Remembering Greater Erie — Part 2
School and Youth, two decades on
I knocked on the door. Someone stirred inside. A pang of doubt went through me.
Who lived here? What would I say? Was this place, my friendship with their family, as important as I thought?
The parents of my best friends, “The Twins” were home — just where and (mostly) how I remembered them.
They invited me in, and after some nervous small talk from the shock of a random, 18-years-later visit, I learned what had changed.
We spoke like equals — open and honest and real. My friend’s parents and their children had lived and learned in those two decades. They had been through the ups and downs — and they were open to share.
The careful language and restricted dialogue of my boyhood was gone.
We swore and laughed, commiserated — remembered. We ate salad with chicken for dinner and focused on each other. It was a deep and meaningful conversation on America, and family, and our lives.
When I mentioned I might want to roll up my windows and lock my doors, it brought back the theft of 2 of my bikes when I was young. The experiences left a taste of betrayal, my endless faith in people was re-calibrated towards scarcity.
They reminded me how privileged my youth was:
“We moved from New Jersey to Erie — and this neighborhood was always so safe and nice, and it still is”
I decided to not worry about the WildCat parked on the street outside.
We talked on politics, and race. We analyzed my project, why we’re not talking to each other as Americans — why we’re not having conversations just like this one.
“I grew up in California where my only experience with a person of color was envy. He was so smart and talented. He could draw — and I really envied that.”
“When I came to New Jersey and then Erie, the perspective shifted. I saw poverty and heard a different, negative view of “blacks” and “that part of town”.
When I brought up the Green Book stop lilted in Erie, again I found it had been closed long ago by their family, after earning a reputation in its final years:
“It was right behind my grandfather’s and father’s store, which isn’t there anymore either.”
“My father bought it and tore it down. There was some news on the paper that it was historical. But it was so run down. Rats ran out when it came down.”
After a long talk, hugs and exchanges of “They’ll flip out when they see you came to visit” as they sent the photo evidence to their kids — it was time to move onto the next reconnect stop.
Hey Reader (yes, you),
Which teacher made you want to come to school?
It can be a rare experience. Was there at least one?
I was privileged to have two.
Klein Elementary was exactly the same.
22 years after I “graduated” — I was walked the empty halls as memories flooded. In the 6th grade hall, a teacher who stayed behind — Amy Smith — filled me in on who was still around, who had retired and what had changed.
Come back tomorrow — pretty much any time during the school day. 2:30 is recess, it’s a good time to talk.
“This is so cool you’re coming back to visit. They’re going to love that you came back. It means so much.”
Cruising back through felt odd. The place was empty and it brought back old feelings — I must have done something wrong to be at school this late.
I full-stopped in front of a 4th grade classroom on the way out — It smelled the same. How is that possible? It was like I had never left — same spot, same smell — like cinnamon and something I can’t identify, just the smell of the spot.
I spied something really cool in one of the hallways:
The next day, I found my old guides, alive and well.
The front desk ladies were just as stern as I remembered. They had me sign in and have a seat on the long bench where we used to take off our snow boots in the winter (and try not to get our socks wet in the melting slush of a hundred kids’ boot-snow).
Mrs. Strandwitz looked the same and came out first.
I recognized her immediately as she strode down the hall, in the break before her kindergartners were picked up.
She only had a few minutes. She remembered the names of my classmates.
She folded her hands over her heart as I told her she had really made school fun, that she really cared and it stuck with me.
Mr. Carpin strode proudly and confidently down the hall — just he used to when he was in charge. The 3 of us walked towards Michelle Strandwitz’s classroom as I played the connector role (forgetting they were cousins). She hugged me good bye.
Chris Carpin had me walk with him back to a full classroom, minutes before recess. Down the same hall from 23 years ago, we discussed the Roadtrip Americana project. Rather than small talk on life, the project was a representation of my passion, my character, and my path in life.
When I described The Green Book — his eyes lit up.
Inside the classroom, it was organized chaos as different groups and pairs of students worked, or creatively avoided whatever assignment was on the plate. About half the class looked curiously at me, the unknown stranger who knew their teacher.
