"It seems like yesterday
"But it was long ago..."
--- Bob Seger, Against the Wind
Though nobody knew it at the time, 25 years ago last week Faith Center Christian School of Glendale, California graduated its last class. One of those graduates happened to be a young fellow by the name of Gene Nash.
Raymond Schoch founded the Faith Center church in 1930. I don't know when it moved to its greatly expanded present location across from the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery or when it began the school. It's probably best known as having been the main stage for Dr. Gene Scott who took charge of the financially ailing ministry in late 1975. (Paul Crouch of Trinity Broadcasting Network fame also started his Christian broadcasting career at Faith Center, serving as station manager for the church's television station KHOF before leaving to begin his own network.)
By the time I graduated, I'd logged nearly 10 full years at that school. Mother enrolled me when I was only 2 and a half years old, so she could go back to work. They didn't normally take students that young, but for some reason they made an exception for me. I spent two years in Pre-School before my age caught up to their requirements and I began my arduous journey up the scholastic ranks -- from downstairs classes, where they kept the "little kids," to the first floor ground level, and finally to the second floor. Little did I know my last year would also be the school's last year.
It had been an unusual school year from the beginning. We sixth graders started the year with Mr. Hazelton, my first male teacher. He stole our Scholastic Books money and skulked off into the night. (Dealing with embezzlers has been a recurring pattern in my life.) I never again ordered anything from Scholastic. Miss Anne Hume, a gospel singer with another ministry, took his place.
Besides a rash of new teachers, we also had a school-wide dearth of students. My sixth grade class consisted of only nine students, four girls (Lisa, and the three Brazilian sisters: Erika, Rosangela, and Adriana) and five boys (Danny, Augustine A.K.A. Gus, Julius, Jun, and, of course, me). During the previous year one very determined parent agitated for changes and modernization. (Okay, so they still taught reading using Dick and Jane, but at least we could read and write!) When she didn't get her way, she set her sights on punishing the school. She contacted every parent she could get her hands on and unleashed all the reasons she believed the school to be inferior and actually harmful for the children. Apparently it had worked. That accounts for the students, where the missing teachers went, I don't know. Perhaps the school's financial problems drove them away.
I had mixed feelings about the last day of school. Usually a time for celebration, this time it held a vague unease. What happens now? Faith Center had been the only home away from home I'd ever known. Now, it was all ending.
There had been talk of extending to include a seventh grade. I surmised that was simply a ploy to up the enrollment and bring in more, much needed, money. Seeing it as a ploy, I had my doubts it would happen. Even if it did, I wasn't sure I would return here anyway. What was one more year? Delaying the inevitable? One more year, then I'd still have to change schools, but I'd be in a worse position then if I'd just left. Everyone else at the new school would have already had a year together. I'd be odd man out. That didn't appeal to me at all. If I had to change schools, I at least wanted to enter on an even playing field with everyone else. Everyone being new seemed to me the way to go.
Some of my classmates had no reservations about it, though. Danny even expressed excitement. He said to me, "Hey, you and me next year! We'll rule the school!"
Coming from Danny, that was surprising. We had a neither fowl nor fish relationship. We weren't friends, but we weren't exactly enemies, either, though we did have our brush ups. At summer school once years earlier, he had poured his root beer in my sandwich at lunch. The acting principal spanked him for it. Even during this final year we'd had our tiffs. Once during a German Dodge Ball match, Miss Hume practically had to pull us apart before we went at it. Meanwhile, a couple of the girls cheered me on. Still, he and I had been going to the school the longest -- he nearly as long as me. His grandmother worked with my mother. We had a history the others didn't. And "ruling the school" didn't sound like that bad of an idea.
Counterbalancing the What's gonna happen to me apprehensions was the love of my live, Lisa. Today, after school, we were to have our first real date. I'd liked her since the first grade, but it cemented into first full blown infatuation in the second grade when she gave me my first kiss, and my fourth, and.... From then till now we'd had a strange relationship, occasionally coming together, then drifting apart, people constantly telling her I was in love with her while she denied everything. I didn't even know if she remembered the second grade kissing. To her it might have been nothing. To me, it was everything.
With the final year came a certain urgency, perhaps my last chance to ever really be with her. Making the urgency even greater, whether Faith Center added a year seven or not, it had already been decided Lisa was moving and the new school she'd be going to the next year was so far away it may as well have been on the moon. Despite that, it took me till February to really make my move, and even then she'd resorted to a bit of prodding, sending me a Christmas card with hand drawn arrows pointing to jars marked "Joy" and "Love." Now, after four months of her officially being my girlfriend we were to have our first date outside of the school, even without chaperonage for part of it.
