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5. Marion Howard at his desk, Longfellow School

“All composite things,” declares the Diamond Sutra, “are as a star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.” I am often reminded of those verses when I summon memories from my childhood. From my present vantage point, the images, names, and places that constitute those memories sometimes resemble fragments from a dream or dispatches from a foreign land.

Such is my memory of Longfellow Elementary School in Clinton, Iowa (pop. 27,000), my scenic hometown on the banks of the Mississippi River. I attended Longfellow School from the ages of seven to eleven. Situated on Iowa Avenue, a quiet residential street, and facing the First Church of God, this two-storey brown-brick building bespoke a reliable solidity and an austere sobriety. Erected in 1927, the building housed some thirty classrooms. Together with its spacious playground and baseball diamond, it occupied a city block. To the vulnerable schoolchildren who approached this imposing edifice, it presented a formidable if not forbidding aspect.

Not so for me, however. To this day I remember the school fondly and intimately, not only because it was there that I learned to read, write, and do arithmetic—and to hold my own with the playground bullies—but also because my father, Marion C. Howard (1905-1971), was the school’s principal. Far from being an alien, oppressive institution, Longfellow School felt like a second home.

Marion Curtis Howard grew up on a farm in Ankeny, Iowa, the eldest of six children born to Rose and Benjamin Franklin Howard, after whom I was named. They were progressive farmers in their day, and their farm was one of the earliest in the state to enjoy the benefits of rural electrification. Marion, however, was not cut out to be a farmer. Instead, he put himself through college by doing odd jobs and went on to earn a master’s degree in education. After stints as a teacher and superintendent of schools, he took the job at Longfellow School in 1949 and remained there until his retirement in 1970.

My father occupied a modest but well-lit office near the entrance to the school. On the glass door of his office, he had posted a framed copy of the Ten Commandments, its ornate gold letters set against a pitch-black background. I suspect that those stern admonitions sent shivers down the spine of many a miscreant ordered to report there. But to me, my father’s office was a warm, welcoming space, to which I often accompanied him. Sitting by his desk, I pestered him with questions about his work. For the longest time, I couldn’t figure out what, exactly, he did.

Next to my father’s office was the dimly lit supply room, which I would often explore when my father was busy. Its long shelves were stocked with such paraphernalia as ruled tablets, boxes of Crayolas, # 2 pencils, construction paper, Elmer’s Glue, and little rubber-tipped bottles of Mucilage. I loved the feel and the smells of those supplies. And in the late summer, every year, I helped my father allocate and distribute them to the classrooms. Not only did this task bestow a sense of privilege and importance. It also afforded an opportunity to explore the empty classrooms, particularly the one assigned to Miss Faust, the pretty first-grade teacher on whom I’d had a schoolboy crush.

Back in the foyer outside my father’s office, two objects held my sustained attention. One was a black button at the center of a circular bronze fixture. By pressing that button, preferably when my father was too preoccupied to notice, I could ring the loud outdoor bell that summoned the children back from recess. How powerful I felt, sounding that distant bell.

The other object of interest was the framed sheet music of a song. Accorded a place of honor in the foyer, the song was entitled “Over at Longfellow School” and was composed by Frank Swanson, the school’s “singing janitor,” a portly, grandfatherly figure whose red suspenders matched the sweeping compound he used on the floors. “Here’s a ditty I’ll sing,” the opening bars began, “Just before the bell rings / Over at Longfellow School.” The ditty went on to describe the children arriving with their “pitter and patter,” their “chitter and chatter / bidding the time of the day.”

Soon after came the swelling chorus:

Over at Longfellow School

            Over at Longfellow School

            That’s where I work from morn till night

            That’s where the kids fill my heart with delight

And last, the quiet concluding stanza:

When my day’s work is over

            My life is in clover,

            Thinking of Longfellow School

In the ensuing decades, living far away from Iowa and the scenes of my childhood, I too thought of Longfellow School. And when, in the mid-1990s, I brought my then-fiancée Robin out to Iowa to meet my sister and her family, I took Robin on a tour of the neighborhood where I’d grown up. After I’d shown her the little white frame house on Barker Street where our family had lived, we drove up Iowa Avenue toward Longfellow School. I was especially eager to see and touch an item I’d viewed only in a photograph: a bronze plaque in the front hallway honoring my father’s twenty-one years of service.

Coming down a hill that I’d remembered as steeper, we arrived at our destination. There, looking as stolid as ever, was the First Church of God. But across the street, where Longfellow School had stood, there was now a green, well-tended sward. Every trace of the school, including the plaque, the bell button, and the song, had disappeared. Inquiring as to what had happened, I learned that the building had been demolished in 1999, asbestos having been discovered in its walls.

Longfellow School was indeed a composite thing, a bubble in a stream. But how fortunate I am to have that bubble among my stream of memories—and to have, in living memory, the examples of two men of humble origins, one of them my father, who loved their work and their place of work and were grateful for their lives.

________

Photo: Marion Howard at his desk in Longfellow School

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