The Playground Teacher
Each summer, the school district employed college-age students to serve as glorified babysitters for kids at the playgrounds around town. The young adults supervised activities for three hours every weekday. Working parents encouraged children to go to the playground during the summer. This was at a time when children lived within walking or biking distance of the school property.
The majority of the play areas were on well-maintained public-school properties with existing playground equipment, public bathrooms, and drinking fountains. To encourage its use, a galvanized garbage can was somewhere on the property.
An exception to the larger, well-maintained playgrounds, was the small play area on the St. Michaels’ R.O. Church Hall property on Delaware Street in Jermyn’s Over-the-Lane neighborhood. This served as the dedicated, supervised playground for the Lane youngsters during the summer. The building was not open for bathroom use–kids went home or to a friend’s house if the need arose.
In the far corner of the property was an area used by the Hall for disposing of an event’s trash, a foul smelling, fly-ridden, maggot-breading pile of garbage. The grounds between the parking lot and street were overgrown with weeds and since the property lacked garbage cans, the weeds became a magnet for empty cans and tissues. There were no water fountains in this play area for quenching thirsts. A man in a little white truck brought orange drinks and chocolate milk for purchase. We learned not to forget our dimes.
On the property were a baseball field, a shed, and some of the typical playground equipment anchored into cement slabs: a metal slide that burned your bottom, wooden teeter-totters that gave you splinters, swings with chains that pinched your fingers. A lopsided basketball hoop hung on the side of the event building. The playground was three blocks from our Walnut Street house, and my sisters trailed behind me each morning. I carried the dimes.
The playground teachers before Mrs. McCabe were college-age sporty twenty-something women who encouraged all the children to play softball and basketball. Mrs. McCabe was a heavy-set woman, the age of my mother. I knew this because her daughter was in the fifth grade with me. Mrs. McCabe led us in board games, bingo, and making cotton-looped potholders. She was an excellent storyteller and had stories about anything and everything. Her voice was kind and melodic and she never yelled at the boys for making noise.
What made Mrs. McCabe’s 1966 summer memorable were Fridays. Unlike other playground teachers, she held events and gave prizes. We looked forward to the special activity which she announced early in the week: Decorate your Bicycle, Water Balloon Toss, Best Stuffed Toy, and Silly Hat to name a few. In the trunk of her car were extra hats and stuffed toys in case a child forgot. The winner received a shiny, new nickel and each participant received a jawbreaker.
About halfway through Mrs. McCabe’s summer, in July, she announced that the special activity was going to be a Trash Hunt. That Friday morning, she distributed paper bags and crayons, and instructed, “Print your name on the bag and put the crayon back in the box. Go around the playground and pick up pieces of litter that are on the ground. You are not to leave the playground and, don’t go near the rubbish dump. And, don’t bring back anything that won’t fit inside your bag.”
What was she thinking, we’d find a car tire or an old toaster?
We branched out, gathering bottle tops, popsicle sticks, soda cans, and bits of paper. Mrs. McCabe patiently counted each piece of trash from each bag and awarded a 1966 shiny quarter to the top collector.
The next week she brought in all the popsicle sticks–clean from soaking in bleach–and she showed us how, with Elmer’s glue, to make little boxes with lids.
The following summer, a college student was assigned to supervise at St. Michael’s Playground. She pulled us out to the field where we played kickball and softball every day, all morning, in the summer heat.
I don’t think I was the only child who wished Mrs. McCabe would return.
story based on a July 1966 diary entry