The Winter School
[Ecole St. Louis/in St. Paul, MN; 1957]
“We…!” [We being: my brother and I] were a team, that is, we were quite the team growing up in the inner city of St Paul, Minnesota, during the l950s; we wrestled with the long drawn out winters of the late fifties on our way to school, Ecole St. Louis.
My mother, a meatpacker, who worked at the ‘Swift & Co.,’ in South St. Paul, across the Mississippi River–the stockyards, that is, was the biggest in the USA, next to Chicago’s I heard. And the few times I got to go out there with my mother’s boyfriend, Ernie, to pick her up–she had to work a different shift often–I got to witness it’s hugeness, and it was like a little city unto itself.
As I look back now, it seems I was just enduring those winters, one after the other–the winters nowadays are nothing compared to them it seems. Yes, I remember trying to rush to grow up and get out of this winter wonderland of Minnesota also. But my brother Mike and I in spite of this, had to wait, and so as the winters came and left, we would hike through the snow, across the Mont-airy Park (where we once lived on Arch Street, until they converted it to low cost housing), down the hill, across the road, and into the downtown area of the city, to 10th near Cedar Street, where Ecole St. Louis, our French, Christian school was. It was a three-mile hike, and by the time I got to the school, my legs were sore from lifting them up to take the next step forward, especially if the snow was hard, and you could not push your legs forward, rather, you had to lift them, and set them back down to the next step. This went on until you got to the sidewalk, which was down the hill, from the park I just mentioned. No public busing then.
The school was right across the street from the Police and Fire Station. I loved this little French school, I wasn’t French though, not by a long shot, not sure why it was referred as that, other than the parish was supposed to be French, and I always assumed the church belong with the school–; matter of fact, there were more Irish, and Polish kids there than French. And none of the nun’s was French, or looked or spoke French, to my attention to detail. The only thing French about it was its name I think, other than, possibly its structure–and again I say, adjacent to the school was the French church, or parish I just spoke of, there you may have found your French people.
The school was erected to house classrooms, and we had some one hundred and thirty children at the school. We had big classrooms, and sometimes had two grades per classroom. And my guess would be there must had been thirty plus students to a room at times, if not forty.
The school consisted of two stories on a high basement of native limestone; Minnesota is good for limestone. The top story was a slate mansard roof broken by circular windows with fleur-de-lis ornament. I think a French-type dome, narrow façade composed of a forward block or pavilion. The back and sides of the building were of a much plainer design. Actually there was a third floor, but it wasn’t used, I had snuck up to it a few times. An attic I’d had called it back then. But prior to my attending the school which was constructed and opened in 1886–the church preceding it by thirteen-years–was used for a theater of sorts. When I snuck up into it, one could put his foot into holes in the floor-boards, created and broken by time’s neglect; and other rats like me sneaking up for a glimpse I suppose, didn’t help it. If you didn’t watch your step, I do believe one might have even ended up on top of a teacher’s desk below. Some of the boards even looked as if they were rotting in places, possibly a few holes in the roof causing dampness–into our youthful little bones below; and then weakness to some beams. They can swell you know, and then be reduced in strength. And so carefully I explored the forbidden.
The school was not free to attend, and at times it did become costly for my mother (a single parent); I especially got the feeling of its high cost, when my mother’s workplace ‘Swift’s and Co.,’ went on strike. During those days, my mother would instruct us boys, for it was just my brother and I, instruct us to tell the Mother Nun-Superior [or principle], they’d have to wait to get the next payment [tuition], they always frowned on those provocative requests, and I was the giver of bad news often, too often to their liking: not building up much of a rapport with the chain of command. I told myself a number of times I’d not cry if the school closed down, or if my mother could not afford to pay, going to a public school was fine with me, a little scary, but fine. I doubt they would cut your hair there with a grass cutter, or make you write your name fifty-times on the blackboard for leading a gang in the back of the school to fight another class. Hick I thought, I had leadership skills (and in future time, became a Staff Sergeant in the US Army; and even ended up in a little war called Vietnam); is that not what they wanted. Plus, I won a knife, for not missing any school, the year before. But Mother Superior looked at me stern, when she said:
“Now you can pick any one of these five items for your reward for not missing any school…” and I looked at a holy cross, and a bible, and a picture of Jesus and Mary, and then I took the fishing knife. She gave me a sneer, and so I held onto the knife tightly (instinct), and quickly got away from her before she talked me into changing my mind, and item, I do recall her echoing:
“You sure you want the knife?” I was sure.
