On Surviving School and Learning a Little Along the Way — Pardon my self-indulgence. It’s Funny how things come back to you while you are doing something else. I was writing on an entirely different topic when I took a turn and ended up here. I guess sometimes things have to break out of your head and land on paper. This is a rambling autobiographical account of my early days in elementary school back in the “Leave it to Beaver” era.
I was one of those students that, if in elementary school today, would be spending quality time with the school psychologist and probably diagnosed as having some degree of attention deficit disorder. Somehow I learned that putting words on paper was fulfilling at this early age. Kids at this age are looking for something that they excelled at and I was a champion reader. I read early and often so I became familiar with how ideas were expressed on paper. Conversation was sporadic and disjointed but when an idea was committed to paper it had to be clear and complete. I can actually remember learning about the period and experiencing one of those light-bulb moments when it became clear that when someone was trying to communicate an idea they had to do it before the period showed up. Periods and commas did not just appear at random. I also figured out that before you can really be a writer you need to have something to write about. Luckily, there was so much going on in my world that the normal school work of arithmetic and cursive writing were an intrusion.
In first grade we had Jack the talking crow who would come and sit on our class window sill and entertain the kids and aggravate the teacher. The windows were at ground level and Jack would just walk up, like crows do, and peer in the window. If it was warm and the windows were open he would hop in and walk up and down the window sill. Jack was wild and big and the girls were terrified — which made his visits to first grade so much more enjoyable. The school legend was that Jack had been captured by a neighborhood ne’er-do-well and had his tongue split and somehow he learned to talk. We hung on every word but he wasn’t much of a conversationalist. My first grade teacher went nuts (literally) and had to leave about two-thirds of the way through the school year. Maybe Jack had something to do with it. We could see it coming; she had been going downhill for a while and the Christmas vacation must have sent her over the edge. She hung on for a few weeks but eventually she “went to Chicago”. As a result, we were parceled out to other classes like refugees for the last few months of the school year. Each classroom develops a culture after a few months so we were alien beings in our new surroundings and Jack the Crow couldn’t seem to find us. The other kids were crow-deprived and had no experiences with Jack and figured we were as crazy as our old teacher.
In second grade my teacher was a rookie straight out of Little Rock, Arkansas. We only understood about half of what she said (I swan!). We liked her mostly due to the novelty of her approach to English. We all sounded like southern aristocracy after a couple months. She seemed very young even to us. She couldn’t have been over twenty-five. We liked her a lot. Since we had more tenure at the school than she did we could stretch the rules and she didn’t know any better.
The novelty of second grade got even better because my school caught fire and burned down during the Christmas vacation. The students were farmed out to local church basements where tables and a few salvaged desks were arranged around portable blackboards. I actually had nothing to do with the fire but I recall having my picture taken in a triumphant pose next to the smoking ruins. I suspect that there were a lot of similar pictures of other kids. They said it was faulty wiring up in the attic that started the fire. The school was old and decrepit but it was better than the church basements we had to report to in January. The teachers and students struggled to keep things moving ahead but conditions were terrible.
Those years spent in the church basements I count as my missing years. I spent most of my time concealed behind the blackboard copying lessons that everyone else copied ten minutes earlier. I was too busy at the time but was expected to catch up and to this day I’m still running about ten minutes behind. Sometimes the blackboards flipped so I was back there trying to copy the lesson upside down. I was right side up…the lesson wasn’t. Sometimes there were several of us back there and it was great fun until the teacher figured it out. Third grade was a total loss. We were in the dungeon at the local Missionary Baptist Church. I didn’t know churches had dungeons and if they did I was sure that mine, being a semi-rural, hard-rock Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, would have a doozy plus some torture equipment. But my experience among the Baptists was bleak and foreboding. I remember it as dark with bare light bulbs and no windows and I really needed windows. My third grade teacher was a hatchet-faced lady who was always in a bad mood. I have to give the teachers credit because the working conditions were terrible and I’m sure (now, being much older) that they tried very hard to keep us on track. Some of our text books were water damaged and smelled of smoke so no one even wanted to touch them. Everything was makeshift. In third grade I don’t even recall having recess.
