Sunday, February 12, 2023

swinging school

In 1965, Bobby Rydell sang about some mythical institute of higher learning where "the chicks are kicks and the cats are cool." I had this 45 and I played it often. I knew Bobby was a fellow Philadelphian, but I wasn't quite sure which school he was singing about. There certainly weren't any "kicky chicks" or "cool cats" at any school under the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia School District that I attended. School was awful, filled with bratty classmates, rigid, humorless teachers and a curriculum that never got any better or any easier as I struggled my way through twelfth grade. And "swinging?" Ugh! You gotta be kidding me!

I did what I could to get out of going to school as often as possible. I played on my mother's sympathies, milking every little sniffle into the onslaught of the bubonic plague. I suddenly became a devout student of the Talmud when I overheard some of my classmates discussing some obscure Jewish holiday that I needed to observe at home, taking precedent over a typical day at school (preferably a day when a book report was due). My mom (as I later discovered) wasn't as gullible as I had thought. She knew I was full of shit with each and every excuse I employed. But, my mom didn't press me for good marks or perfect attendance. She knew the limits of my academic abilities. She also knew that a day off here and there wasn't going to cause any permanent damage to the person I would become. She picked her battles and putting up a fuss when I wanted to stay home from school wasn't high on her list. My dad, by the way, couldn't have told you what grade I was currently enrolled in at any given time. He left that stuff to my mom. My dad did the important things. He went to work. He came home. He smoked cigarettes and he watched television. Mostly sports.

My dad — and my brother, for that matter — watched a lot of sports on television. A lot of sports. If it involved a ball, a bat, a stick, a racquet, a club, some sort of padding and a final score, my dad was watching it. I was not. I had no interest. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I didn't know a field goal from a lay-up. I couldn't tell you the difference between an inside pitch and an inside straight. But, my dad could. He watched baseball in the summer, football in the winter and basketball and hockey in the spring (although, he did complain that hockey moved "too goddamn fast," but he watched it anyway). 

When I was a kid, Philadelphia sports teams were notoriously bad. The Phillies were bad. The Eagles were bad. The 76ers were above average when they had Wilt Chamberlain in the early 70s, but stunk again until they acquired Julius "Dr. J." Erving (I looked that up). The Philadelphia Flyers, though — that hockey team that moved "too goddamn fast" for my father — were pretty good. And in 1974, the whole city — hockey fans or not — cheered them on as they became the Stanley Cup Champions that season. Of course, the city celebrated by throwing the team a victory parade. It was held on Monday, May 20, 1974 — the day after the Broad Street Bullies defeated the Boston Bruins to take Game 6 and the series.  And it was a school day.

I'm in there somewhere.
Reports on the news determined the Flyers Stanley Cup Victory Parade had a bigger celebratory turnout in Philadelphia  than the announcement of the end of World War II. An estimated two million people lined Broad Street and stood in a shower of ticker-tape as their tough-and-toothless heroes smiled and waved as they rode past the crowds on the open backs of city fire engines. A series of speeches and presentations were offered at JFK Stadium, the venerable venue in South Philadelphia (now gone, with the state-of-the-art Wells Fargo Center in its place). All were welcome and the stadium was a madhouse. I should know. I was there. Yep. On a day that should have been taken up by another installment of seventh grade, I was screaming and yelling and cheering a bunch of guys who played a sport that I didn't watch. My mom gave me permission to skip school and accompany my brother and his sports-following friends to the parade.  Miraculously, he agreed to let me in his car. From the looks of things, a lot of kids didn't go to school that day. An awful lot.

On Tuesday, I went to school.