We went back to his desk to keep talking. A few students came up to ask questions — on their work (math sheet) and about me.
Mr. Carpin (I feel the need even now to address him as Mr.) pushed further on the project and its mission.
I’ve never heard of the — what’s it called — the Green Book. Wow. Could you talk about the project with the kids?
I wasn’t prepared; time to adapt. It brought back the same peak and trough of anxiety from when he made us give speeches as a student.
Hey everybody — stop and listen please. This is Travis Kellerman, a former student of mine. He’s going to talk about his project. We haven’t covered civil rights or American politics in social studies yet.
As soon as the intro was made, I felt my passion surge. Using the whiteboard next to the “new tech” touchscreen at the front, I drew a terrible outline of the US and explained the reality of
As my eyes scanned the room, they were all locked on me.
Almost all the faces were white ones, mostly the latest generations of the European ethnic groups who had come to Erie a hundred years ago. They were hearing of the entire concept of Jim Crow Laws and a undeniable example of how some Americans had to survive segregation.
It was coming from a white guy, framed and connected to their upcoming studies by another white guy. Like a cultural mentor once told me, some of the conversation, the burden is on and amongst white people.
Drawing a rough outline of the US, I showed my route and highlighted the parts which had no Green Book stops.
What might that mean for an African-American family traveling through the area? What if their car broke down and they were in danger?
Who were the people behind the Green Book stops? What dangers did they face to take in travelers of a different race? The rest of their community may have ignored, or harassed, or even persecuted them and their guests.
It was not perfect or ideal or done full justice — yet, it got them thinking. In some faces, the “wheels were turning”. As I would discover, Mr. Carpin aims for just that state of curious discovery when he teaches.
Mr Carpin added “We’ll be learning about civil rights later this year. We weren’t all equal like the Founders intended. Some Americans still do not have equal right and freedoms.”
After, the kids jumped at the idea of a “class selfie” with me.
Mr. Carpin went to check on “which kids can’t be in pictures” — another rule and process change since the free-wheeling days of my 5th grade year.
It was recess time — and time to interview my old teacher
The rain caused a switch to “indoor recess” — I forgot that was a thing. As we talked frankly over the excited play of the kids, Mr. Carpin spoke of the insulation he felt from the rest of the world — for better and for worse.
His approach to creating dialogue, to exploring history, science, and controversial events — it was harder to practice now.
“Can’t do the things we did when you were here.”
“I wonder sometimes if we’re just creating robots who can take tests.”
His style, his demeanor was the same. He loves teaching. His stories, his opinions, his bold questions were risky — and needed. They stuck with me. They were the reason I came back to Klein, why I remembered him and was talking to him now. He created real dialogue.
People don’t want to listen anymore…
Are we listening to the NFL players? They have a reason to do what they’re doing. I don’t have to agree, but I listen.
The kids hear everything — but do they listen?
How we can carry dialogue and discovery into American adults?
My 5th grade memory was not romanticized.
His simple, humble style really was an inspiration, a compelling force for me at 10 years old. I actually wanted to go to school that year — the battle to finish, escape, maximize time away and without was melted away by stories and discussions we wanted to have.
Through all the fear parents and schools have now, he’s kept it real. He listens and learns like a kid himself — from and alongside his students. He carries on and takes the risk to show kids their beliefs, to question the way the world works.
After retelling some of the riskier days and experiments of a mid-90s education, we laughed at what would now be unthinkable. What a privilege to be taught there and then, without so much fear and regulation.
Maybe I have my own set of “good ol’ days” — when discovery came first.
As I dropped my front badge off at the front desk, the new principal was in his office. We spoke on his philosophy.
Full of energy and positivity, he seemed a natural fit for the position. My old days of lunch time detention (“lunch with the principal”) floated through my mind. The new guy wanted Mr. Carpin’s style to stay. Each teacher should have their own flavor and approach.
It left me with a smile as I walked out through the double doors again — to a rare Erie sunshine, 22 years after my 6th grade graduation.