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Tom Mees died at the age of 56 on August 13, 1996.

August 13, 2016

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The first school I ever went to was Columbian School, 2709 Marion Avenue, Mattoon, Illinois. It was a K-through-6 school, just down the street from Mattoon High School, a seven mile drive away from our home out by Lake Paradise. I spent seven years at that school, two at Mattoon Junior High, four at Mattoon High School and four at the University of Illinois, which is all to say, it’s the school I went to for longer than any other. I was there from age 4-12, which is a massive, and massively important, amount of time to spend going to the same school. A four-year-old is different than a 12-year-old the same way a duck is different than a doorknob. They are barely the same species. My transition from a duck to a doorknob all happened at that school.

It occurs to me, as I type this, that I can name off the top of my head my teachers for each grade of Columbian School:

Kindergarten: Mrs. Jett
First Grade: Mrs. Burton
Second Grade: Mrs. Pikowitz
Third Grade: Mrs. McRoberts
Fourth Grade: Mrs. Douglas
Fifth Grade: Mrs. Lawyer
Sixth Grade: Mr. Francis

This was not information I knew my head contained, but contain it it does.

Columbian was one of seven schools in the Mattoon School District, and look I can name them too: Columbian, Bennett, Lincoln, Washington, Hawthorne, Humboldt and St. Mary’s. My cousin Denny, my best friend before school, went to Bennett; my cousin Shelly went to Columbian, which made my parents less worried about me. (I have a lot of cousins.) My bus driver’s name was Joy. The bus number was 10. I sat in the third seat from the back. There was a line in black magic marker on the window of the seats that let kids know not to drop the adjustable window below that spot. Whenever we’d get close to Columbian, there was a kid who sat in front of me named Thomas who would always start jumping up and down in his seat and yelling, “I see the school! I see the school!”

It floods back without me asking it to. We all gathered in the gymnasium before the first school bell rang, everybody with their classes; some kid always was chewing gum and stuck it underneath the bleachers before school started, and it always grossed me out. Mrs. Lawyer had a paddle, a big nasty wooden thing that featured the signatures of everyone she’d ever punished with it. It had holes in it and looked to be about 400 years old; I never got it myself but I remember Keith Atchison getting it out in the hallway. The classroom door had a small window up top, and you only saw the top of the paddle as it went up, and then WHOOSH it was out of frame then SMACK ... then a moan. Then again and again. Keith got 10. I think he had waited until a girl was about to use the water fountain and then blew the water into her face as a joke. She started crying, and Keith had to face Mrs. Lawyer’s wrath. That paddle was pain; we were terrified of ever having to face it. The paddle was the end of history.

I remember playing dodgeball, except we didn’t call it dodgeball, we called it “slaughter,” except I thought it was spelled “slotter.” My skill in this game was being able to catch the big rubber balls; I couldn’t throw very hard, but I could catch whatever you threw at me. The trick was to toss one ball high in the air so your target would be concentrating on catching that while one of your teammates whacked him in the face while he was looking up. It was also fun to catch someone in the feet when they jumped; they’d often lose their balance and land on their head. We played this game every day at recess, the game where you threw massive rubber balls as hard as you could as the faces of seven-year-olds, and god was it fun. I got a bloody nose after being popped one time, and they didn’t send me to the nurse’s office. I just sat there until it stopped, then got back in the game.

I got in trouble for reading ahead on The Letter People. I had a little crush on Sarah Jeffries. My friend James changed his name from “Jame” between third and fourth grade and we spent the whole year making fun of him for it. There was a kid with Down’s Syndrome in a class for a few weeks, but only a few weeks. I remember my mom, who had been laid off from her job at General Electric, coming into work as a substitute teacher occasionally. I hated those days; she was fine, but I always felt like all the other kids were looking at me strange because she was there. My sister started kindergarten when I was in the fifth grade; I pretend like I didn’t know her when she’d see me on the playground. Two kids got in a fight at the park across the street, like a real fight, with actual punches; most of them were just an awkward hug and then nothing but this one got Eric’s face all scatched up. The computer bus would come by once a week; I got “I love you Mom” printed out on dot matrix paper, though I think I lost it on the way home and never gave it to her. One time a kid was grabbed right inthe middle of class by his parents, who came into the room screaming and crying. I don’t think I ever found what happened to him. A few weeks later I scored a penalty kick goal for our soccer team and we beat Hawthorne and everybody was so happy it was awesome it was the best.

