ICS, J-Town – An Appreciation

Once upon a time… because all good stories begin as such in the words of an as-of-yet un-immortalized, ill-fated hero from modern literature named Pat McClane… once upon a time myself, my family, and a motley crew of others lived in a little, upper lower to middle class neighborhood in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania that we endearingly nicknamed “J-Town.” The actual name of the town was “Jenkintown” and you may or may not have heard of it. Not many people have as it is nestled between the sprawling communities of Abington and Cheltenham, Pennsylvania and is easily missed.

If you’ve never heard of it and can’t find it on a map don’t worry: You’re not alone. There’s really not a lot to it. The town proper, not including the outlying “suburbs” of Rydal and Noble, is approximately 0.6 square miles border to border (per Wikipedia), and the population as of 2010 was an underwhelming 4,422 (also per Wikipedia). By comparison the current town in which I reside with my wife, Nicole and our twodaughters Cara and Natalie, along with our two feline children ‘Dorna and Roxy has a population of 11,046 as of the same census (plus one if you count our own, personal plus one and no other newborns) and is well known for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it is a dry town, much to my chagrin. Good thing I’ve got the dual, Delaware County drinking havens of Drexel Hill and Havertown, Pennsylvania in close proximity.

Unlike Broomall, Jenkintown is best known for two things: Beth Sholom, the last building designed by the architect Frank Lloyd Wright before his death and the actor, Bradley Cooper, who grew up there and went to Jenkintown Elementary before leaving to attend Germantown Academy and thereafter, Villanova and Georgetown Universities (also per Wikipedia). Which of these two facts about Jenkintown is most important to you is really a matter of perspective. Me, personally? I’m more partial to a modern marvel of architecture than I am to some guy’s abs but you can focus on whichever you prefer to… Nicole (just kidding sweetie.’Heart you!).

Yet this little piece of Mental Flatulence, e-translated in to a blog entry is not meant to be a history of Jenkintown. If you’re interested in that then I’m sure you can find a good book on it at your local library or online if your local library has been turned in to a CVS or a Walgreens. And there’s always Wikipedia, right?

No. The title of this says it all: “ICS, J-Town – An Appreciation.” Much like J-Town is to Jenkintown, “ICS” is to “Immaculate Conception School.” (we were fond of shortening things back when we were kids. That’s likely why we called everyone by our last names. “I’ll take Marsh!” or “Hey, Hungerford!” Sometimes I wonder how many first names of my fellow townsfolk I knew when I entered high school) You can also find ICS online and you don’t have to look very hard. Just Google “Immaculate Conception School Jenkintown” and go to the top site that appears in your browser. It’s the school’s website.

Well, it was the school’s website. It’s still there but I don’t know how long it will be there for. That’s because today, June 15th, 2012 is the final day of classes ever at ICS. Those of you not living in and around the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania area may or may not know this but earlier this year, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s “Blue Ribbon Committee” recommended ICS and multiple other, Catholic elementary schools and high schools in the region for closure. Some of those schools were able to appeal the committee’s ruling and earn a temporary respite. Others–ICS included–were unable to do so. Today is a sad day for those of us that attended school, taught at or had children attend ICS and other schools that failed to earn an extended chance, and while Immaculate Conception School will always remain a part of my past, my sister’s past and the respective pasts of others, it will no longer exist in anything but our collective memories. Much like the Dodo Bird, that which was will… as of this afternoon… cease to exist.

You may be yearning to ask: Why mourn the loss of something so distant in the past? It’s not like the powers that be closed my high school, Bishop McDevitt or my colleges, The Penn State and Drexel Universities. ICS was my grade schoolfor God’s sake. I “graduated” from it in 1989, a full 23 years ago, when Hair Bands still ruled terrestrial radio, I still wore Jams and my sister still wore Jellies, Charles Barkley was still a 76er and not a poster child for Weight Watchers, Michael Jordan hadn’t yet won an NBA Championship, George Bush Senior was still the president and Iraq was still an ally. I collected Garbage Pail Kids… I hadn’t yet tried alcohol… hadn’t yet smoked a cigarette or a joint. I’d never kissed a girl, my nuts had barely dropped and I still could sing soprano. So much of my life has been lived in the two decades since I walked out the glass doors of that school for the last time. It shouldn’t even be a proverbial speck in the corner of my brain… should it? 

