Friday 31 May 2024

Next Time I’ll Take the Off-Ramp from Memory Lane by Gregory Meece, chocolate milk—the quintessential beverage of my school lunches

I had never won anything before. Even at those childhood parties where the games were rigged so every kid went home with a prize, I left empty-handed. So, you can picture my utter astonishment when I scraped my car key across the last box on my lottery scratch-off card, and the symbol beneath revealed that I was a million-dollar winner! The odds must have been akin to being attacked by a shark and struck by lightning — at the same time.

For years, I bought tickets, never expecting to win. Still, it was worth a few dollars each week to indulge in fantasies about what I might do with the jackpot. Now, in the autumn of my life — or rather, the winter solstice — the likelihood of splurging on a yacht and cruising the seven seas is slim. I resolved to allocate a generous portion of my unexpected windfall to charities.

I embarked on my philanthropic journey by making a major gift to my college alma mater. My diploma never did me one iota of good, but I have fond memories of continuous partying from orientation day to the commencement ceremony. Incidentally, ‘iota’ is the ninth and smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. With such intellectual nuggets as that, perhaps I’ve sold my Classical Studies degree short.

I received a personally signed, computer-generated form letter from the college president — thanking me for my tax-deductible ‘investment in scholarly minds.’ It inspired me to extend my generosity to my old high school as well. The current principal personally called to express his gratitude. He informed me that my high school had, some years ago, been converted into a school for juvenile delinquents. My donation, he explained, would be allocated to reinforcing the security fence surrounding the playing fields. Knowing that my gift would be used for barbed wire didn’t leave me feeling warm all over, but at least he took the time to pick up the phone and thank me.

My grade school was where my acts of giving were truly valued, culminating in an invitation to return. In fundraising terms, this is known as ‘donor cultivation’ — the practice of softening up a current contributor in the hope of achieving more liberal access to their wallets in the future.

As I pulled into the parking spot, the sight of children darting across the recess yard greeted me — a scene reminiscent of my own youthful escapades at this very school. Yet, the memories that stood out were not just the games, but the inevitable aftermath: the harsh blacktop claimed many victims, gifting us skinned knees and fractured wrists, amidst the constant fear of catching cooties.

Sister Assumpta, the principal, invited me to tour what she fondly called ‘Good Old St. Richard School For Boys.’ Back then, we boys disparagingly referred to it as ‘Saint Dick.’ You can imagine what we would have nicknamed Sister Assumpta.

Sister highlighted the tour as an opportunity to showcase the school’s progress and its plans. It was a subtle fundraising pitch disguised as a nostalgic walk down memory lane.

‘Let’s start at the beginning,’ Sister said. I recognized the Kindergarten. Although the room had tables and chairs, the children, which now included both sexes, sat on alternating-colored patches of carpet, resembling one side of a checkerboard.

‘This is where we learn our ABCs,’ said the effervescent teacher. She added, ‘Someone once said that everything they needed to know in life they learned in Kindergarten.’ All I remember learning in this room was how to conceal the expanding oil slick that spread across the crotch of my uniform pants after I peed myself on the first day. We were only allowed to use the restrooms during lunch period.

In the sixth-grade classroom, long division was the day’s focus. Memories flooded back of Sister Margaret, my math’s teacher, who would summon me to the board. ‘Identify the divisor, dividend, quotient, and remainder,’ she would command, her yardstick punctuating each word with a sharp tap against the blackboard. The rhythmic tapping, far from helpful, only heightened my anxiety. Long division was my nemesis, branding my report card with a ‘U’ — a mark of ‘Unsatisfactory’ that my father mistakenly thought stood for ‘Unbeatable.’ I can still recall the sting of disappointment in his eyes as Sister Margaret clarified its true meaning.

I peered into an eighth-grade room. Some pimply, smart alecks were laughing at a boy who farted. The science teacher was trying her best to explain forces and motion. It brought back a flood of nightmarish memories. For example, being mocked by my classmates because my mother packed liverwurst on rye sandwiches in my lunchbox. They were no match for their trendier fluffer nutters. I was branded with the unshakable nickname ‘Liver Lips.’

Sister guided me into the church. It was supposed to be a gymnasium when the school was built, but the budget forced the parish to prioritize dogma over dodgeball. Suddenly, I recalled a sharp pain in my arm, reminiscent of where Johnny Barto pinched me during the Stations of the Cross services. It happened just as Father O’Brien solemnly declared, ‘The eleventh station: Jesus is nailed to the cross.’ ‘Ouch!’ I screamed. That monosyllabic outcry condemned me to a week of clapping erasers beside the flagpole. Through a haze of chalk dust that triggered my asthma, I was forced to watch my friends revel in games of Crack the Whip and Red Rover.

For an hour I had toured and wandered through a maze of memories, each turn echoing the anguish of my years in Catholic grade school. Opening my checkbook, I said, ‘Sister, I’m going to make another donation to your school.’

‘Oh God bless you!’ Sister replied.

‘One condition. Never invite me back for another walk down memory lane. I don’t think I could take it.’

About the author

Gregory Meece is a retired educator who graduated from the University of Delaware, earning degrees in English, communications, and educational leadership. Gregory's stories have been accepted in print and online publications as well as podcasts. He lives in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

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  1. What a great story. No tell, all show. Your memory walk brought back memories of my elementary school days - similar in their dissimilarities.

  2. What a fun story:)