September is back to school. Although my first experience with school was in 1954, I still get excited when the new school year starts. I guess that is part of the reason I still work at a school although I have worked in private industry and government labs in the past.
Part of the magic is that sense of blissful oblivion that happens when your parents meet your needs. It was a bit scary at first. Fortunately there was a lot of help. For my birthday that July, I got a shiny new lunch box with pictures of Roy Rogers riding Trigger with a drawn gun and Dale Evans and Bullet the German Shepard in the background. It came complete with a thermos bottle with a big cork stopper.
In first grade, the school district was consolidated in governance, but not physically. The bus stop was at the end of a long lane that started skirting the hillside through fields, but then went up rather quickly through the woods, then back down. It was one of those lanes where there were only two ruts and often in the summer the space between them was green.
After you caught the bus, the next part was getting off at the proper school of the several selections. I was in complete ignorance, but my mother's best friend and childhood friend Helen had a daughter Bonnie who was a few years ahead of me in school. The adults arranged that Bonnie would get me off at the proper school building and look after me on the bus. That and learning to play the flute a few years later are two great debts I owe her.
The school house was in the small town nearby. It had a gravel play yard, source of a large scar my friend Shirley bears on her knee to this day. The red brick building had two stories, first grade on the bottom and second grade on the top. The restrooms were two outhouses in the back beside a yard where the family kept a goat tethered. Inside there was a large room that the teacher cleaned and heated with an oil stove and a smaller room for hanging up coats, hats, and parking your boots. It also held the water urn. The building had no plumbing, so the teacher with the help of some students would fill the urn from the pump in the front play yard where you also washed up after visiting the outhouse.
1954 was the crest of the baby boom, which hit in our rural community too. There were about 40 of us in the one room, all first graders, where in the past there had been several grades. Having a nice lunch box was great with no cafeteria, first you shook the thermos bottle to get the chocolate milk mixed, then you licked the milk from the cork. When school started there were lots of perfectly ripe tomatoes from the garden to eat with your sandwich. Mother always put in a bit of salt twisted into a piece of waxed paper to put on the tomato or on a hard boiled egg. Mother got up early, packed a large aluminum lunch box for my dad, then for as many of us kids as were going to school, then she would call from the bottom of the stairs "Time to get up!" with the added incentive of the smell of breakfast cooking.
Besides the shiny and full lunch box, there were the hand made cotton dresses, not just plain but with ruffles and scallops that she must have spent hours putting together. These, along with the slips were starched and ironed and laid out on the bed to put on. The dresses had ties, so the last part of the preparation was getting her to tie a bow. Hopefully no one would tease you by pulling it loose during a game of tag. Tying it behind your back was quite a chore and it never looked as good as when mother did it no matter how hard you tried. A sweater or jacket completed the outfit. In the foothills of the Alleghenies, mornings were quite cool, even in the summer.
My father had prepared me for school by teaching me how to tie my shoes. Unlike the bow on the dress, you could see them. I still run into students who balk at an assignment and am equally guilty as I tried to pull this trick on my dad. I pretended it was too hard and no one could be expected to do it, tried sulking, pouting, putting the foot in the shoe crooked, etc. He used his patience to wear me down, and when I had tired of all the cheap tricks, I listened to him and can tie my shoes to this day.
He is a big man with huge hands, but there is gentleness there too. I have a photograph of him with my son Geoffrey when he was a few months old sitting on his lap. Those baby hands are loosely clasped mirroring the large, powerful hands holding him and both look so comfortable and secure. He came to the hospital to drive me home after Geoffrey was born, his first and only grandchild. Geoff was having new accomplishments every day, unfortunately one that day was learning how to spit up and just as it was time to go. My hands were shaking from getting him bundled up for the January weather, but those huge rough hands stained with grease from the garage unbuttoned those tiny buttons on the newborn clothes and put a clean flannel gown on him quickly and efficiently, then wrapped him up nice and snug. He had probably done the same for his younger sisters and us when we were babies.
In the winter getting to the bus stop was often quite arduous. When the snow was deep, you had to get into your boots, snow pants, coat, hat and mittens. Next you had to break your way through where the snow had drifted in fathers tracks from when he drove to work. Some afternoons mother had to bundle up my little brother on the sled and haul him along, wait for us, then pull the three of us on the sled up the hill, coast down the other side, then pull us to the house. We discovered that if you made it to the top of the hill, you could save time by sitting on your lunch box and sliding to the bottom, thus it provided transportation as well as nurture. It also was handy to sit on while waiting.
When my parents were children, there was no bus. They had to walk to school no matter how cold it was. Some of the teachers would pick up students, especially the smaller ones, in their cars. Grandma would boil eggs in the morning and have each of the children carry a hot egg in their mitten to keep their fingers from freezing. They would trade it between their hands to keep warm on the way to school then eat the egg for lunch.
Going to school was important, whether to the little red brick school house or the more modern building with indoor plumbing and a cafeteria later. My parents both completed school through eighth grade. Of the three of us children, besides three high school diplomas, we have an associate degree, two batchelors degrees, a teaching certificate, and two masters degrees in the fields of math, engineering, computer science and chemistry.
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