Writer and Minnesota Public Radio essayist Peter Smith, who moved to Libertyville when he was four from Chicago’s south side, recently released his new book A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors, where he depicts his life’s “hiccups” including glimpses of Libertyville’s mid-twentieth century mainstreet.
To learn more about Smith, read Libertyville Provides Backdrop for Writer's Memoir
This is the fourth of five short stories Patch will feature.
The perfect place to come of age
If ever there were a perfect place for a Midwestern Baby Boomer to come of age, it was the old high school—the Brainerd Building—in Libertyville, Illinois. I was incarcerated there myself freshman year. Even now, the place still exudes a certain happy, sad, confused, conflicted, and hormonal vibe (a vibe not unlike adolescence itself) when I drive by.
I remember it held the ghostly auras of all those prior generations of students. Passing in the halls between classes, you half expected to look up and see young Marlon Brando leaning against the wall by some girl’s locker, insolently chewing gum, chatting her up, making time, both of them dressed as if it were 1940-something.
There was that little quadrangle of classrooms around the perimeter of what had originally been the gym (a gym with a ceiling too low to shoot a basketball jump shot—a gym designed and built before there was such a thing as a basketball jump shot).
The old gym was serving as an auditorium by the time we arrived. My older brother made his debut as an actor there. He played young Wally Webb in “Our Town.” I still have his one line memorized. It was, “Aw Ma. By ten o’clock I got to know all about Canada.” Wally Webb dies of a ruptured appendix later in the play, and, in the case of the LHS production, he took my brother’s acting career with him.
There was the beautiful little library and adjoining study hall in the southwest corner of the building. I might have borrowed any number of great books from the library and read them in study hall, but no. I borrowed a well-thumbed paperback copy of “Peyton Place” from an alluring girl from far-off and exotic Round Lake instead (Mundelein and Vernon Hills didn’t have high schools yet).
There was another stage in the school, this one in the “new” gym that they’d built at some point in the ‘20s. We never used that stage for plays or musicals. The gym teachers had two trampolines up there on it. Evidently the prospect of having some freshman launch himself off the stage onto the gym floor below was not a safety issue in those simpler times.
The new gym’s locker room plumbing was simpler too. After gym or football practice, Coach would make everyone shower. Some wise guy would wait until the showers were full, then flush a toilet. The water would go scalding hot for a second, sending everyone out of there hopping and cursing. This was sophisticated humor in the Brainerd Building.
The academic curriculum was as charming and antiquated as the facility itself. Our algebra, language, social studies, and English classes owed more to the '30s than to the '60s. I remember they combined first aid and health and assigned the thorny and thankless task of teaching it to Coach—as if first aid and health were driver’s ed.
First aid and health was as close as Libertyville came to sex education. They segregated us by gender and Coach showed us films about hygiene and going on dates and applying direct pressure to wounds.
As for real biology, to heck with studying plant cells and dissecting worms and frogs. We were, one and all, seething masses of hormones. We were studying biology around the clock.
It was all so confusing. The bell would ring—the same bell that had been ringing in those halls for nearly fifty years—and you would pass through the halls You would see a girl you liked and you wouldn’t know whether to smile or punch her in the arm as you passed.
All in all, the Brainerd Building was a great good place. You had the reassuring sense it had seen it all before—that no matter who you really were, no matter what the first aid and health class films presented, no matter where life was about to take you, you were fundamentally rooted. You had generations of Libertyville citizens, generations of Libertyville parents, and generations of Libertyville students who preceded you to thank for that.
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