To be honest, I’m a real townie. Sure, for ten years I lived in a string of worthy places like Madison, Milwaukee, Boulder, Ann Arbor, even Buenos Aires and Madrid, but I’ve lived 30 (of nearly 40 years) in little old Oshkosh. Upon high-school graduation, I tried throwing myself to the skies, but like a boomerang, I traveled an elliptical path back to my point of origin – a city in Wisconsin that isn’t really a city but a small town.
Travelling full-circle is not the failed junket I’d feared, though. In my teens, my favorite thing to say was, let’s blow this popsicle stand. But here I am, not entirely disappointed. For one thing, I underestimated the power of familiarity, which breeds, not contempt, but comfort and pleasure. Freud – that crazy old man – knew a thing or two. Repetition is out-and-out pleasure as in poetry, music, and rituals like prayer. We spend our lives on the edges of moments listening for echo effects.
The idea that history repeats itself can be big and ugly or small and beautiful like this:
In 1985, when I started 2nd grade at Oakwood Elementary School, my teacher was a 22-year-old newlywed named Mrs. Lechnir. In the wake of several salt-and-pepper school marms, one of whom wore an eye patch, Mrs. Lechnir was the picture of Hollywood glamour. She’d stepped through my T.V. screen from Dukes of Hazard or Moonlighting with blonde 80s hair, cerulean eyes, and high heels. Student teaching aside, we were her first class of students, a sweaty and giddy group of 7-year-olds.
Mrs. Lechnir was the youngest teacher, by a decade, I’d ever have. As I trudged K-12, I’d internalize my teachers’ irritability or bad days, convinced they hated me, but Mrs. Lechnir called to me liltingly – “Yes, Lovely Laura?” My name was alliteration, a line in a sonnet. She likes me, I thought, and I’d plan my wardrobe to reflect whatever she’d worn the previous day. If she wore pastel yellow or pink, then I followed suit, even if I paled in comparison to her with my boy’s haircut and bushy brows.
Mrs. Lechnir was my teacher, and Oakwood was my school.
My best friend Jamie lived on the farm behind Oakwood. We cut capers in her horse pasture and into the No Man’s Land of trees and creek water, long before Oakwood aggrandized, becoming the Environmental Charter School it’s known as today. By fifth grade, in 1989, I’d be cast as Carrie, one of the leads in the musical Kids (Toucan Productions, copyright 1985), and crooned, as if serenading the school, not to a boy named Stevie: I’ll be yours forever; we’ll always be together, and I hope we’ll never part. If we do, it will break my poor heart!
Years passed, as they do, and in 2015, when Ryan and I bought a house in the Oakwood School enrollment area – half a mile from my childhood home – the neighborhoods in the old farm fields my parents owned (and my friends’ parents owned) had unofficially become gated communities. Houses half the size of my childhood digs sold for twice as much, and millionaires banked houses against the quarry where kids I knew once sparked Bottle Rockets and smoked dope with money they earned on paper routes.
How had the landscape mutated so quickly?
In the 1980s, so few children attended Oakwood that we were assigned to split classrooms – the 3-4 split, for example, third and fourth graders cohabitating. Now, thanks to suburbanization (or gentrification – what was to blame here?), classrooms were glutted. At the start of the 2015-2016 Oakwood could accommodate Leo and Fern, but unfortunately not Frank. A mere Kindergartener, he’d be separated from his older siblings, bussed to Carl Traeger Elementary, a journey so far-flung and long he’d fall asleep there and back belted into the gluey pleather seats on that short yellow bucket of bolts.
With an accepted offer on our new house in August and a move-in date of Halloween, we expected to be settled in by Thanksgiving, but our mortgage fell through, and our official move was delayed, until we found a new lender.
An assistant to the Superintendent, the self-assigned gatekeeper of Oshkosh public schools, learned that our closing date was postponed, at which point he embarked on a reconnaissance mission. Had we gamed the system? Were we just pretenders with no real plans of moving into this coveted precinct? He threatened to pluck our children from their classrooms if we didn’t legally own property in the Oakwood School area by December 1, 2015, and for thirty days, we slept at our in-laws’ basement on pins, needles, and other sharp anxieties.
At long last, though, our new lender came through, and we ended up owning a house that legitimized us as an Oakwood School family. Did the gatekeeper eat crow when we finally signed on the dotted line and met Two Men & a Truck on Greenbriar Trail? I doubt that; empathy wouldn’t be his style.
But real crows were vaunting in the trees on our wooded lot as the snow floated down seemingly from places as far away as Madrid. Though I loved new additions to my old haunts – the footbridge to Apple Acres, for example – I wished that neighborhoods were as reversible as they are transformable. But as Thomas Wolfe writes, "You can't go back home … to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.”
But I’m not so old yet that nothing remains. Oakwood School smells the same, if I stand above the media center: the aroma of wet books and recess milk lifts me in a bubble of thought. And I still attune to other such magical echoes, some more powerful than others.
“I used to go to school here,” I told Mrs. Hagman at the first open house in 2015. We’d just begun the long wait for our mortgage. Without a key, we’d drive past our new house and count down the days.
“Well, what’s your name?” she asked.
“Laura Baker,” I told her.
“Well, I had a Laura Baker in second grade.”
“Well, I had a Mrs. Lechnir in second grade.”
“That’s me,” she said. I stood still, staring into my old life.
Thirty-one years had passed us by; she’d traded in her old name for a new one but she was still blonde, clear-eyed, and bewitching. In 1985, I was her student, and now I was a mother to five children, four of whom would attend Oakwood School. One waits for familiarity and celebrates upon finding it. Of all my teachers, my favorite remained.
During that first return year to Oakwood, as the Oshkosh Area School District surveilled our movement, I felt, at times, as if I were wearing a GPS tracking bracelet. The authorities had not yet determined my family and I were worthy of their most prized school, and they were ready, without a moment’s notice, to yank us loose, like a barb in their side. The former Mrs. Lechnir (turned Mrs. Hagman) was my single link between then and now – between insider and outsider status, between belonging and waiting to belong.
“Hello, Fabulous Fern,” she’d sing whenever we’d pass by her classroom. That top-dog administrator didn’t own Oakwood School any more than I did.
And now, here we are, at the tail end of Mrs. Hagman’s 33-year career at Oakwood Elementary School. She will retire in June to a much deserved second happiness. My son, Francis – Frank, Frankie, Franco – is in her classroom on the northeast corner of the old wing. Cut a diagonal across the library, and that’s where we began.
“Tell me about yourself,” I say to Frank.
“I’m dangerous,” he says, giggling. “I like sour stuff. Putty. I laugh a lot. I like my friends, recess, math, and the 10-minute break.”
After much digging this morning, I found a writing assignment of mine from 1986, May of my second-grade year with Mrs. Lechnir. Over the picture of an ice-cream sundae, I wrote, “I don’t like sundaes very much, but I do like flavored ice cream with orange, strawberry, and grape.” Are we so simple at that age? That’s not the way I remember it.
I volunteer in Mrs. Hagman’s classroom to read with kiddos. Mrs. Hagman sings her lessons, plays air guitar on her leg, and still struts her stuff in heels, her voice like the soundboard on a harp’s wing. Her first name, which I was never allowed to use as a child, is Terri as in the Terrifically-Tremendously-Talented-and-Tender-hearted Terri. Those words and infinite more.