Cayuga Heights, pictures taken at Shackelton Point and 120 Kay Street

5 Apr

Kathy at Sheldrake

Kathy in Ballet costumeBarth and Kathy Mapes October 1963


Lately I have been working as a tutor at Cayuga Heights, my old grammar school. I never expected to be back within its walls, especially since I lived in Minneapolis, Minnesota for thirty years and hadn’t planned to return to Ithaca. Additions have been made to the school, and the oldest section has been eliminated, as far as I can see, but the spirit of the school still lives within me.

When I enter the doors of Cayuga Heights School, I often think back to the little girl that was me, with her full-skirted dresses and her skinned knees. There was still a dress code when I went to school and we often played games on the concrete, like hopscotch and jump rope. As a result, there was many a bloody knee. Knees decked out in band aids were a common sight. Girls only wore pants in gym class, and that took place mainly inside, not that that made much sense.

I was a shy, but pretty girl, who often wore my hair in pony tails and ribbons, that is I was pretty until I started experiencing crossed eyes and glasses. Then I found out what it was like to feel like an outsider. I was generally well-liked by girls, but guys sometimes gave me a hard time about being cross-eyed, especially one guy named Doug who called me “White Eyes” on the bus. He was the top swimmer in town and he generally did and said what he wanted. Even when my eyes were straight back then, I had the problem that most of us who wore glasses had in those days–we wore glasses in the shape of cat’s eyes, which made us look like nerds. I’ve been told that my eyes still have a tendency to cross, but fortunately only the eye doctor can see it. My glasses also had sparkles on them, which makes me cringe when I look back at old pictures.

Unlike my brother, who taught himself to read, I learned how to read at the regular time in first grade. I don’t know that anyone thought I was especially bright, initially. I was going to school with the children of doctors and university professors and two of the girls my age were skipped ahead. I’m not even sure they were the smartest students in our class, but I think it does indicate the competitive attitude that was prevalent among Cayuga Heights parents.

I loved the art projects and snacks in kindergarten; first grade, on the other hand, was a little confusing to me. Telling time was arduous. My first grade teacher used paper plates and tongue depressors–to my way of thinking they looked nothing like clocks and clock hands, nor could I understand what “half past” and “quarter of” meant. My mother ended up teaching me by using a watch.

My second grade teacher accused me of being dreamy–the world outside the windows of the classroom looked much more interesting than that within. However, I was becoming aware of how I fit into the group and I felt awkward, but also as though I had a place there. Sometimes I needed to get some attention and one day I did just that, grabbing a pencil and jabbing the eraser point into the back of Charlie, who sat in front of me. He complained to the teacher and I was embarrassed, but glad to be recognized. My normally shy, polite behavior didn’t garner me the attention that the pencil action did. One day I received what I thought was the wrong kind of attention when my mother brought in daffodils with poems attached for the entire class. Everybody thought it was great. I realized it was generous on her part, but wanted to shrink back into my chair.

We “ducked” and “covered” just like all the other children across the country. My uncle had been a bomber pilot over Tokyo and Nagasaki and I knew the score. I knew that cowering under my desk wasn’t going to save me from “the bomb,” but I didn’t say anything. It was one of my first realizations that adults could sometimes be ridiculous.

Alan Shepard became the first American to go up in a rocket. We all pulled our chairs over to the loudspeaker and listened with excitement to the countdown. I was stirred up in a way that I would only be once more for John Glenn, and then not again. There was something about the innocence of the early space program that really caught my attention. The idea of men traveling into space seemed novel then.

When third grade rolled around, I was starting to experience intermittent feelings of pure joy. I would be walking through the halls of Cayuga Heights and I would feel suddenly elated. I remember once having the experience after using the drinking fountain. I saw myself as being famous and having a storied existence. It was too strange to repeat to anyone. Thank heavens I knew better than to repeat it to anyone. As an adult, I still have this happen, but it happens less and less.

