Thursday, August 21, 2014

Elementary School: Before We Took the Blinders Off

Yesterday I registered for the September-October session of "Life Writing." It'll be my fifth time taking this class, and I can hardly wait to get started again. It's been difficult coming up with blog post ideas this summer, so I'm hoping that the assignment of specific topics in class will reawaken my writing muse.

In looking through my class notebook, I realized that I haven't shared with you my story on the subject of elementary school. You may recognize one or two incidents from earlier blog posts, but this was the first time I put it all down chronologically, grade by grade.

Depending on your age, parts of my story may closely mirror parts of yours. Please let me know if they do.


The playground at the rear of Phelps Elementary School was five blocks west and one block south of the house my grandparents shared with us in Springfield, Missouri. Sometimes I switched up the route, placing the southward jog earlier in the journey, but I almost never walked the extra distance required to enter the front of the building. I started school there in September of 1948. The youngest student in my class, I wouldn’t turn six until the day after Thanksgiving.

Phelps School.

Mother told me years later that she had walked to school with me every day of my first week in first grade, taking the most direct path to help me learn the way. The second week she walked a few steps behind, letting me take the lead. The third week, she said, she walked half a block behind me and carried a switch to keep me from turning around and heading back home. Fortunately, my opinion of school improved; it was soon my favorite place to be.

All the teachers at Phelps were women. So was the principal. The only man in the building was the janitor. All of the staff and all the students were Caucasian, most of us with surnames that originated in the British Isles. Nearly all of us were Protestant, predominantly Baptist. If any of my schoolmates were Catholic or Jewish, I wasn’t aware of it; we hardly ever compared notes about religion. A boy named Tony Robertson and I were the only two students in my class whose parents were divorced.

We started each day at Phelps by placing our right hands over our hearts and reciting “The Pledge of Allegiance,” changing our recitation in fifth grade when the words “under God” were added to it. In an era that was largely peaceful, we filed outdoors two-by-two for fire drills and occasionally practiced ducking under our desks in case the Russians bombed Springfield.

During the Christmas season the entire student body sat around an enormous tree in the main hall and sang Christmas carols. Once a week the music teacher rolled a piano into our classroom and taught us to sing “Oh, Susannah,” “The Erie Canal,” “The Marine’s Hymn,” “America the Beautiful” and other traditional songs. We also sang “Dixie” without giving a single thought to its history or its lyrics.

In art class we dabbled in poster paints, clay, and papier-mâché on brightly patterned oil cloth brought from home to protect our lift-top desks. The distinctive smell of the oil cloth was a favorite scent, as was the minty aroma of the white paste we used for art projects. Each February we decorated shoeboxes and cigar boxes with red and white crepe paper and passed out Valentines, but only to the kids we liked.

We joined after-school organizations that encouraged good citizenship and taught us important life skills, such as how to make Rice Krispie Marshmallow Treats. In second grade I was a Blue Bird. Instead of progressing to become a Campfire Girl, I dropped out and later switched to the Girl Scouts. No matter how many friends I made among the students, it was the teachers who meant the most to me.

Me, wearing brand-new Girl Scout uniform - 5th grade - 1953.
In this photo I was facing our house. The buildings behind me were
part of what was then Southwest Missouri State Teachers College.

My first-grade teacher was Miss Davis. (We called them all “Miss,” though many of them were married.) Miss Davis was a grandmotherly woman with a kind face and fluffy silver hair. Wanting to learn the names of all those children I’d never met, I concentrated each morning as Miss Davis called the roll, beginning with Jimmie Paul Allen, on to me and then Jane Kay Burke in the B’s, and on through the alphabet as far as Edward Lee Wheeler. To this day, if I think of a child who was in my first grade class, I usually remember his or her middle name.

I took learning seriously and was apparently distressed when it didn’t go fast enough to suit me. Miss Davis once reported to Mother that she’d found me crying because I didn’t know how to spell elephant. She showed me how that day. Writing and arithmetic were fun, but it was reading that excited me. We whipped through the books about Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff and I wanted more, more, more. In April of 1949, near the end of first grade, I read for myself the newspaper article about Kathy Fiscus, a three-year-old California girl who fell into a well and died while the nation waited and prayed for her rescue. That’s my first memory of being deeply moved by something I’d read.

Second grade is a bit of a blur. I remember that my teacher was Miss Hutchinson, a perky young woman with a blonde pixie haircut, and I remember having a boyfriend, Bruce Crane (Alan Bruce Crane), a crush that carried over from first grade. Bruce was the son of our postman, and I liked him off and on all through grade school.

