Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough.
"So let me introduce to you
The one and only Billy Shears"
----The Beatles "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band"(1)
"Why didn’t you tell me?" Johnny’s dad, changing the subject, drew me up short in the course of the conversation.
"Tell you about what?", I asked quizzically.
"Tell me about that school", was his reply. " I was an elder at the church and I could have done something about it." Plaintively, he repeated the question "Why didn’t you tell me?"
I had met his son Johnny on the first day of class in second grade. It was Johnny’s first day at St. John’s Lutheran and, being a sensitive young lad, he was already feeling the tension. He had been assigned a seat at a desk just behind mine in Miss Kasten’s class and, since I had some experience surviving in the place, he immediately latched on to me and we became fast friends. It was a friendship that has survived the decades. A friendship that has lasted through elementary school, high school, college and into adulthood. Having moved, in the late 50's, into his neighborhood, we spent a lot of time together. I came to know his parents and family. Johnny’s parents, Herb and Fran, were well into middle age when he arrived, appearing to my young mind like grandparents. Judgmental, as all parents are, but wise. Herb was a foreman at the old Story and Clark piano factory and, given his age and his position, presented a middle class household in a working class neighborhood. His home was, to my eyes, a relatively secure place to be. The Hierholzers were like surrogate parents, Herb even allowed us to build a tree house in a large maple tree in the back yard. It was an ambitious edifice, complete with cantilevered porches extending out into mid-air, cabinets, windows and furniture. Most of my carpentry skills, skills that I would later put to good use, were honed on that project. Years later Herb would smile as he related the sound of that aging structure twisting loudly in the wind when they opened the windows on summer nights to let in the fresh air. It is not often that parents make such sacrifices for their son and his friends. In early 1986, I returned to the old neighborhood to introduce my 3 month old daughter and, while showing off my little bundle of joy, Herb was moved to hauntingly ask "Why didn’t you tell me"?
I first heard of Billy Scheer in the summer of 1954, just prior to entering Kindergarten. In the spring of that year, my father had uprooted the family and, finding employment in the Muskegon area, had moved us from Ludington some 75 miles down the coast to Grand Haven, Michigan. Ripped from the family ‘compound’ on seventh street where we had been living with my great-grandmother, with my grandparents living directly across the street, my great uncle next door and a great aunt several doors down at the end of the block, I found myself on newly ‘developing’ caul-de-sac surrounded mostly by woods but with a few newly constructed homes at the end of the street overlooking Potowatamie Bayou near the Grand River about five miles southeast of the city. I quickly made friends with a couple of boys my age that lived caddy corner across the end of the street right on the water. Leslie Rice became my first real friend in my newly arrived home. Over the course of the ensuing months it was determined that I would be enrolled in the Lutheran School. My family were mostly composed of Catholics and Lutherans and since we had attended a Lutheran Church, by the same name, in Ludington it was quite natural that I would find myself about to enroll in the local Lutheran School. Leslie, it transpired, was also about to go to the same school, joining his older brother. While the adults talked about the arrangements, Leslie, his brother and I, would play in the woods. It was his brother who first presented to my mind the ominous spectre of J. William Scheer, then principal of St. John’s Lutheran School. While off in the woods, far from the earshot of the adults, Leslie’s brother told us about the terrors we were about to encounter. I remember relating these tales to my mother later that summer but she dismissed them as childhood exaggerations and told me I would be just fine. I wasn’t.
I could sense it almost from the first day of class. There was a perpetual tension in the building and I was soon given to understand that it was the better part of wisdom to not be heard or seen and that, by all means, avoid the principal. My earliest memories consist of my first grade class being interrupted as a group of 8th grade boys, representing the principal (who taught the upper classes) barged into the classroom and demanded that all us boys go into the restroom. There we were lined up, slapped around a bit, and interrogated as to who was responsible for plugging up the toilets, as if a first grader would do such a thing. Here was an early example of the terror. Young boys, no more than 12 or 13 taking control from an adult of a classroom. Capricious and arbitrary authority. There was much more of the same. I remember kids, exclusively boys were targeted, being slapped around regularly. Big Bob Hienz, nearly 6 ft tall in seventh grade being slapped by a male teacher along side the head, with his glasses flying across the floor as he walked out of the cafeteria, no one seemed to have an explanation as to why. Then there was the time in sixth grade when we were given time to read. We were all sitting properly at our desks reading silently when suddenly William Scheer walked up behind his son Scott and hit him so hard across the back of his head that he knocked him unto the floor. The explanation given to the class was that he wasn’t reading ‘fast enough’.