Grease II had been about to come out. I knew Lisa liked the original. I remember when it premiered, local TV station KTLA had aired an entire special from the grand opening, showing entire musical numbers along the way. The next day at school, the special was the talk of the class. I remember Lisa impersonating John Travolta as he danced on the stairs during "Summer Nights." Grease II looked like a great date opportunity.
I'd finally had the nerve to ask her. She wasn't sure if her mother would let her go. We decided the last day of school would be perfect, because we'd already be together, there'd be no extra traveling involved, it was daylight, afternoon. Perfect. She said she'd ask her mother.
I can still hear my mother's end of that phone conversation. "No. I don't think they're too young to go. ... I'm sure they'll be all right. ... Yes, I'll take them and pick them up."
Eventually Lisa's mother was appeased and they worked out the logistics.
So, I arrived at school, carrying only a mainly empty backpack (boy did it seem strange coming to school without a lunch box), to go through the motions of a half-day I didn't even see the point of. Everything had already been taken care of. All the rehearsals. All the final tests. Nothing really remained but a brief party, a long goodbye, and passing out final report cards.
"Hi!" Lisa. She looked happy.
"Hi." Oh, God. I felt out of my depth. Years of cat and mouse, the fulfillment of a life long dream, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to somehow blow it. I should have been overjoyed, but I ended up half-terrifying myself.
We started the day as any other. Roll call. Pledge of allegiances to the American and Christian flags. Prayers. Then it was time to waste time till noon.
At one point I saw Lisa over at Miss Hume's desk, whispering about something. She looked concerned.
"Gene," Miss Hume called me over. Lisa looked down and away. "Lisa doesn't need any money, does she?"
"No," I said. "I'm paying for everything."
Miss Hume turned to Lisa.
"See," she said. "I told you you didn't have to worry about it."
Lisa didn't have any money and was worried I was going to make her pay. Sheesh. She could have talked to me about it!
Other conversation centered on Miss Hume's presumptive summer school experiment. It had already been announced Faith Center would not, for the first time in my memory, be having a summer school that year. Talk in the class had turned to how great it would be if Miss Hume's church would have a summer school, then we could all attend it and be together over the Summer, one last hurrah. Miss Hume said she'd see about it. In the end it looked like a go, but the waxing rhapsodic had been more wishful thinking than reality. Though they'd all talked her into it, the only likely candidates were Lisa and I, and we were still in doubt. Of course, I liked the idea, for obvious reasons.
We religiously, if not nonsensically, followed our usual schedule. The routine at that time was to start class, cover a couple subjects, have an outdoor recess called "snack time," inside to cover more subjects, then around noon outside for an hour lunch/recess, followed by the last two hours of classes and out at three. Despite school itself letting out at noon this last day, we still took snack time. Why not? We didn't really have anything better to do.
At snack time, over by the basketball court, Gus and Julius (whom I called "Jules") gave me tips on kissing.
"Don't kiss with your eyes open," Gus said. "And don't open your lips. Do it like this." He demonstrated on the air, and looked a bit silly doing it.
Gus was my best friend. He even claimed to have had sex already, so he considered himself expert enough to give kissing advice. Most people thought Jun was my best friend because we spent so much time together, but that was only because my mother frequently baby sat for him. In truth, we didn't like each other all that much. Nonetheless, at times Jun and Gus seemed to compete for who was really my best friend. Gus won that competition hands down.
"Gee, I don't know if we're going to kiss, guys." And I didn't. It sounded highly unlikely to me, and, despite the fact she was the only girls I'd ever kissed, a little mind blowing. Our previous osculations had taken place over four years earlier. If she did remember it, we certainly never discussed it.
"Come on!" said Jules. "You have to kiss her!"
Gus agreed on this.
Well, if I had to.
That snack time passed relatively quietly. Perhaps too much anticipation filled the air for everyone to get worked up. At least that day I managed to avoid the fifth grade girls chanting, "Ugly Gene marry Lisa! Ugly Gene marry Lisa!" as they had on several other snack time and lunch occasions.
Back upstairs, we had a small party, much smaller than any we'd had in the past. Desks were emptied, their contents packed up for the last time. Miss Hume gave us all gifts and cards. We stripped the room of anything that showed we'd ever tried to make our mark on it, everything that indicated nine young kids once lived, laughed, loved and fought there. And after nearly 10 years, it was over. My time at Faith Center, the only school I'd ever known, ended.
