I’ve always considered myself a success story of the public school system, and generally pro-public schools for their role in teaching us to get along with people of all abilities and backgrounds, to make peace with those we might not consider the best, most equal partners for our group projects, team sports — friends, even. It’s a starter version of the real world. My sister, though, a smart cookie less satisfied with her similar, admittedly generic educational experience — has pointed out that her most formative memories are of time spent out of school, in a classroom of a different sort. And now that I’ve thought on it, I tend to agree. The values and memories that have shaped me are those that I recall not between 9 and 3 on weekdays for 12 years, but all those in-between times.
For us that meant hours digging around the forest of our old farmhouse, discovering commemorative pens from 1920, intact shoes aged 100 years, lightbulbs, milkware plates, the ears of plastic dolls. It meant creating costumes from paper grocery bags and rocket ships from couch cushions. Forts, complete with mailboxes for our parents to communicate, overtook the dining room table; bowls of blue jello were prized for their sculptural, fist-squishing properties rather than any edible appeal. And through all these adventures, our fuel of choice was “astronaut food”: equal parts raw oatmeal and brown sugar.
On those weekdays that we weren’t in school and were waylayed by a sniffle or bellyache, our imaginations were inspired by the incomparable Mister Rogers. Feeling too down to build some devastatingly inconvenient feat of three-dimensional imagination, we’d be satisfied by rare chocolate pudding (Junk food! Individually packaged! Brand name!) and an episode of How It’s Made. Sure, I loved every bit, from Mr. McFeeley’s mail delivery to the feeding of the goldfish, but really, what mattered was the trip to the factory to learn how raincoats, crayons and everything in between is made. My favorite was the Girl Scout cookie episode, but YouTube has failed me. Second best? Pretzels. Take a trip down memory lane.