I remember the dusty black chalk board in my first grade classroom on the second floor of an asylum built in 1857 which had been converted to a private elementary school at the end of WW I. The blackboard was on the far right wall as one entered the classroom, the large windows faced forward on the building overlooking a walled courtyard with a beautiful maple tree at its center. Our desks faced the chalkboard so that our right sides were graced by the sunlight streaming from the windows. I remember mathematic equations on that board, grammatical exercises as well as the occasional art mural formed by placing a cardboard surface onto the chalkboard and covering it in tiny colored papers that had been rolled by our small fingers into little balls and pasted onto the hard paper. The images ranged from a winter scene to a floral display. My fingers were sticky with glue during those projects.
Our classroom was so close to the maple tree in the courtyard, that at times when I glanced out in a day dream during class, it felt as if I could touch its branches. It was as if when building the school, it had been built as part of the tree; a school treehouse. This was the back drop of my childhood for about five years in the early 1970s. Ecole Blanche de Louvencourt is situated at the cross roads of Rue Alexandre Dumas and Rue de Louvencourt in the small town of Marly-le-Roi, France. The school was at the periphery of Old Marly, where one found crooked cobblestoned streets with various slopes and gradients, offering small shops with curiosities and antiques, as well as basic provisions like the Charcuterie where we picked up our meats, or the Boulangerie where we ordered the best pastries and breads, and the small grocer where we could shop for other basics like milk, and cereal and various sundries. This was all found at the top of an incline street which led in the other direction down to the train station and post office, past my dentist and on the way towards the open air market which was my route home from school each day.
Thinking back, I wonder why I always took one route to school, and a different one home.
Each morning, I would walk that other street to school; the one that passed the public elementary school and library tucked into the center of our village’s public gardens, to the corner where one met the crossing guard and then walked the quiet side street leading to my school coming at it from the left side of the school. On my way home, I left the school courtyard by exiting the school taking a right and then an immediate second right turn down the residential street that had this somewhat steep incline and would find myself in the square that housed the post office, train station and a few shops including the bakery. After picking up a baguette of bread for Mother, I would continue my journey cradling the warm loaf in my arms and urging myself not to pull the hot dough out from its center; the smell of the bread taunting me with each step. I would continue by ducking through one of the small tunnels that went under the railroad tracks coming out next to some homes that led to the open air market which was in full swing once or twice a week. Otherwise that market was quiet and the surface of the lot would be littered with debris from the previous commerce transactions, interspersed with puddles of water from the workers having washed up after business was done. At times, I would play a game of hopscotch in my mind, dancing through those puddles- hopping on one foot and balancing my bread for leverage.
From the market, I would continue a short distance until I came to Chemin du Bas des Ormes – where our family home was stacked into a modern apartment complex. We had the luxury of a separate building for our underground parking lot which had a gravel roof that was used for recreation. It was common on a Sunday to find many fathers playing Boules; a game of throwing colored heavy metal balls with the aim to get as close to the small red ball target as possible. Children would be laughing and running and playing nearby and occasionally, one of the men would call out in a loud shush to make us quiet down during his turn, so that he could concentrate on the task at hand: throwing his heavy boule underhand and with great intention to bop another boule out of range of the small red ball and increase his own chance at a win.
Those are days of fond remembrance. I don’t recall having any heavy burdens back then, nor fears to speak of. It was a time before strains; prior to learning the ache of loss and uncertainty.