Compared to the other grades, third grade was the pits. Miss Butler stood only about half a head higher than her students and was as big around as she was tall. She couldn’t reach her feet to tie her shoes, so she’d show up each day wearing slippers and appoint one of us children to assist her into her work shoes. She was never without her wooden stick--one I now recognize as a conductor’s baton--and didn’t hesitate to use it. Miss Butler rarely smiled. What she did do, for which I’ll forever be grateful, was read to us every afternoon from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. I wrote a letter to Laura Ingalls Wilder that year and received a handwritten answer from her. I wish I knew what happened to that letter.

Miss McDonald taught fourth grade. She was tall and slim, with collar-length brown hair parted and swept to one side. She liked the theater and directed our class in two plays we presented to the whole school. The first was a Christmas pageant in which I played the non-speaking role of the innkeeper’s wife, and the second was Blue Willow, an adaptation of the Doris Gates book about the daughter of an impoverished migrant worker and the Blue Willow plate that was her prized possession.

By fourth grade I was riding my bike to school. Local ordinances prohibited bicycles on sidewalks, so I rode in the street, near the curb. One day, returning to school after I’d gone home for lunch, I saw a man come out of a house half a block away and get into his car, which was parked in my path. He didn’t start the car immediately, so I continued riding until I was about a car-length behind him, then stopped to wait until he drove away. I expected the man to drive forward, but he didn’t; he suddenly began backing up to turn onto a side street. I jumped off my bike but didn’t have time to pull it out of the way before he ran over it. The man leaped from his car and appeared to be horrified at such a close call. He tried to talk to me, but he was a stranger, so I left the broken bicycle in the street and ran all the way to school.

The lunch hour hadn’t ended yet. I ran past all the children on the playground and up the stairs to Miss McDonald’s empty classroom. She found me there minutes later, scared and shaken. As I tearfully explained to her what had happened, the principal arrived. The man had followed me to school, bicycle in his open trunk, to make sure I wasn’t hurt. I guess the principal had spoken with him and then gone from classroom to classroom in search of a child in distress. After a brief telephone conference with my mother, who was at work, it was decided that the principal would accompany me home to the comforting arms of Mammaw, my grandmother. The stranger who’d run over my bike drove us there.

Miss Challis was my fifth grade teacher. She lived close enough to us that I could ride my new bicycle (a gift from you-know-who) to visit her at home sometimes. The worst day of my elementary school career was the day of our fifth grade Halloween party. I don’t remember what my costume was supposed to be, but I recall teetering across the playground in Mother’s high heels and seeing Jim Burns, a big, strapping sixth-grader, punching on my fifth-grade classmate, Jimmie Allen. Jimmie was the smallest boy in every grade; I was a head taller than he was. I wobbled over to where they were and turned to face big Jim. I must have said some variation of the line about picking on “somebody your own size,” because that’s what he did. He socked me right in the stomach. I remember sitting in the playground dirt next to Jimmie and looking at my outstretched legs, the toes of Mother’s shoes pointing skyward as I sucked in big gulps of air.

By the time I’d recovered and made it upstairs to Miss Challis’s room, the temperature had begun to drop sharply and a light rain was falling. When the last of the jack-o-lantern-shaped cookies had been consumed and the dismissal bell rang, the rain had turned to sleet, and the air was so cold that the sleet was sticking to the ground. I didn’t know that Mammaw had driven to school to pick me up because of the nasty weather. She waited for me to come out the back of the building the way I always did, but I, not wanting to get fresh playground mud on Mother’s shoes, had gone out the front door. Mammaw and I missed each other. I trekked all the way home in those floppy high heels. Every few yards I’d have to stop and balance on the slick sidewalk to hitch up the borrowed nylon stockings that kept slipping out of their loose garters and falling to my ankles. The wet, droopy nylons were sheer misery.

In sixth grade I was in Miss Engleking’s class in the same classroom that Miss Butler had used when I was in third grade. Miss Engleking, tall and stout with tight, iron-gray curls, permitted no nonsense. When a boy named Luther annoyed the boy in front of him, John, by repeatedly thumping him on the head, Miss Engleking allowed John to choose the largest book he could find--an enormous dictionary--and give Luther one good whack over the head with it.

One day well into the school year Miss Engleking confronted me in the lunchroom as I passed the teachers’ table: “Someone told me you were singing a song about me being fat, and I’d like to hear it.” I hemmed and hawed, saying that I didn’t really remember what I’d been singing, that it was just something silly I’d been making up on the spot. “I want you to sing it,” Miss Engleking demanded. “Here. Now. Loud.” I did sing it, my head bowed, voice cracking in shame and embarrassment. When I finished, Miss Engleking surprised me. She laughed, and then she encouraged me. She told me the song was “very clever” and that I should write more to develop my writing skills. Then she added one more bit of advice: “Next time try to write something that will make someone feel good.”

We learned so much in the safe cocoon of elementary school. We had no idea how much more there was that we needed to know--or that we’d spend the rest of our lives trying to learn it.

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