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Sparks School was a wonderful place to grow


AT CYNICAL moments I've thought casually about Sparks Elementary School burning down last week. I've told friends it was a 30-year time lag of a wish fulfillment or where (to quote Philip Larkin) my childhood was unspent.

But the pleasant memories out weigh the cynicism. As a child, I thought all public schools were like Sparks, graced with ornamented cathedral ceilings, 30-foot high windows, masonry interiors and real cows sometime invading recess and the ball field. It wasn't until adulthood that I realized most of my contemporaries grew up in Levittownian school complexes similar in design to many factories.

Originally, most of Sparks students came from farms. My class -- which entered in September 1959 -- had just three kids from working farms. My class entered after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that schools must be racially desegregated and prayer would not be allowed. No one seemed to mind the Warren Court rulings any more than the occasional bovines. I did not think it strange that there were black children in my classes; many of them were my superiors academically, socially and athletically. Desegregation seems as wise in retrospect as the civil defense drills were silly. No one questioned the probability of surviving a nuclear attack by crouching under a desk.

Aside from that imperfection, our teachers (Frey, Schaal, Albright, Wirtz, Fleming and Eagler) were excellent so far as I can judge 30 years later. My fourth-grade class managed an aggregate score among the highest in the nation on standardized tests.

I can't imagine any institutional food surpassing our cafeteria, which included such nice touches as homemade rolls and cutting the meat of the students deemed to lack utensil dexterity.

We had an oddly sophisticated school song, an ornate memorial tablet commemorating a local farmer named Dickinson Gorsuch (whose 15 minutes of fame was getting shot trying to recover several of his slaves who had escaped to Pennsylvania in the 1850s) and a coal-burning furnace that only seemed to work when the weather was tropical. Truancy and delinquency were almost unheard of since the school wasn't near anything that could inspire malefaction. In a time that produced the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy assassination there was more concern among my peers over a widely rumored abduction by space aliens that was to occur on May Day 1966. My class escaped polio but not rheumatic fever. Less ennobling was the fact that we were the first generation of TV watchers and I remember the "Beverly Hillbillies" being discussed very seriously.

I suppose we all came to identify with the "Beverly Hillbillies," coming from places with such names as Quaker Bottom, My Lady's Manor or old company towns like Phoenix and Corbett. These places have since become settings for Republican gubernatorial candidates, pricey restaurants, McMansions, the highest property values in the metro area.

I remember the May Days with the scratchy loudspeaker blaring the "Grand March" from "Aida" from the hillside on the May Queen and her court. Our class, for all its test-taking expertise, managed to tangle the Maypole when someone turned the wrong way. The cows off in the distance in Piney Run ignored this and the Verdi. Why was it always sunny and pleasant for May Day? What's life like now for an ex-May Queen?

Now so much seems lost.

Paul R. Schlitz Jr. writes from Baltimore.

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