The sky opened in fourth grade. We were no longer in a church basement but were in a funny looking asbestos cardboard type of building. All of the exterior walls were asbestos. It had lots of windows and was full of all kinds of cool stuff like bird nests and hornet nests and fossils and some real stuffed animals…never mind the asbestos. We had class pets and terrariums and pen pals. This was heaven and the teacher was an angel. I have friends from that period who stayed in contact with that teacher well into adulthood. I was finally inspired to write what was bouncing around in my head and some of it was good. My life behind the blackboard ended and I was welcomed with open arms back into the society of fourth graders.
As luck would have it, they rebuilt the school and we finally moved back in at the start of fifth grade. This was my first male teacher. I didn’t know they came in that variety. Up until this time I figured all teachers were women…except for the music teacher who was a little bit odd and peevish and was easily provoked into spasms of rage.
The new school was a disappointment as it looked just like the old school. Our teacher was a part-time Baptist minister whose day job was trying to teach something, anything, to ten year olds. I was a little wary of the Baptist minister connection because I still had haunting memories of third grade. As it turned out, he mostly enjoyed having the little girls sit on his lap. The boys were free to do anything that wasn’t too disruptive. I was a budding scholar by this time and was beginning to get the idea that if I was going to learn anything useful I was going to have to teach myself. Unfortunately, my interests didn’t always coincide with the classroom material. I would write letters and ask people to send me information. I wrote to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and got a large bundle of material on King Tut, Luxor and Giza. My parents had an old Crosley radio with a shortwave band that I used to listen to English language broadcasts from Paris and (God forbid!!) Moscow. I wrote off to the Paris broadcasters and received a bundle of information and ended up on their mailing list for several years. What they sent was very technical and way over my head but it was still cool getting mail from France. I had a pen pal in England and we sent letters back and forth for a couple years.
This was 1957 and the floodgates had opened and we didn’t have time for this mundane school stuff. Everything was cool. Cars had huge fins and soon the Edsel was introduced. Elvis was on the television…or at least his upper half. This was the International Geophysical Year for heaven’s sake! Sputnik was flying around overhead. I managed to be sick (wink, wink) the day the USA tried to launch our Vanguard rocket in an attempt to catch up to the Soviets. I was tuned in on the old Crosley when they launched it and the sucker blew up on the launch pad. I was mortified because I was sure I could hear Sputnik’s little beep-beep on the shortwave laughing at us. I remember when a kid smuggled the first transistor radio into school and we had to attach the wire aerial to a chain link fence in the schoolyard to pick up anything and then you could only barely hear it. We still had a classroom schedule but it was often interrupted by TB patch tests, fire drills, tornado drills and atomic bomb drills. This was the year I joined the school band.
My band career was relatively short lived. I struggled with the clarinet for two years. We still had the same old music teacher and he served as our band director. He was even more high-strung when working with the school band. His nerves were shot and he was beginning to hold grudges. If you did something wrong you were on his list forever. We only performed one piece of music, the “Our Director March” by F. E. Bigelow. We made no attempt to learn anything else and I can still hear it in my head. Even at the Christmas assembly we played the Our Director March. One day I managed to get tangled up in several music stands and caused a racket and the music teacher suffered a melt-down. I had apparently been on his list for some time already and this was the last straw. We were both yelling and somewhere along the way I told him what he could do with the clarinet. That was the end of my music career.
In my elementary school, sixth grade was the “senior” class. The teacher that year was a nice lady with hairy arms who meant well but had no idea what was going on in class…or should I say out of class. All the boys seemed to have weak bladders that year and we tended to congregate, one by one, in the boys’ bathroom several times a day. Our classroom and the bathrooms were on the second floor. If one was so inclined, one could climb out the boys’ bathroom window and walk sideways on the ledge, flat against the brick wall of the building, and peek into the girls’ bathroom (much to the delight of any of the girls who happened to be there). One could also go the other direction and peek into the classroom window. I’m not sure what the local neighbors thought about kids being on the second floor ledge during class time but they apparently never called the school to report it. At one point the teacher noticed that most of the boys were missing and had been gone for quite a while. She decided to investigate and stormed into the boys’ bathroom. As eleven year olds, we were scandalized that she would dare to enter this male sanctuary. In spite of our protests, we were frog-marched back to class…all of us except for the kid out on the ledge. It never occurred to her that someone would be out there. That episode put a damper on our ledge walking for a while. We had one kid who would still occasionally spend time on the ledge but most of us found other diversions. We had to get serious because we were heading to Junior High!