Thursday, June 4, 2015

RIP St. Clare's of Clifton, NJ: Saying goodbye to my old grade school

You know how comic book movies talk about origin stories? Well, St. Clare's of Clifton, NJ is where much of my own origin story began. I went to elementary school and church there. And I heard today that the school is closing, and the church's future is unclear. Hearing this news brought on a lot of emotions for me today.

My memories of St. Clare's are pretty bittersweet, starting with the fact that the last time I was there, it was for my father's funeral at the church.

Also, I was in the first grade at St. Clare's when I contracted encephalitis from a case of the chicken pox. I talked in my Guideposts magazine Spartan Race story about how the illness sapped my coordination. Encephalitis also nearly killed me.

I literally don't remember most of what I was like before I got sick, but family members tell me I was a really bright, confident child. Taught myself how to read when I was three. When I was in kindergarten, classmates would ask me to read what the teacher's notes to their parents said!  

But everything changed when I was six years old. I was rushed to the hospital after taking ill. I spent several weeks there. There were real doubts about whether I was going to live, which is why Father Hooper, a priest at St. Clare's, came to the hospital to give me communion for the first time, a year ahead of the traditional First Holy Communion service. Not exactly a good sign.

Obviously, I recovered, but it was a long journey, and I missed an entire marking period of school. I have blanked out on most of the details. But my mother and brother recently filled me in on some of these details after my Spartan Race piece ran. It turns out that my coordination was so bad that my mother had to carry me up the stairs when I first got out of the hospital, and I couldn't even use the bathroom for a while without her help. She also had to teach me how to do everything all over again, including riding a bike.
My brother said that my coordination was so bad that I couldn't even put a lollipop in my own mouth -- I kept on missing! I also had to have months of speech therapy. And obviously, my psyche was permanently changed after nearly dying; I became a pretty neurotic kid, for the most part.
Fortunately, I did get some positive support from the school at the time. I do remember missing my classmates when I was out sick, and how they sent me cards and such. I also remember how one of my classmate's parents painted a beautiful pink ceramic music box princess for me that had blonde hair and blue eyes, just like I did, and even painted my name on her. (My younger sister was extremely jealous of this gift and managed to "accidentally" break the fingers on her over the years!)
I also remember that in the next school year, Miss Treptau, my second grade teacher at St. Clare's, gave me my first and only D of my elementary school years. I had never even had any grade lower than an A before that!
The D was for my bad handwriting, and I was devastated over that terrible grade. The issue was that I had problems holding a pen or pencil correctly due to coordination issues. I still hold a pen in a weird way (I kind of turn my hand like a lefty, even though I am a righty.) And my handwriting was admittedly pretty awful. But you would think that my physical condition might have made that teacher cut me some slack here. No such luck.
Fortunately, there were some good teachers at St. Clare's as well. The one I remember the most was Miss Bernadette Henry, my fourth-grade teacher. She was kind of a hippie/New Age type, and taught us all sorts of things that made us more well-rounded kids than just the Three Rs. For example, she fostered a lifelong love of music in me by showing us a documentary on the Beatles. Hearing and seeing them was a real revelation, and I ended up wanting to listen to all of their music, a passionate pattern I have repeated over and over in my life, most recently with the Grateful Dead!
My brothers loaned me some of their Beatles records to listen to, which I did, incessantly. I also ended up using the money I got for my 10th birthday that year to buy "Abbey Road." I even acted out the "Woke Up/Fell Out of Bed" part of "A Day in the Life" for a skit I came up with for my fourth-grade class. That was one of my happiest memories ever.
Miss Henry also was big on teaching us things like how to make butter, and how you could cut up an apple and make some really cool designs, and then let the apple dry like that. We also had arts and crafts every week, which is where I learned how to crochet and do needlework, things I still like to do. Miss Henry only stayed one year at St. Clare's -- I think she was probably too radical for a Catholic school -- but I think I learned more real-life, interesting, practical stuff from her than from any other teacher I ever had in my life.
I do have some baseball-related memories connected with St. Clare's as well. My father always encouraged my love of the Yankees. In 1978, when the Yanks were having their post-World Series ticker tape parade, my father showed up at the school to get me out of class and take me to the parade in New York City! How cool was that?
Sister Clare, the principal, agreed, but said that he could only do it that one time. "Don't let it happen again," she said. As it turned out, that would be the last time the Yankees would win the World Series until 1996. It seemed like Sister Clare had put a jinx on the Yanks, and that it took Joe Torre, with a sister who is a nun, to remove the jinx!
Thanks to the magic of Facebook, I am back in touch with some childhood friends, which I love. Especially my fellow Yankee fan friend Kelly Deutsch, who was cool and a little dangerous then, and still cool now!  
On a sadder note, one of the worst days of my life was my father's funeral at St. Clare's Church in September 2007. My dad had suffered from dementia for the last few years of his life, but it didn't make his death at 86 any easier for me to take. He died in Austin, TX on September 10, 2007; my parents had moved to Texas in 1987 after his retirement from the Passaic, NJ police force. We had the funeral at St. Clare's because many of my father's relatives and friends still lived in the area. Then my father was buried in Arlington National Cemetery two weeks later. He had earned a Silver Star and Purple Heart in World War II (read more about his record here.) 
My father getting promoted to police sergeant in 1972. 
This is a pre-encephalitis photo of me in the purple coat.
I took care of all the funeral arrangements, as I was the only Swan kid living in there area at the time, and held it together as much as I could until the day of the funeral. Then I was a mess from then until weeks afterward. I remember shedding so many tears that day. Seeing a phalanx of Passaic police cars escort us to the church in a sign of respect. Seeing my then-18-year-old nephew weeping even more than I did, over the passing of the only real father figure he ever had in his life.
I think back about how hard my father worked to support a wife and four children on a cop's salary, supplemented with a gazillion part-time jobs, including working as a pallbearer at several funeral homes, and doing security jobs at Foodtown and at Pope Pius High School. He worked so hard to pay for our schooling, and sent us to Catholic school at St. Clare's because he wanted his children to have the opportunities he never did. As my brother put it in his excellent eulogy (you can read it and more about our father here): "I sometimes wonder if he ever slept at all during the years I was home growing up." I wonder that, too. He literally never had time for himself; no time to ever do anything he wanted to do. We worry about being fulfilled in our jobs; he just worried about making enough money to put food on the table.
I will always associate the September my father died seven years ago with the Green Day song "Wake Me Up When September Ends," which is about singer Billie Joe Armstrong losing his own father. These lyrics still make me cry, as they are doing right now:  
Summer has come and passed
The innocent can never last
Wake me up when September ends
Like my fathers come to pass
Seven years has gone so fast
Wake me up when September ends
Here comes the rain again
Falling from the stars
Drenched in my pain again
Becoming who we are
As my memory rests
But never forgets what I lost
Wake me up when September ends


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