My first class was math. I hated math. I have always hated math. I still hate math. And, to be honest, math isn't too fond of me either. My teacher was Mrs. Goetz, a nasty, cranky old martinet who looked like my paternal grandmother — a woman I could not stand. (Your grandmother? Josh! That's terrible! Oh yeah? Here's why...) When ever I mentioned this teacher's name, my mother would sing: "Whatever Missus wants.... Missus gets!" It wasn't until years later that I got this reference. As students filed into her classroom, Mrs. Goetz eyed each boy and girl with contempt, leaning forward and following with her gaze as each student took their assigned seat. She squinted and wrung her hands, like Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz trying to figure out how to get those ruby slippers off of Judy Garland's feet. Before a single integer was reversed or sine was cosined, Mrs. Goetz announced her displeasure with the amount of students who were missing from her class the previous day. She continued her tirade by insisting that everyone who was absent better have a good and valid excuse.... adding that "going to a parade for a hockey team" would not be considered a valid excuse. She spoke the phrase "going to a parade for a hockey team" as though Satan were whispering instructions in her ear. Still putting any mathematical information on hold, Mrs. Goetz ran down the class list — one by one — asking for reasons of absence. A majority of students — boys and girls — explained that they had attended a classmate's out-of-town Bar Mitzvah on Sunday and arrived home very, very late in the evening. They were much too tired and in no shape to attend school on Monday. Mrs. Goetz seemed to accept this lame-ass excuse, I suppose on the fear of repercussions from possible "religious persecution." She nodded to each student who offered the "Bar Mitzvah" reason. "I'll allow that," she muttered, as she made some marking with her pencil on the roll sheet. When she got to me, I was angry. I had already delivered the required note from my mother to my homeroom teacher. School policy didn't require that every teacher be given a separate note for each absence. This ornery old fuck was just being difficult for her own amusement. "Well," I thought to myself, "Fuck her! I'm telling her the truth!"

"Pincus!," she announced, "Why weren't you here yesterday?"

"I was at the Flyers parade." I said

Mrs. Goetz exhaled angrily. "That is no excuse! You get a 'zero' for the day!" Teachers have been using that "zero for the day" threat for years! It means nothing. Absolutely nothing. It doesn't follow you for the rest of your life. It doesn't play into job interviews or loan applications. It's just a stupid, manipulative device that teachers wield to make them appear to have some life-altering control over the course of your existence. Spoiler Alert! They don't. 

I hated math. I hated Mrs. Goetz. Mrs. Goetz taught math. (I can't believe I'm going to use this joke....) You do the math.

A few hours from now, the Philadelphia Eagles are going to play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII. There has been a lot of fervor over the Eagles for the entire season. Philadelphia is a sports town, specifically a rabid football town. Football always takes the forefront, no matter how good or bad the city's other sports teams are doing. I have heard the notorious "E-A-G-L-E-S" chant break out at a Phillies playoff game. Recently, Mrs. Pincus and I inexplicably found ourselves at a Flyers game. The Eagles were playing right next door. Midway through the Flyers game, "The Chant" erupted as word spread of another Eagles win. As the Eagles' regular season wound down, it became apparent that they had a shot at the whole ball of wax. The city was approaching a collective frenzy, as "The Birds" defeated every team they faced in the playoffs, securing themselves a spot in "The Big Game" — The Super Bowl.

There is a one-week gap between the last football playoff game and the date of The Super Bowl. In that time, several surrounding school districts have announced two-hour delays for the opening of schools on the day after The Super Bowl. Just a few days ago, the School District of Philadelphia followed suit and confirmed that its 217 schools will be opening two hours later than normal opening time on Monday, February 13. I'm pretty sure I heard all 124,111 students cheer from my home, just outside the city limits. While this decision does not affect me in the least, I am confounded by it. I cannot remember anything like this occurring in the history of the School District of Philadelphia. When I was an elementary school student, schools closed for Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. There was a ten-day break at the end of the calendar year that encompassed Christmas and New Years Day... and, if we were lucky, Chanukah fell within that time. If it didn't, well... tough. A one-week break covering Easter closed schools in the spring. Because of the unpredictability of Passover, Jewish students were on their own. A little parental convincing allowed for the first two and last two days of Passover to be taken off, while we ate peanut butter on matzoh during the days between. (If I told you that peanut butter is traditionally not eaten during Passover, you'd get that joke.) Sometimes we got Washington's Birthday (later combined with Lincoln's birthday to form the super holiday Presidents Day!) as a day off. Sometimes we got Columbus Day, too. Oh, and Veterans Day... we got Veterans Day off, prompting my father to lament: "I fought in the goddamn war and I have to go to work!"

But a football game? Really? What sort of example does this set for impressionable (and already entitled) children? I think the school boards are making a mistake with this one. Students' education has already been impacted by a worldwide pandemic. Do they really need to interrupt their school day because of a football game. Do they expect every student will be watching the game? Is it required to watch the game? If, by chance, the Eagles win (and they are the favorite), will schools be closed again for the obligatory celebration parade? Again, this decision has absolutely no bearing on me, my family or my life, but... seriously. Philadelphia has had other winning teams before. Jesus, the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017 and Philadelphia public schools opened at the same time they always did... providing there wasn't two inches of snow on the ground. I just think this is wrong. Very wrong.

Mrs. Goetz is probably spinning in her grave... assuming she is dead.

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