By Gary Fisher
She was nearly half a century old by the time I showed up. Creaky wooden windows, stifling forced heat, so thick you could taste it, zero air conditioning, lead paint everywhere, and asbestos-covered pipes. The ancient bathrooms with the old radiators (an especially egregious artifice when some miscreant relieved himself on it), with wooden stall doors, long ago removed, meant zero privacy.
Really tough kids, and playground brawls. Giant concrete drainage tubes as our clubhouse, and dangerously engineered monkey bars so perilous they kept orthopedic surgeons in business at nearby St. Joe’s Hospital.
Playground bark chips with razor sharp edges that shredded skin when tackled in to them. A gravel-filled baseball infield where a short hop could turn a bassist into a soprano, or remove a couple of teeth with more efficiency than the best dentist.
God I loved the place.
Washington Elementary School sat nestled between two of America’s greatest economic engines, the sprawling Buick complex and the huge AC Spark Plug factory. It was built in 1922 to handle the rapid growth fueled by those two industrial powerhouses.
By the 1970’s when I was attending the school, it was bursting at the seams with kids. It was the epicenter of culture and community in the heart of the neighborhood. Washington was the home of Tot Lot, Flint’s version of pre-school. A picture of our class shows several kids who I would go all the way through school with, and remain friends with to this day.
I joined the the Cub Scouts and Police Cadets at Washington School, participated in the Pinewood Derby, and even won the Washington School Science Fair in the 6th grade. Our band played concerts in the gym, filled with parents and friends. On Saturday mornings we had roller skating, which gave me an opportunity to work as a DJ spinning tunes for the skaters.
I worked for the custodians, Mr. Turner and Mr. Clark, helping to set up the lunch room in the gym for the huge groups of kids who dined there, “compensated’ in free lunches, and the opportunity to sit around shooting the breeze in the janitors’ area in the boiler room.
That’s where I saw the big boiler with the words “Arlington School” on it, and felt like I had discovered secret knowledge of hidden history. My mom even worked there as a Lunch Lady and playground monitor, and she was a Homeroom Mom too.
But that wasn’t the only opportunity for work at Washington. I was also a Flag Boy raising the flag every morning in front of the school, a Hall Monitor (that didn’t last long), a Crossing Guard (with a florescent orange strap across my chest), and an official “Test Grader” for Mrs. Lindhurst’s math class. I learned a lot about human nature with that job!
Sports was a huge part of the culture at Washington. Everyone played. Kickball, basketball, floor hockey, speedball, soccer, football, boxing and wrestling, (okay, technically it was really just fist fighting), and of course baseball.
My love of baseball was greatly enhanced when my second grade teacher Miss Cheek let us listen to the Detroit Tigers vs. Oakland A’s playoffs in its entirety during class. When I became a big A’s fan after that, she even let me wear my Oakland A’s hat in class.
Community School Director Dave Babiericki brought soccer to us, and Washington School kids were prominent and dominant in Flint soccer for years as a result. Gym teacher Mr. Lloyd taught us how to properly shoot a basketball, World Champion Pam Stockton (Brady) ran our badminton club. We learned a lot about winning and losing at Washington and how to do both with grace.
When I was hit by a car walking home from school and missed three months of class, my first grade teacher Mrs. Olbey came to my house to tutor me. She sat with me on our couch, recording me reading books to my classmates, and then played the recordings in class.
Mr. Wagner, our 6th grade teacher, organized an annual trip to Toronto. We visited the Toronto Science Center, Casa Loma, learned how to sing O’ Canada, and generally had a blast. We were even featured on the front page of the Toronto Star that year.
Being on the East Side there was no shortage of characters. One kid drove his dad’s Gran Torino to school during lunch in the 6th grade and with a cigarette dangling form the corner of his mouth, encouraged us to “joy ride” with him. We weren’t sure what that meant, but the car looked just like the Starsky and Hutch rig so we were mightily tempted.
Last month Washington School burned down. The fire didn’t just take down the bricks, mortar, wood and glass. It took down the remnants of the nerve center of a community. It is an exemplar of many things: economic failure, neglect, and brutal demographics. But for those of us who grew up there, it was a lot more than a collection of building materials. It was the heart of the ‘hood. The Grand Central Station for the rites of passage of our youth.
Despite it being abandoned for years, there is a certain finality in its demise. In a year that has seen scores of iconic East Side structures torched, and decades that have witnessed the inexorable destruction of such a strong community, this one somehow hurts the most.
Washington School’s death might be its last educational gesture. Whether the lights from the flames are a final extinguishing of a unique way of life, or the beacon for a renewed future is uncertain. But the ethereal mists of our memories are certain and lasting, as long as we want them to be.
Buildings can burn, but memories persist. That’s what infuses and informs the future’s thoughts and ideas. Lose those and you lose everything. Fire can’t kill that. Only indifference can.
EVM guest writer Gary Fisher can be reached at email@example.com.
Gary L. “Fish” Fisher was born and raised in the city and has lived in the area most of his life, residing in both the East Side and East Village neighborhoods. His family has been a part of the Flint area for over 100 years. He is a trustee on the board of the Genesee County Historical Society and hosts a radio show on WFNT-AM 1470 every Wednesday at 11 a.m. Eastern called “ Fish and The Flint Chronicles.” He asserts Flint has produced the best cars, athletes, and coney islands the world has ever known–and the toughest people!