[What can I say? The end of the school year makes me wax nostalgic.]
It was field day for the two fourth-grade classes who occupied adjacent rooms on the first floor of the old brick school building in North Amherst Center. If I use my imagination, I can fill in some of the details from that day, details that my memory can no longer supply. It was probably one of those sweltering days in early June; the kids were antsy, squirming in their seats; the teachers were busy trying to maintain order until it was time to let the kids out for an afternoon of playing games, running races, and participating in team contests for long-forgotten prizes.
I think that 1968 must have been one of the last years that building was used as a school. Driven by the expansion of the local U Mass campus, the Town of Amherst was growing rapidly. Beginning in the mid-to-late 1960s, the Town demolished several old elementary and middle school buildings in the center of town and replaced them with sprawling modern buildings — Wildwood, South Amherst, the new Junior High school off Chestnut Street, and, a few years later, the Fort River elementary school. The old-fashioned classrooms in North Amherst were simply a stopgap, a place to put kids while construction was under way on the new schools.
The last time I drove by, the North Amherst school building was still there, although it hasn’t been used as a school for several. decades. It’s hard to reconcile my larger-than-life mental image of that towering school and its vast playing fields with the reality of a small building and a modest patch of green next to it. Could that really be the same place that looms so large in my memory? That field seemed huge when I was in fourth grade, an expanse of open space into which we escaped at recess, refugees from the rigors and monotony of our fourth-grade education.
Field day was a welcome recreation at the end of the school year, a preview of freedom with summer vacation only a few days away. The texture of that specific day has faded, and the actual details have vanished beyond recall. I don’t remember who was on my team, or the name of the girl I had a crush on, or whether my teachers yelled at me that day, or much of anything else — I only remember one thing:
At some point there was a race. Miraculously, it was a “distance” race: not a dash, but a loping circuit around the entire field that thinned the mob of kids straining to keep the pace. I remember thinking that the race seemed terribly long, although it couldn’t possibly have been more than a quarter mile or so. But it was long enough to reveal something that would leave a powerful impression: when a race is long enough, there comes a point when the fast kids, the ones who win at everything else, begin to slow down. And when they slow down, they become mortal and beatable.
I have a grainy home movie in my mind, and in this movie I am one of several boys running out towards the far end of the field, taking a wide, counter-clockwise turn, and then running back towards the school. On the return trip, I am unexpectedly gaining on one of my friends who was, in my mind, incomparably faster and more athletic than me. I doubt that I had ever beaten him at anything. I was about to.
Have I created this myth to explain everything that happened later? Did an inconsequential event from childhood really have that significance, or is it just a story I began to tell myself as other experiences with running coalesced into a pattern. I can’t say for sure. But in my mind, field day 1968 was the first time I realized that I had a talent for endurance, the first time realized that “endurance” was a thing that one could have, that would come in handy in the years ahead.