Every kid in Mrs. Schroeder’s 2nd Grade Class room was either a busser or a walker. My first two years at St. Joe’s I had ridden the bus home from school every day. But upon reaching 2nd grade, according to the calculus of the Batavia School District, I was now too old to warrant a government subsidized ride over the mile and a half to Prospect Avenue. As Mrs. Schroeder liked to remind us, 2nd grade was the “age of reason”, the age at which children like ourselves could make decisions for themselves, and suffer the consequences. It was the age at which we could choose sin, and as such it was the age at which we made our first penance, and our first communion. These were big responsibilities that were being laid upon our slight little shoulders, but we could do little to protest.
2nd grade was also my first year alone in St. Joe’s. My closest sibling, and constant tormentor, my Bratty Big Sister, had graduated from 8th grade the previous spring, and was now attending Notre Dame High School, with The Middle Child, and my Big Bruddah. This meant several things as I prepared for that first day of school. While Mom would drop me off in the morning on her way to work in the Industrial Center I would need to find my way home alone that afternoon. Granny was living with us by then, sleeping on a roll out bed in our front living room, and would be watching Days of our Lives and Another World waiting for me when I got home.
While Mrs. Schroeder may have been convinced that we were old enough to handle such challenges, I knew better. It was 1975, and I was a painfully shy, mop haired little freak of a kid that was still learning to tie his own shoes. Up until the end of 1st grade, Mom had humored me by buying dress shoes with buckles for me to wear to school. Granted, it was the mid 70’s, but I’m sure I still stood out like some little pilgrim hippy, as I walked the halls of St. Joe’s in my white shirt, blue Dickies, and blue clip on tie with SJS embroidered on the front, peering out from under the bangs I combed straight forward over my forehead in a futile attempt to hide from the world.
Mom had coached me on the specific route I was to take on my way home. I was to take a circuitous path, up Summit Avenue to North Street, then west, past Platten’s North Side Grocery, up the State Street hill to the Blind School, where North turned into Richmond Avenue. Then on through Centennial Park, past the Rowell Mansion, finally turning left down Prospect Avenue to our home tucked snugly at the bottom of two hills. By taking this route I would avoid the “rough” section of Washington Avenue, near State Street, where the great urban renewal was still in the process of tearing down old homes and replacing them with vast grassy tracks of land. It was a much longer walk this way, but she was convinced that a trip down Washington would result in either kidnapping, or a tragic death. I needed little convincing of the danger.
I was not the only kid in Mrs. Schroeder’s class that was making the change from busser to walker. My friend Jimmy was also being kicked out of Eden. He lived on Bank Street, across the field behind the Hospital, and his route home would also take him up Summit Street to the corner of North. Despite my fear, I was convinced if we stuck together we might at least make it to parking lot of Genesee Memorial Hospital before tragedy befell us.
When school ended the walkers would retrieve their coats and bags from the cubbies in the back of the classroom, and line up by the door for dismissal. The 2nd grade classroom was on the 2nd floor of the building, our first year upstairs with the big kids. When the bell rang we would process downstairs by grade in two orderly lines, across the parking lot, taking care to walk between the rock wal, and the double yellow lines that had been painted to separate us from the cars in the parking lot. Surly sixth graders with orange belts and gold sheriff badges signifying their authority, would see to it that we stayed in line and did not break ranks prematurely. When we reached the end of the chain link fence and the sidewalk on Summit we would be released to our freedom.
After two years of cowering under the seats in the school bus, hiding from public school heathens, and St. Anthony greasers, I discovered to my surprise that being a walker wasn’t so bad after all. That first breath of freedom on the sidewalk was always a joyous release. We would throw our book bags in the air, and hoot and scream, and begin running about like wild dogs. The walkers were usually divided between the kids like us whose parents worked, and those that had stay at home Mom’s that would come and pick them up. Some kids turned left into the parking lot to their Mother’s car, but Jimmy and I, and most of the others, turned right up Summit Avenue. Kids from Kindergarten to 8th grade would pair off into groups for their walk home. Lines would form to walk along the concrete retaining wall by the house on the corner. If the crossing guard lady that ruled the corner of Washington and Summit caught you walking on the wall, she was always quick to scold you. She had a little uniform that she wore, which gave her an air of authority normally reserved for Cops and Nuns.
The corner of Washington and Summit was the most dangerous part of our walk home. Not because of any traffic concerns, but because it was the point at which our paths would cross with the kids from the Junior High School on Ross Street. It was a well known fact that the kids attending the Batavia Junior High school were second only to the inmates of Attica State Prison in terms of cold bloodedness. Woe be unto any poor parochial school kid caught alone on that corner by a roving pack of juvenile delinquents from the Junior High. Rumor had it that one third grader had been found the year before swinging from a tree by his monogrammed SJS tie, his face the same color of blue as his uniform pants. Our school let out 15 minutes before the Junior High, so it was standard practice to walk double time to the corner, to cross Washington to the relative safety of Summit Ave. Like foxes being released before the hounds, fifteen minutes gave us a sporting chance of getting home alive.
