The picture was jammed in a dresser drawer, under some yearbooks and next to a few orphaned socks. I hadn’t seen this photo in years and when I came across it, I had to pause my weekend cleaning to study the faces. Suddenly, I could smell wood chips and hear laughter, the sounds of a playground. I could taste milk in boxes and peanut butter sandwiches, the lunches of elementary school.
I looked for myself in the photo but I was nowhere to be seen. I must have been sick that day. Yet of course I knew I had been in the class. It was my favorite year of school, after all: fifth grade, Marquette Elementary in Madison, 1980.
What struck me now was what these people had grown up to be. Back row, third from left, smiling broadly with her frame taller than anyone else in the scene: Tari, a celebrated Broadway actress whose credits include “Anything Goes,” “Something Rotten” and “Groundhog Day.” I remember that she used to zip off to dance classes after school quite a bit.
First row, second from left, looking very studious even though a line of green marker, apparently randomly drawn by me one childhood day, partially obscures him: Josh, an Ivy League university professor whose father is the lead plaintiff in the gerrymandering case that is being debated by the Supreme Court. Josh was always one of the top academic students in the class.
Bottom row, fourth from right, wearing a fashionable shirt for a 10-year-old: Meghan, who has worked in the fashion industry in San Francisco for decades. As we got into our teens, Meghan made many of her own clothes and tried out bright red lip colors and unusual hairdos.
Middle row, far right in the green jump suit: Joanna, who always walked to a natural beat. She and I worked on a project together about Czechoslovakia that fifth-grade year. She grew up to travel to Nepal and Turkey, where she first became a school principal and then a jewelry importer. She now works the art fair circuit.
Bottom row, on the left: Trevor, who sadly was paralyzed from the waist down riding his bicycle home from work on a rainy night shortly after high school. He picked up his life though, went to college in Atlanta, became a lawyer, and lives there still with his wife and adopted daughter.
At least one person in the photo proudly married someone of the same sex, plus there is a middle school teacher, a woman who became a Fortune 100 information technology specialist, and a restaurant owner, just to name a few. Me? I grew up to become one of the first women in the country to host an NFL coach’s show and be the Green Bay Packers sideline reporter.
Our teacher, Marjorie Passman, was making her Midwest debut with our class, although of course we didn’t know that at the time. She had moved from New York City and we were her first class. It was the height of women’s lib and she asked us to call her Ms., not Mrs. or Miss. We were raised in one of the most liberal enclaves in all of America on the east side, our school nestled just one block away from Williamson Street, which everyone called Willy Street. We scolded Ms. Passman that her lipstick was made from whales; on our way to and from school, we stood on the bridge overlooking the Yahara River and shouted, “Motorboats pollute the water!” Passman stepped right up into our funky, raised-by-hippies lifestyles and installed a loft in the classroom that we swarmed at reading time. She talked to us about current events and elevated the curriculum to keep us challenged.
“I treated you as a high-school class because you were so receptive to everything I presented,” Passman told me recently.
We may have been receptive, but we were also just goofy kids. She invited us to her house one Saturday and served us “giggle cake,” which she guaranteed would make us laugh. There was nothing special in the cake, but of course we couldn’t stop laughing.
Although I have lost touch with many of my fifth-grade classmates, I have to say that by and large, we did OK. We are scattered in all directions across America, but we are still rooted together by common schooling, a neighborhood that felt safe and inviting and a group of parents who shopped at the co-op, encouraged us to eschew gender stereotypes and allowed us to roam the streets of Madison until dinnertime. Many of us, myself included, were raised by single mothers, and we were all living on what was considered the lower-income side of town — yet we made our marks in many fields.
I stood in my Milwaukee bedroom and looked fondly at that image for a while but didn’t return it to the drawer. It deserved more. Placing it on top of the dresser, I angled it just right so that I could see it, and smell the wood chips, anytime I wanted. Your childhood is like DNA: imprinted on you, and I can't think of a better place to grow up than Madison, Wisconsin.
Jessie Garcia grew up on the east side of Madison in the 1970s and 1980s. She is a sportscaster at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee and a professor of journalism at UW-Milwaukee. She has written two books for the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.
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