I was finding on my own that I liked to read. On one side, I was reading Mary Poppins and Mrs. Pickerell Goes to Mars, while I was also navigating Readers’ Digest and my father’s novels from Cornell, such as Huckleberry Finn and The Razor’s Edge. With their help and my own imagination, I developed a fantasy life that took me far away from my peers.

In fourth grade, I was scared of gym class, music class, art class, and Khrushchev—the classes because I thought I had no talent and Mrs. Thomas, the art teacher was a bear, and Khrushchev because he had planted missiles in Cuba, which was significantly not far from Florida. When I found out recently that my tutee didn’t know whether Cuba was a country, I was disbelieving and found it for him on the globe. Of course, his experiences are far different from mine, but Cuba was such a big part of my life for awhile. My teacher, Mrs. Head, had us cut out newspaper articles and bring them in for Current Events. We didn’t have a TV, so my knowledge of the world beyond Ithaca’s borders was defined in part by black newsprint and short trips to Cleveland and the Catskills to see relatives.

Fifth grade at Cayuga Heights colors my memories in a more profound way than any of the other grades. It was the year that Kennedy died, and the year that Lynn Bartter died, our teacher Mrs. Bartter’s husband and a family friend of my parents. On November 22, 1963, we were told over the loudspeaker that President Kennedy had died. We were in shock, and some of my fellow students were crying quietly. It was very unsettling to find out that our president had been killed. That night I performed “Robin Hood” (I’m pretty sure of the ballet, but it was one of several I performed in.) at Willard, the local mental hospital, with the other members of Alice Reid’s dance troupe. I felt as though we should be doing something else more appropriate, but I couldn’t think what. Several months later, Mr. Bartter died, and I have always associated the two deaths, partly because they took place so close in time to one another. Mr. Bartter was working on his doctorate and the main thing I remember about it was that Cornell refused to award him the PhD, even though he was almost done. Cornell can be a little cutthroat in that way. Mr. Bartter was forty, and died from cancer, while President Kennedy was forty-six, and was assassinated. However, the youth rather than the cause of death had more significance for me. Previous to that time I had only had the experience of my Grandmother Mapes and Great Grandmother Clark dying, both of whom were much older.

On the heels of such tragedy, the Beatles stepped out to fame in America in 1964. Many of my thoughts go back to Karen Underwood, my best friend at that time and fellow Beatles’ fan. During the winter we stood outside in the cold and memorized all the verses to “Good King Wenceslas.” In the fall and spring, we excavated the soil underneath the trees next to the schoolyard for fossils, finding many. Whenever I visited her house in Cayuga Heights ( a white house that bordered on being a mansion ), we listened to Beatles’ records. She had some of the early British albums that had come out from a friend who had been traveling in England at the time. We also saw “A Hard Day’s Night” together. Together we shared the experience of becoming acquainted with the four of them. Each one was like Johnny Carson, only with a British accent, and jointly they were amazingly cool and witty. Although I spent much of my time with her, people were generally friendly, which is very different from the way I remember Dewitt and Ithaca High School. About a year ago I went to the funeral of Karen’s father, where I was able to see her for the first time in a long time. I thought back to visiting her parents’ restaurant, the Kent Steak House, listening to Beatles’ records together, and spending our time on the playground digging for fossils.

The following year my classmates from my neighborhood on the northeast hill and I transitioned to the Congregational Church and then to Northeast School, where we became the first graduating class. The classmates who actually lived in Cayuga Heights stayed there and then moved on to Boynton Junior High, while we moved on to Dewitt Junior High, a junior high of lower repute both academically and in terms of student behavior than Boynton. I liked my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Westwig, and became friends with another girl named Jackie Kish, but I felt more secure and understood at Cayuga Heights. When I reached junior high, I was invited to a party of Jody Lisberger’s, a classmate from Cayuga Heights, and was reminded that Cayuga Heights had indeed been a friendlier school.

One Response to “Cayuga Heights, pictures taken at Shackelton Point and 120 Kay Street”

  1. Jim April 5, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    Very beautiful posting. Well done!

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