One reason we moved into the ramshackle 1905 farmhouse my family has inhabited for nearly 20 years in the leafy suburban paradise of Northbrook is its proximity to Greenbriar Elementary School, one block away. It gave an excellent grounding to our two boys, slingshotting them into the stratosphere of first academic, then professional success.
They’re gone now. But I remain, a spectral late middle-aged man haunting the neighborhood. And a dog owner; during our daily walks, we sometimes drift toward Greenbriar. Though never during school hours, not after a jarring incident five years ago. The dog and I were ambling along an empty sidewalk between the building and the parking lot one afternoon, minding our business. Suddenly the school doors burst open and we were surrounded by kids. Really, it was like Rush Street the moment the Bulls won their first championship: empty, whoosh, mobbed.
Children jostled to pet the dog. Before I could get out of there, a woman strode over and informed me strangers are not permitted on the grounds during school hours. I felt like Peter Lorre in “M.”
She did not command me to leave that instant. Nor did I clap my hand to my heart and declare, “I am a Greenbriar parent emeritus!” Instead I hung my head, aghast, and fled.
But 7 a.m. Saturday we had the place to ourselves, so I vectored through the schoolyard, past the lovely little wetland next to the playground. It wasn’t there when my kids went to school, but installed later as an encouragement — I imagine — for migrating birds and besieged bees. As an educational tool and not — I hope — a moat to keep scary neighborhood men off the property.
Admiring the miniature marsh, I noticed a ball, yellow, among the grasses. Then another. Then a third. I began to count. Five, 10, 15, 20 … at least two dozen balls, of all sorts: kickballs, footballs, basketballs. Plus a pink Hula Hoop, floating in the fen.
There are so many ways you can go with this, I think it’s best just to lay the thoughts out, as they occurred to me:
1. The law of unintended consequences is a stern one. At what point, if any, in the build-a-bog process was the adjacent playground considered? Netting now runs between the two. Part of the design? Or a desperate ad hoc measure?
2. Is the morass really there out of environmental concern? Hype for the 2011 remodeling of the school, enlarging the gym, adding a new entrance and roof garden, mentions improved “stormwater management.” Is that it? A retention pond with milkweed.
3. How much fun is spoiled by balls accidentally thrown into the water? Is this even what happens? Perhaps the balls are just dropped by coddled children of privilege, who run inside after recess, leaving balls behind to be blown into the sough. How long have the balls been there? Years? Do they bob, neglected, while children stand around thumbing their iPhones, playing virtual kickball? Are phones allowed at recess?
4. Speculation is not necessary. These things are knowable. I phoned Greenbriar and the school district and the village.
”Yes, it is a problem,” said Terry Ryan, District 28 communications director, after conferring with the principal, too busy to speak with me. “Yes they do go in and fish them out every so often. The maintenance manager dons rubber boots.”
There’s an image right out of Thomas Hardy. I wish I could relate the color of the rubber boots. Perhaps in a future column.
5. I know this all terribly trivial, and I should be concentrating on the ramifications of our great nation falling into the hands of traitors. But enough people are doing that — there’s a line — and besides, I have another year to take my turn. If not five years. If not more.
We may never emerge from the political quagmire we are sunk into. At some point, triviality becomes our comfort and refuge. Everybody needs to breathe, to think, to notice and to contemplate the details of our own small worlds — my, that’s lot of balls in that swamp, I bet there are schools in Chicago without a single serviceable kickball — while still working to improve the chances our larger world might yet have a future we can bear being part of.