I can still see Mr. Riley, our fearless principal. A gentle mammoth of a man, chocolate and regal, he stands at the front door of Roswell B. Mason School as we arrive. I hear the happy chatter of children’s voices, rising to a whistling crescendo on a warm sunny school day at 18th Street and Keeler Avenue.
I smell the breath of fall in the wind that kisses the leaves and sweeps over blades of green grass. I can taste the finger-waved, mouth-watering butter cookies, even with lunch still hours away.
Filling my nostrils is the scent of bubble gum and candy from pit stops made by some kids on the morning journey to school at the West Side ma and pa store near Cullerton Street. I see the brown paper bags damply spotted with dripping hot potato chips that the store’s owners also sold and sauced to saturation, and which us kids considered an after-school delicacy.
Minutes before the morning bell rings, a rubber baseball bounces off a concrete wall near the playground as prepubescent boys scuffle, jump and chase it — as if it is a golden treasure. The pound-and-shuffle of shoes over the pavement resounds.
“Tra-vel, travel T and out … Tra-vel, cross your legs, turn around, touch the ground and out … ” the girls’ sing, their voices echoing mostly in soprano as their jump rope slaps and claps.
I see Valerie and Henri and various other little brown girls wearing pigtails or Afro puffs and pretty smiles — on whom I had schoolboy crushes, mostly unspoken. I see my homeboys: Walter. Marvin. Michael. Huckey. Byron. Christopher …
Christopher Lewis was the kid I had bet in the fifth grade on the Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight that Monday night, on March 8, 1971, though neither of us had any real money to wager. I had Ali. Christopher had Frazier.
Ali lost. I cried. But it had nothing to do with losing the bet.
I can still see Miss Life. Miss Cartwright, Mrs. Terry, Mrs. Buck. Mr. Carter and Mr. Bond — a towering brother who always reminded me of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with a hint of Malcolm X. They were among our teachers — so fresh, so young. I can see that now — in hindsight.
They were also caring, giving, committed, stern and even sometimes funny. Perhaps that has always seemed clear.
As clear back then was that they were part of the best of our hood. As important to our lives as air, water, sun.
For, besides home, Mason was the place where we spent the most time, the place where we perhaps had the best chance to take root, thrive, grow.
At Mason, we grew. We also laughed, cried, and sometimes fought. But nobody got shot. There were no metal detectors. No shelter-in-place drills for school shooters.
But times, and even Mason, have changed.
And yet, I can still see Judge R. Eugene Pincham, speaking at our eighth grade graduation that spring in 1974, urging us to believe, to dream and to work.
I said goodbye to classmates that day, many of whom I had known since kindergarten. Most I have not seen since that day. The winds of life, circumstance and time led us in different directions. But the wind of reunion is calling the sons and daughters of Mason back home this weekend.
I will be there, even if life-and death-now dictates that some can’t, or won’t.
And yet, I can still taste and smell Taffy Apple Day. See the “Space Brothers” soaring gloriously over Mason’s outdoor basketball court, slam-dunking in the sunshine. And I see Mr. Riley, smiling.
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