But for reasons unknown to me, my mother wanted my brother and me to have a Christian education. Although I can’t remember much about them talking about the bible–, but we did respect the flag, and go over the Ten Commandments. And a quick prayer in the morning never seemed to hurt, sometimes silent, in front of the beautifully painted statue of Marry, and a few words to the American Flag beside her out loud, and on with business we went. I guess today it’s against the Constitution for some odd reason. Oh well, things change.
Once we got to school, my brother went upstairs, and I down, kicking the snow off our rubbers above our shoes: that is, went over and around our shoes, unzipping them down the center, then putting them in the back closet area, where we all hung up our coats, hats, and hoped everyone remained with Christian values for the rest of the day, and didn’t take them.
Linda was favored by my nun teacher, not sure why, she was cute, I liked her, and knew where she lived, and even went over to see her once or twice, with my friend Mike Rosette, and he and I got in a fight over her (my first fight); something like that. A few of the older kids were trying to coheres me to defend my honor; as you might expect, Linda was watching, and I, I…hate to admit, I wanted to show off. And so I continued unabated and I knocked Mike on the ground–I stopped, even though the other kids told me to continue, I just, just couldn’t continue. Mike kind of whispered in a hurtful way,
“…they’re simply egging you on…to give them a show…!” he added something like: and for me not to get encouraged by it. And so I stepped back, and the older kids got mad; he was right, it was their show, and now it was over. Point well taken I thought afterwards, for Mike and I were still friends.
–I remember the tall ceiling in the rooms in the school; it had lowered light fixtures that hung overhead, giving a rustic kind of atmosphere, and it seemed to give off shadows, and blotted light. When a sunny day came in winter, a glare came through the windows. Matter-of-fact, I never liked sitting by the windows in winter, the windows were always cold, and the window sills allowed cold air to seep through, and it got against my neck, up my legs, and ankles, and broke my concentration; what little I had back then; I think I was hyperactive, but that word was not used back then, it was called, mischievous, or high energy. My energy, my blood was like a wild river running up and down my body, giving me chills sometimes. And when I left to go home after school, onto the busy city streets I’d rush to walk home before it got dark. Winter in Minnesota made the days short and nights long. And if I had a dime, I’d walk a block over to Jackson Street and wait for the bus. My brother got out an hour earlier not sure why, I guess because he was in the upper grades and it was a gift to the elder for making it through the lower grades. If you could survive through all these winters at this school, I guess you deserved a little something, my day was coming I told myself. It was just a few more winters away.
Well, things didn’t work out as I thought they would, or maybe they did, matter-of-fact, maybe they worked out for the better. In l958, my mother was out of work again, and we couldn’t pay the tuition, and the school couldn’t afford to waive it for a period of time and so I was forced to go to a public school (sometimes things work for the better). It was a bit frightful, especially that summer thinking how I was going to get to school in the winter. I had it all sorted out for the little French school. But I pushed it aside and figured things would work themselves out somehow, they always did. And they did; and I got to stand in the snow now in winter, or inside the Jewish grocery story about five blocks from my house to wait for the bus. It was too far to walk, seven miles that is; as Ecole St. Louis, was but a few. The school closed it doors in the early 60’s, it was sad to hear that: and then they tore it down to make space for another building, a more modern structure, ugly as hell. Well, that’s progress for you. But that was my last winter at the school, l957; I had been there since l954. No big thing.