2013.02.27 Lucille's school of pain

Written by David Green.


In last week's column I pulled the name Larry Fredendall out of my head and I'm still surprised. That was 40 years ago. I've never seen the guy since.

A lot of recollections remain from the two and a third months I spent in Saginaw after college. I started thinking about that time recently after I received an e-mail from Jessica at Little People's Place preschool in Morenci. She needed to advertise for a part-time teacher. I have the experience, I told her, but not the time.

My Saginaw years involved working for the Saginaw County Child Development Center—a collection of preschool rooms spread across the poorer areas of the city. For the most part, I was the white face among most of the teachers, aides and kids.

I remember how I dressed for the job interview: blue jeans with holes in the knees. I suppose this was my reasoning: I'm not hiding anything; here's what you're going to get. And if you don't like it, I'll find something else. 

I wasn't all that sold on the job and there were other possibilities. My rough appearance didn't bother Nels, the director, apparently. He was pleased to have me join forces. Maybe he saw through the patched jeans and determined the person underneath was OK. Whatever the case, I soon moved to Saginaw, setting up temporary quarters at the YMCA. 

I remember the day I moved into a rooming house. Winter had already begun and I had nothing but my bicycle for transportation. It took about five, 20-block bicycle trips through the snow to get settled into my new home with Carl, the bus driver, and Smokey Joe, the taxi driver. Carl was a Toledo native and a good guy. Smokey was something else. He would come home very drunk and start loudly talking to the walls of his room as though they were all good friends. "Hello, walls. How ya doin', walls?"

I bicycled to work except when the snow was too deep, and then I had the fun of walking through the neighborhoods with loose German shepherds. I'm glad this was long before pit bulls were the dog of choice.

Saginaw was a rough place in the 1970s. It managed to surpass Detroit as Michigan's murder capital and I was really hoping to avoid becoming a statistic. I thought about that often as I walked through the neighborhood and stood out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Occasionally a shepherd would rush me and nibble on my mitten a little, threatening to give me more than just a sore thumb. This was a little too much for me, so I bought Connie Ries's old Volkswagen Beetle and drove to work—except when it was too cold and the battery would die and then I bicycled through the below-zero morning.

There were a lot of adventures in Saginaw and that included the classroom. I read this morning that the organization I worked for ended its existence in 1998. I'm sure that was long after Nels retired. The system of schools is described as "a pioneer in early childhood education. As an innovator of several groundbreaking projects for preschoolers and their parents, the agency successfully operated numerous programs."

I started off working in a large class in a church basement with at least three other adults. Elaine was a real sweetheart, a grandmotherly type who loved the kids. Big Fat Lucille was a demon who helped send many preschoolers on the road to messed up lives. 

Lucille was adept at giving a fake, cheesy smile that soon turned into a burning show of force. She was all about control and she disciplined these three- and four-year-olds by bending back a finger until they submitted. 

Somewhere in the house there's a stack of five or six journals titled "Saginawed" and there are many words about Lucille. I've never read those journals a second time and maybe I never will, but I would enjoy reading the account of the big preschool party for which I actually bought some new clothes. Nobody could believe it was me when I walked down those stairs. Little Demetrius kept saying over and over, "You be sharp, Mr. David! You be sharp!"

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