Lately I have been feeling nostalgic for Parkside, the elementary school in Silver Spring I went to in the late '40s and early '50s. Maybe all suburban schools in that buoyant, child-centered postwar era radiated the same patriotic, democratic glow, but I prefer to think that Parkside was unique. It gave us a feeling that we could affect our environment, both close to home and far away.
If some aspects of life at Parkside were duplicated at the Oakwoods, Rolling Terraces and Springbrooks that were opening around the country, our Freedom Cards were not. With a Freedom Card--there actually were cards--a Parksider who had finished his assignments could go outside and work in the garden. The cards were awarded, almost unanimously, on the basis of a public evaluation performed by our classmates. They brought together the democracy, learning- by-doing and love of nature that were the highlights of a Parkside education.
Since classwork was not particularly demanding, we had magnificent gardens--gardens that the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission, which has occupied the school since 1977, has replaced with grassy lawn.
These gardens were for us a continuing source of pride in what we could accomplish. They made us feel purposeful and effective. Every day we saw that we were having a positive impact on our environment. We knew we made a difference.
Our gardening at Parkside was remarkably self-involved. We thought only about production, not about distribution. We never thought that if we had planted food instead of flowers we might have had an impact on the people of the "colored" shanty town less than two miles away. Those people, living in houses without electricity, where water was collected at a community pump, were truly invisible to us. We never thought about them. We also never wondered where the janitor, Willie, on whose pre-war Ford radio I heard MacArthur's "old soldier" speech, went when he went home at night.
We were not really self-centered. It's just that the people we helped had to be a little farther away than Brookville Road. We collected food for flood victims in Holland and for war victims in Pakistan. We could help these people on other continents without darkening the sunny, naively optimistic view of the United States that prevailed at Parkside from 1948 to 1953.
Whether because we were so involved with gardening or because one of the groups we identified with strongly was the Dust Bowl farmers of the '30s, erosion was "Public Enemy No. 1." Despite the fact that the "Silver Spring" had long since dried up to a few drops of water running over a mica bottom, we felt personal revulsion for erosion and its effects. We terraced, we contoured, we planted rock gardens, and we hoped that somehow what we were doing would mean that the Depression, less than 10 years past, would never come again.
We also identified with the Greeks of the Athenian period. Each fifth grade class held an Olympics for the school. Our only official assembly place was an anachronistic amphitheatre built by fathers as part of a famous futuristic playground that was featured in newsreels and Life magazine. We learned the virtues of the Greek Golden Mean as Freedom Without Order Day was followed by Order Without Freedom Day and finally Freedom With Order Day that showed us the Greek Way, the Parkside Way and the American Way.
Perhaps our strongest allegiance was to the state of Maryland. We made maps on which all the coves and inlets of its Atlantic coastline and the indentations of its Chesapeake shoreline were captured. The contours of our native state became as familiar to us as our knees. We cherished the Tidewater region of the Delmarva peninsula, the sparkling blue bay with its harvest of crabs and the Piedmont plateau that rises to become the Catoctin mountains. In those days, the Catoctins were not yet home to Camp David. Then they were important geographically, not politically.
Maryland's history was as special to us as its beauty. A colony founded to give religious toleration to Catholics inspired the admiration of the Protestant and Jewish student body. A nine-year-old can claim a state more easily than a nation, but can go on from there to catch hold of the nation.
At Parkside, we also felt important through our participation in elections. We elected ideas as well as people. What would be on the mural? Where should we plant the marigold border? Should the pageant start or end with folk dancing? We discussed, we listened, we voted, and then we acted. The group was small enough that we could influence it, and when the election was over, our participation had made the decision ours and we would support it.
Habits acquired early die hard. I still write to political figures, sign petitions and vote. The Parkside idea that I can make a difference influences my actions, but I can no longer believe in it. In the vestibule at Parkside, there is a memorial plaque honoring two graduates who died in 1944. It extolls them as embodying "the Parkside spirit." The world and I have changed a lot since I used to pass that plaque daily. The Parkside spirit was one of optimism. I miss it.