On the corner of Delaware and Fifth Streets in my hometown sits an old, red brick building. The Leavenworth Historical Society calls this building an example of “early 20th Century Revival and Colonial Revival design,” built at the turn of the 20th century. The locals just call it “The Corner Pharmacy.” My mom and I would go down to The Corner Pharmacy when I was a kid, on Saturday afternoons if she had a little change in her pocket, for a grilled cheese sandwich—and if we were lucky—a milkshake to boot. Sometimes we’d stop in for a late breakfast after particularly early basketball games at Nettie Hartnett Elementary. The grill was always piping hot on those Saturdays, with what seemed like a hundred fried egg sandwiches lined up in a row. The Corner Pharmacy was a pharmacy, but it was so much more than that. It was one of the last true relics of small-town prairie life, in a Kansas town that was quickly learning that if it was going to stay relevant, some things would need to change.
If you ask anyone born and raised in Leavenworth they can tell you countless stories about The Corner Pharmacy. The friendly Pharmacist, old whats-his-name, his wife, and teenage son. It was all very Olive Kitteridge from the outside. At some point he’d opened up the diner on the east side of the building and started flipping those fried egg sandwiches for waiting customers. They can tell you, some in painstaking detail, about the black pier frames, and single bay windows extending above the parapet, the wide entablature and decorative cornice, but if you ask what was above The Corner Pharmacy, who sat behind those old bay windows, they might not know. But I do.
In the spring of 1987, I was just finishing up my first year of kindergarten. I had a pretty good handle on my numbers, all the way up past 100. You can ask my mom, I recited them to her ad nauseam while she cleaned the floors, or dusted the wooden window sills, or mowed the yard with the old green push mower. I would walk behind her, believing she could hear me, believing she wanted to hear me, and recite all I had learned. I could count by ones, twos, fives, or tens. Lady’s choice. I was proud. I stuck my chest out, though it still didn’t poke out further than my round belly. I could read. I could write. I was even doing math, a fact that amazed my mother who often said math was her worst subject.
That spring, however, my mother was given an opportunity to finish something she had given up on a long time before, her high school education. On the second floor of 429 Delaware, directly over The Corner Pharmacy, a class was being assembled. A GED class. One for women and men. For those who received assistance from the state, from the government. For people who wanted to better their lives and the lives of their children. And my mom nervoulsy signed up.
I don’t know the logistics of the class. I don’t remember who taught it, or how many times we had to go downtown to the stuffy, carpeted room above The Corner Pharmacy, but I do remember my mother’s scowled face, as she sat on a metal chair, next to another woman, and did math calculations that made no sense to me. I remember sitting under the plastic and metal folding tables, while she worked out the equations, often thrusting her hands below the table to count on her fingers, while the teacher reminded her to try to do “mental math.” I’d count my numbers in my head every time the teacher said that. Hoping to send some of those important numbers telepathically to my mom.
Of course, my mom wasn’t doing kindergarten math. She was doing high school algebra, which if I am being honest, might as well been a foreign language to her, and years later to me. But in that hot room, with a laundry basket of used toys to keep me occupied, and those big bay windows to peer out of, I didn’t know any of that then. I just knew that every time my mother got frustrated, every time she closed the book in aggravation, every time she told the teacher she just couldn’t do it, someone, either the teacher or some other student in the room, would assure her that she could.
Some days I couldn’t stand to watch her make her way through her workbook, so I would sit in those bay windows and watch the traffic below. I would wonder what a “GED” was, whether or not I would have to take the same test, whether or not I would be good at math. I would keep quiet, hold my bladder the whole time, and never interrupt my mother. I may not have understood what was happening, or the gravity of the situation. The way that this had the potential to change my mother’s life. Our lives. But I knew it was important to her, even if I didn’t know or couldn’t remember why. The only thing I do remember, with great certainty, is the day the brown envelope came in the mail. The way she opened it up, smiled down at that piece of paper, said she had done it, she had passed her test, then promptly hid the certificate in her top drawer. Never to be discussed again.
My mom made a decision that day in the spring of 1987, and while all that hard work, those calculations, and late nights may have only amounted to a dollar more an hour at her job, it did wonders for me. It did wonders for my commitment to education, the value I know it can bring to your life. I’m a first-generation college graduate, but I am not a first-generation high school graduate, thanks in part, to the room behind the bay windows on top of The Corner Pharmacy.