Inner City Diary
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A gritty guardian angel of the schoolyard
December 7, 2003
I pointed to a crack in the playground pavement, and spoke firmly. “If you step over that line, you’ve got trouble!” The challenge was three parts bluff and one part frustration.

I had no idea how to back up my challenge. I was a scrawny second-grader on the playground of Public School 130 in New York City. The bully on the other side of the “line” was bigger than me, but I was way past tired of his tactics.

He looked at me and the small crowd that was gathering around us, stepped over the line, shrugged his shoulders and said, “What now?”

Struggling to retain my composure, I retreated a few steps and pointed to the next line. “If you step across that line, you’ll really be in trouble!”

What was I thinking? I should have known he would call my bluff. He did. And as he stepped forward, he kept coming. We scrapped. I got in a few good shots, but it was a losing battle. I learned something about idle threats. He learned something about respect for underdogs.

The playground is our first real experience with diplomacy and political science. Coping with crowds. Dealing with danger. We learn about the social articulation of anger, the formulation of a collective will. We struggle to hide our fears and doubts about the world without and within. We learn to distinguish fair-weather acquaintances from fail-safe friends. We develop responses to authority and enmity expressed by our peers.

Within the confines of the school grounds, we begin to shape our life-long response to the world around us.

Our church and our home are both across the street from John M. King Elementary School in the inner-city of Winnipeg.

I like keeping the window open and listening to the kids during recess. It’s a fun place – kids laughing, running, playing, chatting. But it can also be a tough place – kids posing, pushing, plotting.

There’s the loner wandering around the field, playing with imaginary friends, trying to make himself invisible to people who like to pick on loners.

Kids cluster according to gender or ethnicity. Boys and girls tease each other with varying degrees of affection and competition.

Bullies and trouble-makers tend to roam in packs. Up and coming jocks are the keepers of the basketballs, footballs, soccer balls, designating turf for their games.

On Wednesday of this week, however, we commemorated the end of an era in John M King playground history.

General Gjura is retiring. The nickname is less a title than it is an indication of her strength of character and the force of her voice.

I’ll always remember her voice. I didn’t even have to see her to know she was out there. Spotting something amiss across the field, her voice would arrive long before her feet, warning kids to smarten up. “Stop fighting!” “Hey!” “Cut that out!” “What did you say?”

When the bell rang, she single-handedly herded the flock back into the pen. And she returned for the stragglers, the lost sheep not sure about going back to school. She was also the one that phoned home when kids didn’t show up at school.

Playground duty wasn’t all she did. She helped in the office, copying, stapling, cutting and filing. She helped in the breakfast and lunch programs, and kept the staff room stocked and comfortable. Her recent pride and joy was the waffle breakfasts for over 300 parents and children from the school.

Years passed. Her hours were cut, her desk reduced to a table. Philosophies and priorities shifted, but she remained “old school.” Maybe some took issue with her style, but none questioned her love for the kids and her dedication to any task at hand. Now, after 23 years of service, she’s retiring.

I asked what she’ll do on the morning of January 5th, when school restarts after the Christmas break. She smiled and said, “I’ll call the office first thing in the morning and tell them I’m standing for ‘O Canada.’ Then I’ll get back to looking after my grandkids and family.”

At a surprise assembly thrown for her this week, staff and students alike expressed their thanks for her service. There were flowers, cards and artwork from the kids. More than that, there were the memories.

She did lots of good, but what I remember most about Gerry is her work in the schoolyard. My three boys attended that school. They learned the lessons of the schoolyard. Thank God that in the midst of all the learning, there was someone like Gerry there for them – and all of us.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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(204) 775-4929