Some first day of school images in New Canaan persist through the years: bright new outfits, embarrassing photo shoots at the bus stop, tearful kindergarten farewells, nervous classroom energy, locker combinations, crisp notebooks, teacher introductions, excited and awkward classmate reunions.
The playground equipment and areas have been double-checked—for example, the New Canaan Department of Public Works last month diligently crack-sealed parts of playgrounds at East and West.
Yet for many years, and for scores of nostalgic New Canaanites who attended Center School—demolished after the 1982-83 academic year to make way for the Center School Parking Lot ($120 per year for a permit) opposite Maple Street from New Canaan Library—the centerpiece of the playground was a narrow, long, recessed, cement “pit” around the back of the school itself.
A place of physicality, perhaps even violence, as well as fierce competition and glory—and, of course, wholly unfathomable at an elementary school today—the Knockout Pit at Center School remains a singular touchstone for alumni more than three decades later, despite no official historical record of it and at a school far better known and remembered among educators for its innovations in student learning and curriculum.
“My best memory of the school, other than some friends, is the Knockout Pit,” said Bill Taylor, a 1981 New Canaan High School graduate who attended Center in the early-‘70s.
“I talk about it to this day, and you really can’t explain it to people. It put a smile on your face, whether it was lunch or after school, sometimes even before school. It was a popular place and a fun place: You kill each other, and then you just go about your business.”
The rules in the Knockout Pit, most of those interviewed for this article agreed, were similar to other dodgeball games—though, once eliminated, there was no re-entering the game at Center. Using the old red rubber kickballs of the day, an even number of players lined up on either side of a halfway line and threw the ball across it, trying to get others out by striking them with the ball without having it caught in the air. The Knockout Pit had “quarter lines” that could be used to eliminate the very last player left on an opposing team.
No one seems to know just when the Knockout Pit was dug and poured—its dimensions are measurable today with visible cracks in the concrete above it—what its original purpose was or just how long after its creation kids started playing knockout there.
Dr. Stephen Rubin, who led center school as its principal from 1965 through its closing in 1983, recalled “sanctioning” use of the narrow cement corridor accessible by way of a staircase or through a cafeteria door, soon after taking the reins.
“It was something that a lot of kids enjoyed—it was, for some, a little scary experience,” Rubin recalled. “But it was adequately monitored and supervised. It’s a dodgeball game, and anybody that abused that was removed from the Knockout Pit.”
That would happen, Rubin said, when kids became too aggressive.
“They came too close to the opposite side so that they had an unfair advantage,” he said.
Rubin added: “The Knockout Pit was a very informal fun time for a lot of kids, and it almost was in contrast to what went on in the school, which had a lot of very technical components.”
That included a system of learning whereby students experienced a highly individualized, tailored program. For Center School alum and town resident Cam Hutchins, singular elements of Center that include the way kids learned and Knockout Pit all made it a special place.
“Obviously there’s the curriculum, but there was also the whole playground cycle, where you’d make snow banks in the winter and then slide down them because it seemed like the Alps in grade school,” Hutchins said. “And then in the spring it would melt and there would be rivers in the dirt part of the field and you’d make dams—spend the whole recess making a dam and then let it go before the bell rings. There were drip paintings in Sue Connell’s art class and Pris Carroll’s music class, composing your own music and then presenting it in front of the whole school.”
The school itself was an historic structure. A school building stood on the site of Center in 1856, when the town purchased the land there for $881.25, according to documents on file at the New Canaan Historical Society (a member-supported organization).
When enrollment hit 240 in 1894, an addition was needed, and 14 years later New Canaan determined that an entirely new building was needed. A new, brick building was constructed for about $45,000 in 1910, with another addition going in 10 years later.
In 1940, Center School required more space again and so six classrooms and an auditorium were added—as well as a cafeteria.
Though the cafeteria was located in the same area of the building that students will remember it—basement level, east side of the school, according to a 1940 site plan on file at the historical society—it makes no mention of a service entrance midway on the far cafeteria wall (the infamous door to The Knockout Pit).
However, New Canaan Advertiser articles from renovations planned and completed between 1956 and 1958 note that, for example, “a major item in the modernization program includes renovations throughout the building to ensure compliance with the fire safety code.”
It could well be that what would become the Knockout Pit, and the door to it from the cafeteria, represented a sorely needed fire exit, Hutchins said. Part of the purpose of digging up the Knockout Pit also may have been to let light into the cafeteria windows, or as a delivery route (though, as Hutchins noted, a more accessible, recessed entrance to the basement level of Center was located just around the corner from the Pit).
Whenever it was created, and for whatever reason, the Knockout Pit eludes the historical record. Even newspaper articles published in the mid- to late-1970s that dealt specifically with Center School’s playground areas (and the need to expand them by acquiring adjacent properties, which was done) fail to mention it.
“Dr. Rubin said the new playground will be designed by William Weisz, New York City architect who specializes in using materials readily available to keep construction costs down,” reads a Sept. 30, 1976 article on the volunteer-led effort to carve out a new playground area at the corner of Main and Maple Streets.
“Center School’s playground is split into three areas. In front of the school is the kindergarten space and in back are separate areas for grades one and two and grades three through six. Because the playground for the first and second graders has not been very attractive due to its washed out condition, those children were more inclined to participate with the ‘upper classmen,’ thus limiting the activities for both groups, the principal explained.”
Rubin during our interview for this Knockout Pit article did recall one incident specifically, where “one kid got bitten by a bunch of hornets down there and we rushed him to the nurse.”
That boy may well have paid a visit to Vicki Socci, who worked as a nurse at Center four days a week from about 1969 through the final year of ’83.
Socci, a mother of four (three of whom went to Center, including current New Canaan Fire Department Capt. Michael Socci), still lives in the Parade Hill Road home she and her husband bought in 1960—right next door to the now-demolished former home of Syd and Bev Greenberg, a couple that, between them, have probably done more to preserve the history of Center School than anyone.
Socci said injuries from the Knockout Pit, including among her own kids, spanned broken and sprained wrists to bruises, cuts and scrapes.
“They’d come in from the Knockout Pit and naturally I would put the board in and tape it,” Socci recalled.
The Knockout Pit wasn’t very popular among parents, recalled Janet Lindstrom, whose two children went through the school and who long has served as executive director of the New Canaan Historical Society.
“I didn’t like it,” Lindstrom said. “It was dangerous.”
Mose Saccary, a Center School alum who would go on to graduate from New Canaan High School in 1978, said he remembered “the ringing of the ball coming off the wall as it just missed your head, from the sixth graders at the free throw line and then I remember not getting hit because I was so scared to get hit.”
Nevertheless, Saccary said he was in the Knockout Pit every day, “choking food down to try and get to the Knockout Pit. I’d run out there.”
He added: “That’s if Mrs. Stone didn’t make you eat your carrots,” recalling a widely feared and respected teacher at the school.
Town resident Len Paglialunga, a late-1950s Center School student who would go on to become a football star at the high school, said he spent “hours and hours” in the Knockout Pit.
“One of the bad things was when the girls got caught in all the crossfire of the knockout game,” he recalled with a smile. “But it was just great fun. It was just absolute great fun. You’d come out of the lunchroom door, and you’re throwing the ball back and forth and the ball is whizzing by people’s heads. ‘What is going on here?’ It was great.”
“It set you up for life,” Paglialunga said. “You either survived or you didn’t survive.”