On Tuesday, my son William started pre-K here in Athens. The school is a 15-minute walk away from our home, and it has already become a pleasure to walk with him every morning. He will be in this school for seven more years, and then he will be in another one, and then another one, and then he will be gone. I don’t remember anything in my life before I started school; life was just a series of vague unorganized activities that drifted from one place to another with people who popped in and popped out. But once school began, there was structure, and order, and a steady foundation and routine on which I begin to form meaningful relationships and surprisingly lasting memories. I’d been alive for four years before school started, but life really started when school did. It was how life was structured for the next 18 years. And those particular 18 years, they’re pretty important years. This is where it’s starting for him. Life’s starting to count now.


They tore down Columbian School about 10 years ago. Mattoon only has two elementary schools now, Riddle and Williams. (Williams is named after Arland D. Williams, a Mattoon native who died when Air Florida 90 crashed into the Potomac River in 1982. Williams survived the crash but perished in the river after giving the rescue rope to several other passengers.) 2709 Marion Avenue is now just an empty lot; If you look up Columbian School Mattoon on Google, this is what you get:


I wonder how many memories would come back if the school were still there and I walked its halls. They’re all still up here, I’m sure of it. They never go away. It’s now William’s turn to make his. I can only pray they are good ones. Shame they don’t play slotter anymore. I bet he’d be terrific at it: He can throw super hard.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)

1. Sausage Party: There’s Nothing Like a Good Weiner Joke, The New Republic. Trying to have good taste while writing about bad taste — gloriously bad taste — is extremely difficult, but quite satisfying when it pays off.

2. Advice For Bryce Harper to Avoid Alex Rodriguez’s Fate, Sports On Earth. I tried to be sly enough here to get across that turning out like Alex Rodriguez is actually a totally fine way to end up, but I dunno if everybody got it. Loved getting to take a jab at Jeter, though.

3. We Asked Our Friends (And A Few Enemies) To Sign Our Yearbook, Deadspin. Tim Marchman asked me to write a few words about Deadspin in its last week of Nick Denton’s ownership, and I did. I’d like to note that Marchman made several edits in this piece meant specifically to protect some people named and the company of Gawker Media itself. I have no problem with these edits and actually feel sort of proud to have written something that was Too Hot For Deadspin.

4. Yankees and Mets Fans Have Learned to Embrace Losing, New York Magazine. Back in the print edition this week, with Winona Ryder on the cover. Teenage Will Leitch is very impressed with Adult Will Leitch.

5. The Orioles Should Be Taken Seriously as Title Contenders, Sports On Earth. Baltimore of course then went and lost its next three games.

6. Pete’s Dragon: A Heartfelt Film, But Empty at Its Core, The New Republic. Everyone else likes this movie a lot more than I do, so keep it in mind.

7. Ten Pressing Questions for the End of the MLB Season, Sports On Earth. A dashed-off column that I came up with fairly late, but all told, sort of holds up. I’m very happy with the bit about the defending World Series teams finishing under .500. Hadn’t seen that anywhere else.

8. All 43 Meryl Streep Performances, Ranked Worst to First, Vulture. We originally ran this last year, but we updated it for Florence Foster Jenkins. Meryl Streep has made a lot of movies.

9. A-Rod Gave Us Two Decades of Entertainment, Sports On Earth. This column started off real well, actually, but I ran out of time and gas and ended with a clip show. Shame. I had a solid beginning.

10. NFC East: Team-by-Team Breakdown, Sports On Earth. I either need to make these shorter, or longer, or something. I try to flesh them out, but I fear they’re reading like wire capsules from a regional newspaper.

11. Our Best Throwback Jersey Bracket: Sweet 16. Sports On Earth. I consider these less “columns” and more “ways to figure out what people like online.” I will never figure that out, though, so the whole thing is fruitless.

As I say every week: If you are the sort to subscribe to a weekly newsletter, I would have to think it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to subscribe to one of the four (!) podcasts I do. Here they are:

The Will Leitch Experience, talking A-Rod and other stuff with Alyson Footer.

Grierson & Leitch, discussing “Suicide Squad,” “Shallow Grave” and “Brick.” It was fun talking about Rian Johnson, the director of “Brick” (and the upcoming Star Wars movie) who went to college with Grierson and whom we used to hang out with when I lived in LA. Extremely nice fellow.

Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, taped our first show! I’m legitimately excited for college football: Season tickets for the Dawgs again this year, and we set the stage pretty well in the first show, I thought. Also, I also drink a bunch of bourbon during this podcast, so it gets a little feisty.

Culture Caucus, no show this week.

That’s it. I’m going to go grill some burgers now. I’ve gotten pretty good at it.


Best,
Will