Monday, January 25, 2010

school days

I didn't go to kindergarten; not for two years would our school district find a place to hold a kindergarten class. I was a child of the baby boom; a long one story addition was built on the old two story brick and stone eight room school in town. Another school building dating from about 1960 was built about 2 miles outside of town next to the old one room schoolhouse. One school was called Orland Park and the other Orland Center. For the whole time I was in grade school, we shuffled between schools from grade to grade.
But for first grade, my mom put me on the bus at the corner right by our house. I was still five years old and didn't know a soul on the bus and somehow managed to miss the start of school. I couldn't find where I was supposed to be and wandered outside the school sobbing until someone in a classroom saw me out the window and squired me to my classroom. Things did look up after that. I made it into my class the second day and settled into the school routine of big lined paper, pencils, and Dick and Jane. Phonics was a new word to me; my dad and mom had been teaching me words by having me draw pictures to accompany the words they wrote. I can still see my father's tidy precise printing 'CAT' and 'BOY' in my mind's eye. I loved to draw. We didn't have a special art teacher that I can recall, but one period of the day was devoted to different activities in small groups. While one group of five or six students was reading out loud, or listening to a library book, another group might be playing with clay, or, best of all in my mind, painting with the temperas. At home, we had the use of watercolors, but my folks did some painting with oils and I was well aware that my watercolors were but a pale excuse for the multiple and mixable tubes of oil paints they used. The bright temperas seemed a step up in the world.
I can remember several of the books I loved back then because I brought them home twenty years later for my own kids. Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel and The Little House were illustrated in black and white and red. They anthropomorphized machinery and houses and appealed to a very sentimental little girl.
Our teachers were always getting married and changing their names. I know my first grade teacher went from being Miss ?something? to Mrs. Brown. My second grade teacher was about 4 foot tall (she seemed short even to a seven year old) and she became Mrs. Erdman during my second grade year. She was young and not in control of her large class. Being part of the baby boom meant our classes were always bigger than our class room and always splitting as soon as the school could find an empty classroom and a warm body to teach it. The boy who sat in front of me was a terrible troublemaker; it seemed that way to me at the time, and made Mrs. Erdman cry on at least a weekly basis. I clearly and completely remember the morning we heard President Kennedy had been shot. I was hanging my coat on the hook in the hallway when the word came down. We were attending Orland Center school then and for the next two years as well. I really cannot tell you what I learned in second grade at all.
My third grade teacher had a real reputation as a hard customer and reportedly, she got all the troublemakers in each grade and made them mind. She was a dumpy squat Italian lady whose maiden name was Miss Lagulla. She had lank black hair and a moustache. That being said, before the year was out, she also got married. I don't think it mellowed her disposition at all. She had a wicked sense of irony. Because of my upbringing, even at age 8 I could recognize sarcasm when I heard it.
My fourth grade teacher was an "older" lady named Mrs. Thompson. The same bunch of unruly kids who were part of my third grade class matriculated to Mrs. Thompson's class and it probably drove her out of teaching altogether. I don't remember an hour of sitting or an hour of quiet. I do remember her sobbing and screaming. I also remember our principal at the time. I think of him looking like Dick Van Dyke but that could be because the original version of Mary Poppins came out about that time and I loved Bert the Chimney Sweep. We got to see Mary Poppins in an indoor theater in LaGrange. Before that, we had gone to the Drive-in up there and were sternly enjoined to go to sleep during the James Bond movies my folks went to see. I know I peeked though and had nightmares about Oddjob and being painted gold.
During fourth grade I decided to write a book. I had two friends and the book was about a time machine and our adventures. I wrote it on all different sizes and shapes of paper over the course of probably a year and a half. Don't know what happened to it...I never showed it to anyone. We also played "Man from U.N.C.L.E. at recess. It tickles me that David McCallum still has a job on NCIS. He was certainly the heartthrob of the little girls as Ilya Kuryakin back in the 60s.
That would also have been the year that everyone else went gaga over the Beatles. I lived in a household that played music that was centuries old so I didn't even see the Beatles until we watched an Ed Sullivan show at my grandparent's house. I don't think we got our own radio until I was perhaps in the fifth and sixth grade. Sometime around there I got one of my mother's old Bakelite tube radios. It was my favorite possession. It had a light up orange dial and a curvy ivory silhouette. I'd listen to the Cardinals after dark and WLS during the evening hours. I finally burned the tubes out in that radio after several years. The replacement was also a tube radio, but made of plastic and I never could love it as much. And, practically, it didn't tune as well.
The best teacher I had in elementary school was Mrs. Broderick in fifth grade. She was stern and ruled the classroom and the same large set of rowdy kids with an iron hand. She also got all the goody there was to get out of our class. We had projects and written reports every three weeks or so; we had reading class and wrote book reports. We did hours of math homework. And we thrived. I remember her classroom being quiet all through reading time. We had library time. I remember several of the projects; I made dioramas of a Blackfoot Indian village and one of a Revolutionary War scene. We colored maps. I wrote a report on the Civil War battle of Antietam, but I think the whole subject was more than a little past me at that time. It was long though and I shudder to picture Mrs. Broderick working her way through it.
That was 1967 or so and even at age 10 and 11, I was aware of the structure of society raveling. It was readily apparent in the form of my sixth grade teacher, a six foot eight man by the name of Mr. Swanson. I believed then and still do, that he was, if not a Communist, then at least an anarchist. He showed us Russian propaganda films in class. He taught us Russian words. He allowed my two girl friends and I to "teach ourselves" math in the cloakroom of our old classroom. We watched some of the baseball games in class. He was a man who seemed perfectly happy to cede all authority to the kids of the class. And, by that time, we students were old enough to recognize a lack of authority when we saw it, and to take advantage of the situation. Our social studies class was with another teacher and that was the only organized class time I can recall.
Now, I don't want to make light of current school dissatisfaction and unrest. I spent plenty of time crossways of today's theories and ideas about the way to make a well rounded citizen out of the undifferentiated mass of brains and energy that is a young child. But, after looking back at my own school experience, I don't know if the situation is much worse than it was thirty years ago. I learned to love learning from a couple of really excellent teachers and my parents, not necessarily in that order. I learned discipline from my parents and a couple of excellent that order. I observed and remember the well meaning but ineffective teachers that were the majority in my childhood classrooms.
If I could distill all this into one observation, I would say that order trumps all. Without it, no one learns, not the kids who want to and not the kids who don't.

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