The Cloakroom


03 Aug

            Last week, I was painting a house for a customer in Midland Park. I walked out to the truck to get something, and couldn't remember what it was. I stood there for a minute, mentally running through a list of what I might need, but nothing came to mind. Not wanting to let on that I was having trouble remembering, I grabbed a few rags and an old paint brush and started walking back to the house until it came to me: sandpaper.

            It's funny how things like that happen, and yet the smallest details about growing up in Rochelle Park, and things that I did 50 years ago, are as clear as can be.

            I have a coin jar that I keep on my dresser for loose change. The other day, I was surprised to find that I had a real silver quarter in my pocket, dated 1953. Unless you're a coin collector, or part of the older generation, you probably don't remember when all of our quarters were made of silver. They stopped making them that way in '65, and if you look at the edge of a quarter made since then, you'll see a fine layer of copper sandwiched between two outer layers of nickel. Finding one made entirely out of silver is very rare these days.

            The only reason I bring that up is because I know exactly where I can find another one.

            If you walk into Midland School and ask someone where "the cloakroom" is, chances are they won't know what you're talking about. When I went to Midland, almost every classroom had a cloakroom. It was a long narrow closet of sorts, like a separate room off to the side, where we went to hang our coats, store our lunch boxes, and, in the winter months, take off our boots and put away our hats and gloves before we started class. It was also a convenient place for teachers to send kids who misbehaved. The one that I am thinking of had doors at both ends, a long line of coat hooks attached to a board on one side of the cloakroom, and a row of wooden "cubby holes" on the other side. I got to know it pretty well, especially in Mrs. Dolce's 3rd grade class.

            Mrs. Dolce was one of our favorite teachers. She had a heart of gold, but when she raised her voice, and put her foot down, we knew she meant business.

            "Raymond, go stand in the cloakroom!"

            "Yes, Ma'am."

            In those days, you didn’t talk back to your teachers, or anyone else in authority, and the way you behaved in class was just as much a part of your grade as math, or spelling, or any of the other subjects. In fact, we were given numerical grades for everything, including “Conduct.” Unfortunately, of all the subjects listed on our report cards, "Standing in the Cloakroom" was not one of them. If it had been, I would have been tops in my class, getting 100's every marking period, because I’m almost positive I broke all the records..

            But enough about my accomplishments.

            I'm sure that being sent to the cloakroom was meant to be a punishment. It was boring, to be sure, but after a number of trips, it wasn't hard to look on the bright side. After all, when you were in the cloakroom, and couldn't bother the other kids, or even see them, no one could see you either. If Mrs.Dolce happened to be standing away from the blackboard at the front of the room, you could wander up and down the row of coats, open your lunch box, sneak a peek out the window, or put Walter's hat on Richie's coat, and vice versa.

            One time, I took out a quarter and started playing with it, just for something to do. I'm not sure where it came from. It could have been my lunch money, or my allowance, but it was a real silver quarter, just like the one I found the other day. I was busy rolling it along the edge of the board that had the coat hooks attached to it, when all of a sudden it fell into a space behind the board and disappeared. I couldn't see it, but I knew it was down there, and I tried every trick I could think of to dig it out again. I pulled on the hooks, trying to widen the space, and slipped a piece of folded paper behind the board and tried to roll it out, but nothing worked, and before I could come up with a better plan, Mrs. Dolce called me back to the classroom.

            It was the one time that being sent to the cloakroom really did feel like a punishment, and although I might have trouble finding my car keys tomorrow, I still think about that quarter, and would be willing to bet that it is still hidden behind that board in Mrs. Dolce's classroom. Just don't ask me which one that is.

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