It probably shouldn’t. But surprisingly, I remember more of my time both at and outside of ICS than I do whole portions of my college years, likely due to the overabundance of alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana that I consumed in the latter. I remember the names of allof the people that I “graduated” with, many of whom I’m friends with on Facebook and a few who I remain friends with outside of our ever-growing, social media community (I can say “our.” It’s a publicly traded company now, is it not?).

And not just my class, either. I remember the class that proceeded me almost as well as I remember my own, due largely in part to the constant beatings I took at the members of it’s pre-pubescent hands. If any of those people are reading this, right now please, do not take my last statement as a knock or, as we called it back then, a “bust.” Many of those beatings I brought upon myself out of my sheer inability to grasp that fact that I was not popular… that I was a complete and total nerd, geek, or otherwise unsavory personality. It took me until half way through my sophomore year at McDevitt to accept the fact that I would never be the head of the student council and you of the “Noogies” and the “Six-Inches?” You helped me to get to that point as much as my friends did, even if you thought all that you were doing was punching the fat kid in the arm… and the stomach… and occasionally the face. If anything, I should thank you and move on.

Well? Maybe not thank you. But move on? Definitely.

But that’s not the extent of my “re-memory” (one of my favorite terms. Not a Frank-ism. Google “re-memory Toni Morrison” and you’ll see what it means). I remember the feel of the sun on the back of my neck as I stood outside playing dodgeball. I remember the way the heat would rebound off of the white top of the schoolyard as I played, and oft times lost a game of one-on-one basketball against Ring or Breslin. I remember sitting in the cafeteria on a rainy day trading my peanut butter sandwich and Tastycake for a piece of Kodadek’s cold, Ellio’s Pizza. Because who didn’t want cold pizza for lunch back then, even if it was re-processed cardboard topped with a proportionate amount of sauce and Gov’ment Mozzarella cheese. I remember glancing around me at the art projects hanging around the cafeteria on those days. In conjunction with the endless rain, said projects were early signs of Spring and the yearly Art Fair which, I am not ashamed to admit, I often won.

And it doesn’t end there. I remember the feel of the warm breeze that blew in through the roll down windows and rattled the Venetian Blinds in the late morning and the early afternoon as I sat learning my lessons. Of course, English was always my favorite. I remember the way my habitual, afternoon doldrom–the same doldrom I feel nowadays right around now when the effects the low-carb Monster I should not have drank but drank anyway in the morning have all but worn off–was shattered by the sound of the church bell next door to the school ringing twice. 2 PM, I would think, only one hour left to go!  I remember the way we all scampered out the glass doors that overlooked West Avenue at 3:00 PM, so many, many times before walking through them one, final time with blue gowns upon our shoulders and smiles on our faces. High School, we thought then, we’re high school students, now. No matter where we went, who we hung out with or what we ended up doing with our lives we always shared that one binding tie between us: We were “graduates” of ICS.

Little did we know then what we know now: That a full 23 years later many of us would be sitting at our desks at work or surrounded by our own children at home watching the school that was the centerpiece of our world for eight… and in some cases more years close it’s big glass, double doors behind the Class of 2012 one, final time. My gut tells me that those kids aren’t stepping out in to the warm, breezy late Spring day that I just walked in to my office in Royersford, Pennsylvania from in their blue graduation gowns like conquering heroes, their thoughts on the lazy, Summer months ahead and the prospect of high school beyond them. In truth? A few of them are likely choked up over the fact that within a few hours, their alma mater will be defunct: Merged forevermore with its once-rival Saint Luke’s in to the newly minted Saint Joseph the Protector Regional Catholic School in Glenside, Pennsylvania.