At that time, the sixth grade students brought in the flags. At the beginning of the year we'd been split into teams of two. Each group would bring it in for a week, then the next team, till it cycled around again to the first. It just so happens that Lisa and I had been teamed, and this was our week. With school just about to officially let out, Lisa and I headed out for our last flag collecting, not knowing we'd be the last two students to ever perform that duty.
Outside the classroom door, we ran into Brandon, a fifth grader. Earlier in the week, Jun and I had run into Brandon and his classmate, my arch-nemesis, Sean at the video games at Sears. I'd had four quarters in my pocket and had only used one, meaning I should have had three left. When I reached into my pocket, I could only feel two. I couldn't understand that. Had I dropped it? Had I actually used two without realizing it?
As Brandon and Sean had walked away, Sean called back, "See you at school. And thanks for the quarter!" They both burst out laughing.
I don't know what happened with me and Sean. A long time ago, when he hadn't even made it up to the ground floor classes, he and I were friendly. We used to talk a lot. Somewhere along the line he turned on me. Friends turning into enemies is a life long pattern. Most times, as with Sean, I never know when or why. If I believed in reincarnation -- which I don't -- I'd think in some past life I really screwed over some close friends. The past couple years Sean had taken every opportunity to badger and insult me. As the alpha male of the fifth grade, most of the others followed his lead.
When Lisa and I ran into Brandon I told him, "Tell Sean he'd better give me my quarter back or my mom told me I could ring his neck." And she had. Actually she told me to ring his neck, but I had other business today.
"I'll tell him," Brandon said.
To get to the flag, we had to walk the length of two buildings across the parking lot/playground, out a fence, through a smaller parking lot past the "little kids" playground, around the front of the buildings, lower the flag and reverse the process. We'd then take the flag downstairs at the main church administration building where we'd fold it on a kitchen table, then bring it back up and leave it in the office with the school secretary.
As we'd just reached the first fence, someone called out, "Hey, Lisa!" we turned and looked. It was Sean, up at the stairs by our classroom. "Man, I just drank a whole bottle of soda like that!" He motioned with his hands about the length of a two-liter bottle. "I just chugged it!" He pantomimed that as well. "You should have seen it!"
Lisa didn't say anything in return. We turned and went about our business. It annoyed me Sean had been talking to Lisa like that. Why had he been talking to her anyway? I'd never known them to be friendly. We didn't talk about it. Come to think of it, I'm not sure we really talked about anything.
As we folded the flag, it struck me as a bit odd this was the last time we'd be doing this, after a whole year. When we had started, I was a nail biter. I'd never before had a problem with it, but it embarrassed me to have Lisa see my ragged, chewed nails, so I tried hiding them, folding my fingers over and practicing various other contortions. Eventually, I stopped biting them, let them grow out, and learned how to clip them. After that time, I never bit my nails again.
I dropped off the flag while Lisa went back upstairs. When I got upstairs, Brandon was waiting there.
"Here's your quarter," he said, and handed it to me. I thanked him. I never did know if the quarter really came from the just-moments-earlier obstinate Sean, or if Brandon had coughed it up himself. Though at a different school at a different time, Brandon and I would become friends, I never asked him about it.
I went inside. Lisa liked to hang by her fingertips from the top of the door frame, swinging back and forth. I noticed she took one last chance to do so.
Shortly it was all over. Everyone said goodbye. Miss Hume hugged us. We went out. Kids were running wild all over the place, nothing left to lose anymore. Lisa and I waited for my mother to pull up outside the gate. When she did, we piled in the car, Lisa in front, next to my mother and me in back. We pulled out and headed for the restaurant and part one of our date.
[This is already far longer than I intended. So, I'm going to split it into two parts. Next week: The first date, graduation ceremonies, aftermath.]
[Update: Part 2 can be read at this link.]
"Raymond Schoch founded Faith Center church in 1930." -- (See the article comments.)
"the three Brazilian sisters" -- I may have screwed up their names. Sorry about that.
"Augustine" -- Okay, maybe Augustus, but I think it was Augustine. I called him Gus, and sometimes "Gus-gus."
"Lisa didn't say anything in return." -- Not that I'm remembering right now, anyway. (See the article comments.)
"I dropped off the flag while Lisa went back upstairs." -- (See the article comments.)