Thursday, January 18, 2007

Long Ago School Days in D.C.

It was the fall of 1921 when my father, George Cokinos, started kindergarten at Wheatley Elementary on Neal Street NE near Gallaudet University. His sister, Catherine dragged him to school by the hand, and he cried all the way. The teacher kept asking him his name, and he told her “Yorgo” which must have mystified her. He wouldn’t do anything she told him because he didn’t understand her. Things did not go well that first day. School life improved, however, once it was established that he couldn’t speak English, although he soon learned. George remembers being the only Greek in the class. The only other kid he remembers then was Harry Chase -the boy up the street who did scary shows in his basement. (Isn’t there always one?)

Meanwhile, in Mount Pleasant, my mother, Bebe Calvert,  was having her own troubles starting school at HD Cooke Elementary on Bryant Street. She didn’t like it, and vaguely remembers being locked in a closet. She was very shy all through school. Then, in 1929, the family moved to the brand new Broadmoor Apartment Building on Connecticut Avenue and Porter Streets. The children in the building, which included Bebe and her little brother Roger, were provided with a little bus that took them to John Eaton on Lowell Street every day. One of those children was John Hechinger who would grow up to be a hardware magnate. My mother’s only good memory of John Eaton was the bakery truck which came around at recess. Her biggest decision each day was choosing the eclair or a cinnamon bun.

My father’s family moved to Cleveland Park in 1927, and so George was at John Eaton as well. He remembers that bakery truck, and that it was from the Holmes Bakery. He also remembers that John Eaton was bigger than Wheatley and had a better playground. He and his sister Catherine walked from Macomb Street until George got a bike. That year the school system established a student patrol. Between owning a bike and getting a recommendation from his neighbor, Mr. Burka, of Burka’s Liquors, Dad became captain of the first boy patrol in the city. ( And his little brother Nick soon followed in his footsteps.)

Washington Tech High school, (now McKinley) was built in 1929, and Catherine decided she wanted to go there because it was so new, and they offered the latest in Home Economics.

When Dad graduated from John Eaton the next year, he had no choice but to go to McKinley High as well because my grandparents, the original helicopter parents, wanted him to keep an eye on his sister. Their father would drive them across the city every morning, and they’d take the street car home. When Catherine finished, George was finally allowed to go to Western (now Duke Ellington) as a sophomore.

By then George had a car. (having lied about his age to get a license)  He remembers saving fuel by coasting down Macomb Street, but he had to use gas to get home again so he would charge his buddies 15 cents each for a ride. Amongst his friends was Carl Langmack whose family was Danish. Carl's dad was their physical ed teacher at Western.

Another good friend, Malcolm Levi was also into cars.  Malcolm was fairly well off; his dad was vice president of the Hecht Company. (Malcolm later helped George get that instrumental job picking up hangers in the warehouse on New York Avenue.)

One of Dad’s life long friends from Western was Jerry Peake. Jerry’s dad had died, and Jerry had two jobs- one on a bakery truck and one at Sidwell Friends’ golf range. This was during the Depression and times were tough, but Jerry was able to get his buddy George hired there as well. In exchange, Dad would ride Jerry on his bicycle  up Wisconsin Ave to the golf range where they would both pick up balls.

Dr Newton was the principal at Western. Dad remembers him as a pleasant man with a little white goatee. They called him “Fig” which tells you how old that cookie is.

The vice principal was Nelson Stricter. (Really?)
Dad didn’t like school very much, but he was on the track team and played football. He remembers competing with hulking brutes on the other teams since there was no age limit back then. (This may have been when he learned to ruthlessly cheat in backyard football games with children. )
George had a red football jersey which he loved so much he kept it when he graduated. Later his younger brother, Nick wore it to school and the coach gave him hell and made him turn it in. George also remembers going to dances. His mother always let him go if he was home by 10 and didn’t dance with any girls.

My mother’s memories are more vague. Bebe remembers having a scary English teacher who seemed 95 years old and made them read their pieces out loud. She stayed home from school just to avoid that, but when she came back, she still had to read her paper. She remembers students were supposed to eat in the cafeteria, but the “hep” kids would hang out during lunch at the corner stores across from the school on 35th Street. Those buildings are houses now.

Neither set of parents came to the graduations in the big beautiful auditorium which is still functioning as a theater for Duke Ellington School of the Arts. They were all probably working. George graduated in 1933 and went to George Washington when he wasn’t making money to keep the car going. Bebe graduated in February 1935 in the same pastel blue dress which she would get married in just a few months later. She got an office job on K Street and filed papers until Memorial Day-and that’s the day everything changed.