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My Life in the Fourth Grade


Posted: March 2, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 2, 2014 2:00 a.m.

As a longtime resident of Valencia, I've grown accustomed to all the things that make this such a nice place to live.

I enjoy the paseos, the malls, the Performing Arts Center, the quaint playhouses, the fine restaurants, and even the many fast food places - so many things to make our lives a bit more pleasant and comfortable.

I've grown accustomed to it. I take it all for granted but there is one thing that surprises me - it's our elementary school schoolyards. They have grass - fields of honest-to-goodness real green growing grass!

Wow, what treat for the children.

I'm from the Midwest and if my elementary school had grass on the schoolyard, my life might have been quite different.


Going back

I remember very clearly:

It is 1941; I'm ten years old and in the fourth grade of the Graham Stewart Elementary School on the north side of Chicago.

I'm the skinniest kid in class, the skinniest kid in the school; maybe the skinniest kid that has ever gone to the school.

I didn't mind being skinny. What bothers is that I just can’t connect with the kids I think are neat.

I can’t connect because I seem too nice. I am polite, I always do my homework, and my mother always dresses me too perfectly.

The neat kids don’t always do their homework, they aren’t always polite and they do not dress perfectly. They look a little rough.

The neatest kid of all is Eddie Burns. Eddie is sent to the principal's office more than any other kid in history. He is taller and stronger than most kids his age. I guess that's why he got to be the milk monitor.

Eddie is the unofficial leader of the neat kids and I want desperately to be one of them.

I remember the day Eddie got mad and threw all the milk cartons down the stairs.

It was just two days before my life at Graham Stewart Elementary school changed forever - two days before I am "It" in our lunchtime game, two days before I capture Eddie Burns.

The game we play at lunch is, "Johnny Come Across." One boy, the kid who is "It" stands in the middle of the yard while all the other boys line up on one side of the yard.

The boy in the middle yells "Johnny Come Across," and all the boys try to run to the other side of the yard without being captured by the boy in the middle.

To capture someone, "It" has to stop a runner any way he can, grabbing an arm, or shoulder, or throwing both arms around the runner.

It really didn't matter as long as the runner is stopped. Those who are stopped join the boy in the middle and capture others on the next crossing.

Eventually everyone is captured except one boy. He is the winner. (This game was not for girls, not this game!)

Our schoolyard does not have grass, or cement, not even asphalt. We have crushed white rock - not the small finely ground, smushy-wushy, crushed rock, but the ouchy, gotcha, make your knees bleed kind of crushed rock.

Well, it is my turn to be "It" and it occurs to me that if I could capture Eddie, he would be a great help in capturing the other kids.

It also occurs to me that he is probably too strong for me to stop.

Then I remember seeing football players stopping runners by throwing themselves at the runners’ legs. I have my plan.

I yell, "Johnny Come Across" and as Eddie races across the yard, I hurl myself in front of his legs.

Well, you can just imagine. We both go flying head over teacup, crashing and skidding along that crushed rock.

When the dust clears, and there truly is a lot of dust, I am sprawled out on the ground. My hands are scraped and my chest hurt from being hit by Eddie's knees. My ankle feels like it might be broken.

I am in a lot of pain, but it vanishes and is replaced by fear when I look up and see Eddie. He is just a few feet away and coming toward me. His pants are covered with white dust and I see a little blood on his chin.

"That's it," I think, "He's gonna kill me."

To my amazement, he doesn’t. He reaches down, pulls me up and says, “Great tackle kid, what's your name."


Looking back

From that day on, we were great friends and I got to be in with the neat kids. Not only that, but Eddie, although I didn't ask him to, became my protector.

Nobody would mess with this skinny kid. At Graham Stewart Elementary School, I was huge.

If this were a story about the Mafia, you might say I was a "Made Man."

Of course, none of this would have happened if my schoolyard had grass.

Writer’s Note: The game, "Johnny Come Across" has been banned by Chicago schools.


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