Jimmy and I were not the only walkers in 2nd grade that turned up Summit Avenue. There were other kids from families that lived in the neighborhood’s off of Ross Street and had been walking since Kindergarten. One of these kids, our classmate Chris, had fallen into walking home on Summit with his sister, and the Welch girls. The Welch’s lived on Ross Street, and had 15 girls in their family, one for every grade in the Catholic School system. Notre Dame High School would experience a 15 year run of volleyball championships on the strength of the Welch gene pool. Despite their athletic prowess, in the eyes of Jimmy and I, a girl was a girl, and walking home from school with one was like putting on a dress and skipping rope. It only took a few days before Jimmy and I began walking behind Chris and the Welch girls, and singing in a high mocking tone “Christopher Robin likes to play with girls”. To his credit Chris followed the catechetical teachings of the Nun’s and Priest, and turned the other cheek. At least he did for a week or two until he’d had enough, and turned around and hit Jimmy upside the head with his book bag, knocking him down, and shutting us both up. From that point on, Chris came over to our side, and joined us in following the Welch girls home taunting and teasing them, and pelting them with snowballs when winter arrived. This continued for a few months until right before spring one of the Welch girls picked him up and planted him head first in a snow bank. From that point on, Pax Romana reigned the length of Summit Avenue.
One day in Spring, as it was time for us to line up to be released, Mrs. Schroeder called me up to her desk and asked me to stay behind after school. I had never before been held back for anything, and the look of shock registered on my face. I was struggling to learn cursive at the time, being a slightly dyslexic / ambidextrous kid, and I was having trouble completing my assignments on time. Mrs. Schroeder informed me that I had to return to my seat and finish the assignment that I had been unable to complete earlier that day. I was crushed and humiliated. Returning to my seat, I retrieved the giant blue pencil from inside my desk and began copying over the assignment one painful cursive letter at a time, as the walkers lined up to go home. They eyed me with the pity usually reserved for death row inmates. Soon, even the bussers had dispersed as their buses were announced one by one until finally, there was only me and Mrs. Schroeder left in the room. She sat at her desk correcting papers, while I toiled away with my pencil, nervously eying the clock, hot salty tears burning down my cheeks in streams. When 3:15 came and went, I couldn’t hold it any longer and began sobbing uncontrollably. Mrs. Schroeder approached and asked me why I was crying. In between sobs I gasped for air, and tried to explain that if I left for home now she would be condemning me to certain death at the hands of the Junior High heathens. I don’t think she could understand a word of it. Eventually my convulsions subsided, and she told me to pull myself together, and go home.
I left the school building shaking in terror. By the time I reached the corner of Washington and Summit, even the crossing lady was gone. Had they got to her too? My eyes darted around as I stood there frozen, waiting for the light to change. Looking across the street I could see a group of kids emerging from Quarterly’s corner store. Mr. Quarterly must have pulled his shotgun on them, and forced them out at gun point. I looked back up to the light, praying for it to change. When the electrical box on the telephone pole buzzed, and clicked, and the light changed from green to red, I sprinted across the street, and started running. Down the length of Summit I ran, looking back over my shoulder, expecting at any moment to be taken down with a shot from a snub nosed .38, or a stabbing pain from a switch blade. I was out of breath by the time I reached North Street, and collapsed with my back against a maple tree, panting for air. Looking back down the sidewalk, I couldn’t see a soul. I had gotten away. Turning quickly up North Street, I began running from tree trunk to tree trunk, like a soldier in a war movie. Within a half hour I had managed to reach Centennial Park. There was nothing between me and home now, but the vast empty expense of grass and maple trees. Maybe I would make it after all. Crossing Ellicott Avenue, by the haunted mansion, my heart leaped for joy. I was on the same block as home. Nothing could stop me now. I knew every back yard, and porch, and lilac bush between Ellicott and Prospect from my years of playing war, and hide ‘n seek, and kick the can with the neighborhood kids. I had survived. I ran the rest of the way, saying a quick Hail Mary to the Virgin Mother for to thank her for her protection. Coming in the back door at 20 Prospect I expected to find my Mother sobbing tears of joy for my arrival. But it was oddly, eerily quiet. Granny sat in the rocking chair in the living room, crocheting doilies, and watching her soaps, her tube of Oxygen trailing into the front room. The clock chimed 4 o’clock, and she asked what had taken me so long. Slumping onto the couch in total exhaustion, I shrugged and said “Nothing Granny. Just walked slow today I guess”.
How could I begin to tell her of my close call with death? Surely, if she knew the truth I would never be allowed to walk home from school again. Grown ups just didn’t understand. No, some things were best left unspoken.