Robbie, Ray, and I were friends. Not the hang-together sort of friends; we never saw each other outside of school, but something connected us. Part of it was that we’d been in the same class since kindergarten (and the dreaded Mrs. Davenport). In fact, the three of us stayed classmates from kindergarten straight through to graduation from high school, a fairly unusual circumstance in a school district the size of ours. There are probably others who survived Shenendehowa that length of time, but not many. I look at the photographs of my kindergarten classmates and realize how many of them I lost touch with, how few I remember having graduated with.
(An aside here: One of my clearest memories of Ray and Robbie is the “rock-and-roll” band they put together in….sixth grade? We had a class talent contest and they played. As I recall, Ray was on guitar, Robbie sang (I remember that for certain), and someone else was on drums. Apparently they weren’t required to clear their repertoire with the teacher before performing and the song they chose was “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan. I distinctly remember the look of horror on our teacher’s face. Me, being a total innocent, didn’t quite understand WHY she was upset, but I sure knew it had something to do with those lyrics!)
Our teacher in third grade was Mrs. Hermann. A more wonderful woman could not be found. She was small, round-bodied, grandmotherly, and kind beyond words. (This meant a lot to a child — me — who had endured the misery of kindergarten and just left the horror of second grade — not knowing that the absolute HELL of fourth grade and Mrs. Ashe lay just over the horizon.)
The summer before school began, Mrs. Hermann vacationed in Hawaii. She returned aglow, enthusiastic about her travels. (She was the first to spark in me the yearning to see the world outside little Clifton Park, NY; the first to make me believe that might be possible and to make me realize there even was a world beyond our home.) She told us of the wonderful food she ate and the canoe ride out among a pod of whales. Amazing stuff, particularly to a third grader back in those days before video games and rampant special effects and relatively “easy” travel.
That Christmas, our class put on a Hawaiian Christmas Party for the other third grade classrooms. Mrs. Hermann made the food (or perhaps our mothers helped; I can’t recall) and she taught us to sing “Mele Kalikimaka” (which, of course, is “Merry Christmas” in Hawaiian. I still remember the lyrics). The other classes were marched in and we performed, singing in clear high voices, so incredibly proud of ourselves and even more proud that WE were her students and not them. Lord, but we loved that woman! Infinitely patient, wonderful and supportive, everything too many teachers are not.
I’m sure Mrs. Hermann had her share of heartaches. She must have had days when we drove her to distraction, frustrated her beyond tolerance. There had to have been times when she wanted to flee back to Hawaii, but she never let it show. I can’t remember a single instance when she lost patience with any of us. What a rare gift — total acceptance. Unconditional love.
There are times when, yes, I miss those days. There are times when I could certainly use a hug from Mrs. Hermann, moments when I’d love to sit once again around those little tables with my classmates. I don’t know what became of Mrs. Hermann. I hope she had a good life, because God knows she deserved one. I don’t know what became of Rob Petuski, although I remember him with fondness. I have seen Ray, once, since graduation in 1975. We both attended our 25th high school reunion (good lord…). I saw him across the picnic grounds and recognized him immediately. I walked over, tapped him on the shoulder, and said, “Remember me?” His grin was enormous. He swept me into a huge bear-hug and for the next couple of hours we were seven years old again, sitting side-by-side at a big table, sharing our lives as we once did our crayons.