The worst of it, as I recall, came in third grade. We had just come in from noon recess and as I moved to take my seat Jackie Nelson and a couple of the other girls were whispering ominously that something shocking and terrible was about to take place. Up before the class was Ernie Melcher, crying and shaking. It had been clear that the authorities had been working him over during recess. Apparently poor Ernie had taken a schoolmate’s model airplane motor, a transgression that called for corporal punishment. Crying and shaking like a leaf, Ernie apologized to his classmate and begged for forgiveness. Notwithstanding it was announced that just punishment was in order and he was instructed to lay across a desk in the front of the class. The teacher, our third grade teacher, who was in his mid thirties at the time with huge biceps, took off is belt and proceeded to beat poor Ernie mercilessly, hitting him so hard that when finished the instructor’s hair was all awry. To this day, I can still hear the screams. "Let that be a lesson", he said as he put his belt back on, "anyone who sins like this will get the same medicine". I looked about the room, every child’s face was ashen white with expressions betraying fear and terror. Ernie was led from the classroom never to be seen again. Word was that he was expelled, which could have been done without the abuse. I prefer to think that his mother, seeing the evidence of his beating had the good sense to get him the hell out of there before permanent damage was done to his body.
Lesson? Medicine? The ‘lessons’ I learned was that authority is capricious and arbitrary and not to be trusted. The ‘medicine’, such as it was, was fit for neither body or soul, for the actions taken and sanctioned by the adults in the room left every child in that classroom emotionally scarred. Many of my classmates, later in life, were to have police records, all of us would have issues with authority; for this is what happens when adults are out of control.
"Suffer the little children to come unto me" says the Bible, along with "Spare the rod and spoil the child". Such sanctions, in a fundamentalist setting, are apt to be taken, as everything else, quite literally. Punishment was swift and often, ranging from slapping to being struck with rulers on the hands; wooden rulers with metal edges. I speak here from personal experience. The hand would sting, often both hands depending on the number of strikes, for hours. The numbness would not go away until well after I had returned home from school. Protesting to my mother, her reply was that "you must have deserved it". Richie Ohlendorf and I had been playing during class by gathering condensation off the windows and rubbing the water into each other’s faces. There was the pulling of hair, ears, and the good old standby of standing before the class and holding heavy dictionaries until your arms felt like they were about to fall off and woe to the young lad who let one drop.
Such was the regimen at good ‘Ol St. John’s during the tenure of William Scheer. So arrogant were the authorities that Johnny himself was struck on the side of his head and knocked into the isle, then taken down to the principal’s office. You see he had to go to the bathroom and, the place being what it was, he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. Finally, after about an hour he had trouble holding it, and began to shake at his desk. The teacher–the same one who had beat Ernie–asked him what he was doing. He said he had to go to the bathroom and, nervous and anxious, stuck his tongue out. One has a hard time acting appropriately when one is young in an environment like this. The teacher, in a rage, moved quickly down the isle and hit Johnny so hard on the side of the head that he ended up on the floor. Here was the son of one of the church elders sprawled out at our feet. Surely something would be done now. Scheer, it transpired, would move on having been instructed by God to become a pastor. It is difficult to imagine the joy and hope that he would impart to a congregation but, alas, this was not our concern for his departure was our day of liberation and it took the ensuing principal years to establish order and a sense of normalcy in his place.
But Johnny didn’t go home and tell his parents. Later, much later, he would open up and talk to his father about what life was like at the American Madrasa (2). So powerful and so damaging was the conduct of our schoolmasters that Johnny’s father was raising the issue more than a quarter of a century after the fact. "Why didn’t you tell me?" he implored. "I would have got little Billy Scheers fired".
I responded that we wouldn’t have been understood, that our parents would have seen it as being our fault. I know now that I would have had a hearing with Herb and Fran, but I didn’t know it then and neither did their son. I also know that the place did little to prepare us for life and that the lessons learned, such as they were, were most assuredly wrong.
"I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in
and stops my mind from wandering
where it will go
I'm filling the cracks that ran though the door
and kept my mind from wandering
where it will go"
----The Beatles "I’m Fixing a Hole" from the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
(2). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madrasa The term Madrasa in Arabia means, loosely ‘School’ but in the west it has developed connotations denoting parochialism and intolerance, both of which characterize my early education.