You CAN Go Back (But You Probably Shouldn’t)

By Lyle R. Hill

Memories overwhelmed me as I walked through the main entrance of the grammar school from which I had graduated oh so many years ago … Good memories of a time long ago when life was simpler and far less stressful than today. The shiny tile floor, the clanging of locker doors, and the constant chatter of children as they made their way through the halls
was an absolute delight. I stopped to check out the gym. Except for a new electronic scoreboard, it looked and smelled just like it did back when I was a freckled-face kid riding the end of the bench during basketball games. Hardly anything had changed. It was a delightful walk down memory lane as I found Mrs. Darby’s fifth grade classroom on the north end of the second floor. It was a room I had sat in many times wondering what life held for me.

Who could have possibly thought that one day I would be invited to come back to speak at Irving Elementary? My mother and father attached a high degree of importance to the formal education process. My mother attended high school for a couple of years, but did not graduate. My father never spent one day in a high school classroom. Both of them had wanted me to be a teacher and as I was growing up, I wanted the same. When I enrolled in college, I listed my intended major as elementary education. My plan was to one day go back to good old Irving Elementary and teach math and science while coaching the baseball team to perennial School District #89 championships. I wanted to work with the
youthful innocents of the world and help shape them just as my teachers had done for me.

It wasn’t to be. Instead, a career in business had gotten in the way and while indeed, I was going back, it was not as a teacher, but as a speaker on the last day of the school’s annual career week.

When I arrived at the designated classroom, Mrs. Darby waved me in and asked me to take a seat in the back of the room while she passed out homework assignments and took attendance. I couldn’t believe how little had changed. I felt quite at home. I could sense the energy and enthusiasm that the kids generated as they sat at their tables eager to
learn something new and exciting. And here I was, a part of it all. I had come back to share my experiences with tomorrow’s leaders of the community. And yes, I was a little bit proud of myself, too. Not everyone had been invited to come back—only five of us had.

Irving Elementary has, to say the least, a storied history. At least a half dozen former or current NBA stars played in the school’s small gym and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton had attended the school and lived across the street less than 200 feet from the main entrance. Through the years, the school had done its best to educate future politicians, business leaders, trades people, educators and even a few gangsters. I had wonderful memories of my days at Irving and when I got the call from Mrs. Darby asking me if I would like to come back to speak during career week, I jumped at the opportunity. After all, I had believed early on that I was going to be a teacher and, if not for a twist or two of fate, it very well could have been me making the calls to former students to
speak at career week.

“Class, she began, let’s shut off the cell phones and other devices and welcome Mr. Hill who comes from the world of business to meet with us today. Mr. Hill, like the other four people that have met with us this week, graduated from Irving Elementary and actually spent time right here in this classroom when he was your age. Now, our first four visitors were an ironworker, a firefighter, a professional athlete, and a pet store owner. Mr. Hill manages a glass company and they put glass in cars, homes, and businesses. Doesn’t that sound exciting? Let’s start our time with Mr. Hill by asking him questions that are on your minds.”

Mrs. Darby took the chair in the back of the room that I had been sitting in and, as I stood alone in front of these bright-eyed, sweet looking children, a boy who was having a hard time sitting still raised his hand. I nodded to him and he began.

“Mr. Hill, are you in a union? ‘Cause my dad says if you’re not in a union you must be stupid.”

Before I could answer the first question a girl in a green sweater asked the second. “Do you have a cat?”

“No, I used to be in a union some years ago, but not now, and I don’t have a cat either.”

“Then how about a dog?” she quickly followed.

“No, not a dog either,” I responded.

“Well, Mr. Johnson, he was the pet store owner who was here a couple of days ago, says that people who don’t like pets probably don’t like kids either.”

“I love kids,” I blurted, “and I’m sure that Mr. Johnson has a big glass window in the front of his store so people can look in at those puppies and cats. So glass makes that possible and …”

“Mr. Hill,” a tough looking kid interrupted, “did you ever put out a fire or climb up a ladder to save somebody’s life? You know, like a firefighter does?”

Before I could answer came another question. “Do you make a lot of money in this business thing of yours, Mr. Hill? ‘Cause the basketball player that was here yesterday
said he makes millions of dollars a year and he plans to retire before he’s 40. You look older than that.”

“No, I don’t make millions a year and you are right about the age thing, too,” I answered.

“Do you actually like your job, Mr. Hill?” fired another. “You don’t get to save lives, you don’t make a lot of money and you don’t have pets. You seem kind of dull to me.”

“And he’s not in a union,” shouted the kid who had started the interrogation. “What a loser.”

I looked toward Mrs. Darby for support, but she was staring out the window at a squirrel sitting on the branch of a tree chewing on a nut. I think she had slipped into some sort
of a trance leaving me to fend for myself. I felt a trickle of sweat working its way down my back. I turned back to the hostile crowd and suggested that, if there weren’t any more
questions, I would leave. Before I could finish, another kid asked if I had brought any treats. He said that all the other speakers had brought candy and that Mr. Johnson, the pet
store owner, even brought a couple of puppies for them to play with. I took another quick look at Mrs. Darby, but neither she nor the squirrel had moved. I actually think they had made eye contact and were staring at each other.

“Hey,” a nasty looking character, who very well might have been a local street gang leader, yelled at me, “have you got any treats or not?”

“He probably can’t afford treats,” chimed in the future labor leader, “cause he ain’t in no union.”

Ignoring the labor organizer and looking directly at the future felon, I reached for my wallet, and handed him a twenty dollar bill so he could buy treats for the entire class.
He didn’t seem too happy with this gesture so I handed him another twenty and he smiled at this and waved the money over his head to the cheers of the angry mob.

I started moving toward the door as I promised the class I would join a union, get at least two puppies that afternoon, start practicing free throws so I could quit my terrible paying job and try out for the NBA. I also promised to spend at least one night a week driving around looking for a fire from which I could rescue someone in distress. Cheers erupted.
As I got to the safety of my car and pulled out of the parking lot, the thought ran through my mind … yes, you can go back, but you probably never should. Be content to let memories speak for themselves. It’s a lot safer that way.

Lyle R. Hill is the managing director of Keytech North America, a company providing research and technical services for the glass and metal industry. He also provides glass-related advice on Hill has more than 40 years’ experience in the glass and metal industry and can be reached at You can read his blog every other Monday at

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