I wasn’t sure what to expect when I visited my old grade school.
It had been 40-plus years. When I last walked out of the school’s side door, Nixon was president, Vietnam was still a war and East St. Louis’ population was about 80,000, but shrinking quickly.
It was St. Philip Catholic Grade School then. We had all we needed. Seven ballfields. Tennis courts. Evening snack stand with popcorn, sno-cones and penny candy. A playground with teeter totters, swings and monkey bars. Full-court basketball, indoor and outdoor. A canal to climb.
In hindsight, I can’t imagine a better grade school experience, anywhere, by anyone.
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In 1989, all the Catholic grade schools in East St. Louis combined into one school, located in my old school, on Church Lane in East St. Louis. For the past 25-plus years, my old school has been Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School, under the direction of the Diocese of Belleville.
I’ve driven by my old grade school building hundreds of times. But I’ve not been inside.
I was invited recently during Catholic Schools Week to see my old school and talk about the school’s upcoming benefit dinner and auction. I was eager, but apprehensive. I have fond memories.
It was a Wednesday morning. I entered through the school’s west side door. The school office was immediately to my right. Small but friendly. It had not changed a bit. Just as I remembered it. My old eighth-grade classroom was immediately across from the office. It has been converted into several administrative offices.
As we looked into classrooms, I noticed the large windows that spanned the width of the rooms. The same windows that I stared out every day until Sister Rosetta snapped her fingers in front of my eyes and said, “Snap to, Mister!”
Roberta Trost, the school’s advancement director, explained there are 130 students at Sister Thea Bowman this year, kindergarten through eighth grade. The majority of students live in East St. Louis and surrounding communities. Trost said many families make great sacrifices to pay tuition and attend Thea Bowman. The school’s upcoming benefit dinner-auction (see sidebar) is a major fundraiser to help underwrite tuition expenses.
Sister Thea Bowman has a unique focus on music and arts. All students learn the violin. Yes, all students. Older students learn ballroom dancing, too. Wow.
We learned a little music and dancing back in my day, too. My seventh-grade teacher, Mrs Wigginton, taught us the Hokey Pokey. Musically, we all tried the traditional recorder, but failed miserably.
Most Sister Thea Bowman graduates move on to Althoff Catholic High School. Trost said 95 percent of those graduates have attended or are enrolled in college.
We walked down the school’s hall. I watched a violin class. As we walked, I remembered where each of my old classrooms was located, as well as each teacher. Sister Celestia (1st). Mrs Conroy (2nd and 3rd grades). Mrs. Siekmann (4th). Sister Theresa (5th). Mrs Foran (6th). Mrs Wigginton (7th). Sister Rosetta (8th).
The school library seemed less cluttered than it was four decades ago when the school housed six times as many students.
I reminisced about the old special education classrooms. Students with special needs who lived in School District 189 went to our school. They were treated like the rest of us. We played with them at recess. They were our on school sports teams. I learned at a young age that kids with special needs want nothing more than to be treated like kids.
I started writing at the old St. Philip’s, too. In English class one day, Mrs. Mathews made us read our essays aloud. Man, I was nervous. Mrs. Mathews said to the class that I was a good writer. My face turned red as my hair, but her kind words stuck. I wasn’t used to getting compliments in the classroom.
I was glad I visited my old school. So much has changed over the decades. But my old grade school is open.
It still serves as a positive, safe haven for its students and their families, just as it did 40-plus years ago.