Don’t get me wrong. The same tie that bound and continues to bind the class of 1989 together will forever bind the class of 2012 together with a singular exception: Every time the members of the class of 1989 rolled back in to town in the past with their spouses by their sides and their children behind them they could drive by the faded, glass and stucco facade of the building that they had spent the better part of eight or more years in, point to it, and say, “look ____, that’s where daddy/mommy went to grade school!” 23 years from now when the class of 2012 rolls back in to J-Town with their family in toe, they won’t be able to point to the building that they spent so much of their early lives in. Maybe they’ll point to a CVS or a Walgreens. Maybe they’ll point to a movie theater. Maybe it’ll be a park or maybe it’ll be a municipal black top. No ones knows what it will be at this juncture. But it won’t be ICS. The church next door will still be there… will still ring its bell every hour on the hour from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM, but there will be no students dosing at their desks when said bell signals at 2:00 PM that there is only one hour left to go in the day. No feelings of elation. Just two, lonely chimes and then? Silence.

The entire scene as it once was–like some post-modern, art deco representation of a Norman Rockwell painting with a Gothic church on one side of a sloping driveway and a three level, glass, sheet cake building on the other–will never exist as it once existed for me and for so many others for over a hundred years. Is it… was it as awe-inspiring as Beth Sholom or Bradley Cooper’s abs? No. Far from it depending on who you ask. But not all art needs be a masterpiece. Some art doesn’t begin that way. Some art, at first, is a bit awkward to look at. The angles are either too simple or too skewed. The picture is fuzzy. But over time, as more people experience it, said art is infused with the mind, body and soul of the people that were moved by it. Even the ugliest duckling in the bunch can become a masterwork after all is said and done. The picture is still the same as it was when the artist first created it but the experience of the picture has changed drastically in the subsequent years.Why can’t the same be said of a school that over the years graduated thousands upon thousands of students despite its undeniably plain facade, most of whom still speak fondly of their experiences there to this day?

I do not fault the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s Blue Ribbon Committee for their recommendation. Nor do I fault Archbishop Chaput for denying the heartfelt appeals of not only the ICS community, but others schools and their respective communities, as well. One thing that I have learned over the course of my adult life is that business is business, even when religion is involved and it is rarely personal. The decision to close ICS and other schools, at least per the evidence that I have seen was not personally motivated. It was made per an exhaustive series of hard numbers on enrollment, contributions, salaries et cetera, et cetera. The bottom line? Other schools were performing better and those schools were the ones that earned a respite. But knowing the numbers behind the decision does not lessen the blow that I feel knowing now, at 4:11 PM on June 15th, 2012, that the same classrooms that I spent eight years of my life in will never see another lesson…

That the same white-top playground that I used to hang out on with my classmates will never see another game of “Suicide” or “Spring” (the latter, otherwise known as “Freedom” in communities other than J-Town)…

That the same cafeteria that I once traded for and ate cold, Ellio’s Pizza in will never see another Art Fair…

That the joyous cries of the students exiting the building at the end of the day will never again be heard echoing off of the buildings across West Avenue that face the big, glass double doors inset within the plate glass front of the school. Once upon a time… because all good stories begin as such, we all lived on a little, 0.6 square mile plot of land that I and my brethren endearingly referred to as “J-Town.” Pre-Facebook… pre-Mental Flatulence and blogs, pre-a global, social media community, the cornerstone of that little hamlet nestled between Abington and Cheltenham, Pennsylvania was the school that we all seemingly attended. We knew very little of the world beyond it’s borders and in truth? We didn’t need to. J-Town was our home and by association? So was ICS.

Rest in Peace, Immaculate Conception, secure in the knowledge that the majority of the people that passed through your doors were positively changed by their experiences within your hallowed halls. No matter what happens you will forever be an alma mater. As my former classmate Hungerford posted on his Facebook page today, “cheers to the blue and the white.”  Cheers, indeed.

F.

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