastic Tonette in fifth grade. Later, I played the sax. Classes were held on the upper level at one end of the gym. There was a separate door inside our classroom which led to the bathroom below. I recall our teacher sending someone after me; he got worried when I left with a bloody nose and did not come back directly. That happened more than once.
What I recall having learned as floor exercises are what I’d now call prehistoric yoga, but it was on that blindingly polished floor where we learned to lean, stretch, and stretch some more. We were lined up in rows, each within our invisible 7 or 8′ exercise square. One day as I leaned and stretched I was admonished by Jane. With eyebrows scrunched together, she said, “Karen, you are doing it wrong.” The look on my face must have revealed my surprise. Indeed, I felt I was getting the hang of it quite well. I wasn’t the quickest or strongest, but I copied very well. Jane made no sense. I followed with the highly intelligent, “Huh?” to which she replied, “You’re taking up too much space.” Ah, then I got it. I moved back (but only a bit. When I realized what she meant, I knew I was within my rightful space). I took the polite road.
Another lesson I learned in that gym is something I’ve never shared. It is one of the most important lessons I learned, a life lesson, and one I’ll never forget. It has shaped my thinking for the better, and, reflecting on choices I’ve made, have wondered whether my band teacher deserves the credit.
We were ten that year, all fifth graders, and it was time for band. We’d lined up on the stairs waiting the arrival of our teacher. Sandy and I were at the head of the line near the door. For some unknown reason (that I would later realize impacted my life), our teacher was late. Really late. I never knew why, but that hardly mattered. As we fretted and waited and as our impatience grew, Sandy shook the door knob. Nothing. I also tried, to no avail. The door was firmly locked. We waited. We waited some more. Minutes passed. Finally, after we tried unsuccessfully to open the door once again, Sandy had an idea. She reached into her bag and brought out a skinny, plastic pixie stick. She then said, “Here, try this” and handed it to me.
Well, the wise kids would knowingly say, “No, you try.” Knowingly, because, of course, they would think it through and realize this was a stupid idea. They would gladly stand there and watch you try, but they would know better. They were quicker on their feet.
My world was about to shake, rattle, and roll.
The band teacher arrived, finally. He hurried up the stairs, sheet music in one hand, key in the other. He tried to open the door. Nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. He then bent over to peek inside the tiny key hole. He could see that something was inside, blocking the hole.
He stood up straight and slowly turned around. If you think about it, this adds to the impact. Sandy and I hadn’t had the foresight to head to the back of the line; nope, we stayed right up front. When the teacher turned around we were the first kids he saw. Guilt by association. In hindsight, I wish I could see our faces at that moment. We knew we were toast, but like frightened kittens, we stood there shaking in our boots.
Suddenly, our teacher bellowed something like this, “DID SOMEONE PUT SOMETHING IN THIS LOCK?!”
Sandy and I and everyone else stared blankly.
He then asked again, with a bit more emphasis.
“DID SOMEBODY PUT SOMETHING IN THIS LOCK?”
I meekly offered “I did, but she told me to” and gestured towards Sandy.
And that’s when he slowly leaned over. He positioned his face directly in front of mine; we were eye to eye. He had thick, curly hair and he wore thick glasses. He was a tall, thin man, and someone I secretly worshiped. He was a fabulous teacher and a personal friend of my parents which made what was about to happen that much worse.
He puffed his chest and bellowed in my face, “WELL, IF SHE TOLD YOU TO JUMP OFF A CLIFF, WOULD YOU?!”
I’m not sure if I peed my pants then or when he first bellowed, but I’m certain I leaked at some point that afternoon. While most of the rest of that day is a blur, I do recall walking through the main gym doors and up the inside staircase to reach our room. And, in no uncertain terms, I was informed that not only was I to write a letter of apology to our teacher and the principal, I also had to write one to our class. I did both.
Here are some of my lessons from the gym:
- Don’t doddle when you have a bloody nose. Someone WILL come after you (and you will be more embarrassed). Arrange to have discreet bloody noses.
- Respect other people’s space when you’ve unintentionally crossed into theirs (because
you can always trip them later you can put a dead fish in their carit’s the right thing to do). Keeps the peace.
- When you try to throw your friends under the bus, karma says KABOOM!! Really.
- If your teachers are worth their salt, they WILL yell at you when necessary (you’ll later love them for it).
- I learned to THINK FOR MYSELF and not follow the crowd (over the cliff, unless there’s chocolate at the bottom).
When I think back over decisions I’ve made and how I’ve conducted my life, I see that I have always operated outside the main group/idea/event and on the fringes. I don’t delve into the mix. I’m a watchful observer; I watch and wait (and then make my move). My comfort zone is on the edge. I’ve never been a sheeple. And you know what? Every bit of this is perfectly OK.
I was one of the lucky ones. As I get older and reflect on my growing up years, I feel unbelievably fortunate. Yes, the world is where we live and learn. We rise and fall. We fail and we succeed. We continue on our journey, sometimes with tears, sometimes with joy. We love. We learn. Some of us had great parents AND teachers. We survive out there based on where we began, from strength earned and gleaned from the early lessons that have become gems. It all started somewhere, in some gym in Smalltown, America, with a group of kids much like you, whose parents were much like yours.
This is my somewhere.
“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”
~ James Baldwin
A bit about the historic Pow Wow tree.
“The white settlers lived alongside the area’s Indians, who operated a ferry across the Clackamas River. The famous “Pow-Wow” maple tree marked the place where the different Indian tribes, mainly Clackamas and Multnomahs, met to make trading agreements, settle community affairs, and conduct wedding ceremonies. The tree still stands on Clackamas Boulevard, though a little battered. Adjacent to the “Pow-Wow” tree was an Indian racetrack that Peter Rinearson later used as an exercise and training ground for the racehorses he bred. In 1861, it was used as a parade ring for the First State Fair held on the Rinearson property, with the “Pow-Wow” tree marking the entrance” (http://www.ci.gladstone.or.us/gladstone-history/).