We all have experiences that define our lives. Whether they be situations, people, music, art – there are moments that when we recall them we know they contributed significantly to who we are today. This week, some of those moments were brought back to me in full force when I heard about the passing of Rita Utz, the long time music instructor at Hiawatha Park.
Over the years you’ve heard me speak about my experiences at Hiawatha Park, the little recreation center on the Northwest Side of Chicago. I started working there in 1974 and spent fourteen years teaching Theatre and Dance in after school programs. My title was “Drama Instructor”, Miss Rita’s was “Music Instructor”, Miss Gloria and Miss Debbie were “Physical Instructors, John was the other “Physical Instructor”, Vince was the “Park Supervisor” and who could ever forget that elderly curmudgeon, Adolph who was the “Building Attendant”. We were definitely a crazy crew who worked together, played together and created an atmosphere that caused hundreds of young children to march across the street from St. Francis Borgia School, (and Canty as well) at the very second school let out to participate in our after school programs. Everyday by 3:30 pm. the building was filled with the sound of basketballs bouncing, floor exercise music playing and of course the familiar sounds of the upcoming musical production coming from the club room right off the main entrance where I taught my classes. (I began teaching in a much smaller club room but graduated to a bigger space when my program got bigger).
And every day, year in year out, you could count on this little recreation center to be teeming with kids laughing, learning and creating bonds and friendships that could last a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong, there was drama as well. Kids will be kids and they will misbehave so there were also those times of determining the correct type of discipline to show that certain behaviors would not be tolerated. There were good days, there were bad days but those days became the days that defined the lives of many, the times of our lives!
Rita’s passing got me to once again think about those days. But now I am wondering, is that really how it all happened? I have such wonderful memories of those times. But were they as pivotal as I remember them? Did they really create the experiences that defined the lives of all of us? Were we as good as we thought we were? And as I wonder about this, the words from the song “The Way We Were” reverberate in my head:
Can it be that it was all so simple then,
Or has time rewritten every line.
If we had the chance to do it all again,
Tell me would we, could we?
Memories may be beautiful and yet,
What’s to painful to remember,
We simply choose to forget.
So it’s the laughter we will remember,
Whenever we remember, the way were…
So now I wonder, am I choosing to remember only the laughter? Am I making more of these experiences than they were ever meant to be? Has my mind created a fairy tale version of what happened during those years, a version that is easy for me to live with but far from the truth? Was it really all so simple then?
And as I wallow in the doubt, I get an email from a former student who read a blog that I posted in 2011 regarding my reflections on our Hiawatha Park experiences:
“Reading the experience through your eyes is amazing to me. Maybe I’m becoming more of a pessimist as I get older, but that seems like a lot of work! All I can say is thank you. Thank you for your patience with us. Thank you for your guidance. Thank you for sharing your talents with us. We were luckier than we knew. I’m glad to have the opportunity to tell you that, now that I can truly appreciate it through an adult’s eyes. YOU ROCK!!
I am writing this blog at the moment the funeral mass is being conducted for Miss Rita back in Chicago. At 94, she lived a full life but far beyond the blessing of years she lived a life that mattered. Her talent and her love of children left indelible impressions on the lives of many creating experiences that defined their lives. And that is much easier said than done. She leaves this earth a richer person because of how she chose to live her life. I thank her today for sharing her gifts with all of us. She will be fondly remembered in all of our hearts.
I left Hiawatha Park 25 years ago and over and over I still get the types of messages from my former students similar to the one I shared above. So, as I once again think about those days and wonder whether they really were the experiences that defined our lives, I say with a great deal of certainty – yes, they were. Has time rewritten every line – no it has not. If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we, could we… well that is a question for the ages. I’m not sure we could, but I am eternally grateful that we did!