Monday, June 21, 2010

Old School

We had just turned onto the gravel road on the way to the farm when Aaron asked me, "Grandma, how did they get to school when you lived on the farm?" 'They', referring to his mommy and aunt Lee in those long ago days of yore when they were school age. "Oh," I said, "the bus came right by our house. They rode the bus to school at Westboro." I couldn't decide whether to laugh or cry at Aaron's next statement, "I didn't know if there were school buses back then."
Take that, Mommy. Or, worse yet, take that, Grandma. I assured him that there were not only school buses when his mom was a little girl, but that they had looked pretty much the same way back when I was a little girl too.
Aaron is thinking all the time. It turns out he had heard someone talk about the old school house there on 160th and thought perhaps his mommy and auntie had walked to school there. Its a logical assumption: one derelict schoolhouse in Westboro versus a torn down schoolhouse a mile and a half from home. I explained that the little single room school house dated farther back yet and told him I had a book at home with pictures of all the old school houses in Atchison county. Its time for his class to visit the North Polk City Park and have his grandma Millie come talk about her school days.
Aaron, I can't get back farther in time than a yellow or red brick one story schoolhouse that looks very much like the one you will be attending. Even though your aunt Laura started kindergarten in one of the old schoolhouses in our county and got to have fifth grade, I think, in another one room school house the district was still using alongside our growing elementary.
I didn't go to kindergarten because there wasn't one. Most kids stayed at home until they turned six and started school. My dad and mom had taught me to read and add and print, but I can clearly remember the cheap lined yellowed paper with the jumbo blue lines and dashed red line to guide us with our capital and small letters. We learned to read in small groups of five or six, taking our turn reading, yes indeed, Dick and Jane paperbacks to our classmates and teacher. I was a shy kid but the first time the word 'stop' came up in the books, I burst out of turn, 'I know that word!' The reading groups were quickly divided by progress, fast and slow, and before the year was out, the classrooms divided just like a cell and two classes of six year olds became three. We didn't have a separate music class at that time and art was included in the classroom too. My favorite activity was painting with watercolors, library, and swinging as high on the old time swings as I could. The playground was in a grove of oaks and one could reach the lowest branch with energetic pumping. You had to get out to the swings in a hurry at recess time to get your chance. We girls wore dresses back then and swinging was easier to manage than the monkey bars or jungle gym.
In music class, we learned all the patriotic songs: like little kids do, we called 'America', 'My Country Tis of Thee'. But I was a sucker for lovely phrases and favored America the Beautiful with its "purple mountains majesty" and "amber waves of grain." We learned 'This Land is Your Land', a song I never hear anymore and sang rounds like Frere' Jaques and 'Row, Row, Row your Boat.' In a nod to culture, I remember listening to LPs of Saint-Saens 'Carnival of the Animals', 'Peter and the Wolf', (narrated by Leonard Bernstein, I'm sure), Danse Macabre at Halloween, Night on Bald Mountain, Peer Gynt, and, of course, The Nutcracker Suite. Unlike the kids at Westboro, we never had recorders, something that would have driven my father out of the house. He pretty well told me to stop whistling in his hearing; I can only guess at his reaction to a recorder.
When we got older, we played alot of kickball at recess and during gym class. I don't know when gym class was transformed in to P.E., but it wasn't while I was in grade school. The best thing about kickball was running the bases. You could really get some ooomph behind that bouncy soft ball and it would travel quite a ways even with the long grass on the ball field. It was always stressful though, because the captains would choose teams and I dreaded the possibility I might be picked last. That ignominy was usually reserved for those who were really slow or pudgy; never imagine that kids don't get a hierarchy of what they consider talent arranged at a very young age. We also played a version of ball indoors on little scooters on casters on the gym floor. Then we played with the giant rubber ball and I don't know if anyone ever scored or if the scrum in the vicinity of the ball was exercise enough to calm our exuberance for the next hours of class.
I think I tried buying my lunch at school about twice. Fried chicken was the menu that really brought kids to the lunch line (can you believe we had fried chicken at school?) and I decided I would join my classmates. When it came time to turn my tray in, I managed to throw all my silverware in the giant trash can. I don't know anyone noticed but I was so mortified, I never bought a lunch again. Over the years, my chipped beef sandwich transformed into a summer sausage and swiss cheese sandwich, but each fall it was a ritual to purchase a new metal lunchbox to carry these delicacies in.
We had room mothers whose job it was to provide treats for Valentine's Day and accompany our class on field trips. I don't remember a single treat or party but I do remember making Valentine's boxes out of red construction paper and paper lace doilies. I did love paper doilies just like I loved making snowflakes for decorations in the wintertime. We didn't have the tradition of bringing cookies or cupcakes for birthdays back then; we would have eaten alot of cake with the large classes I was in!

Everyone rode the bus or walked. If you lived more than a mile away, you could ride the bus. Unlike the bus that used to pick up the kids for school at Westboro, our bus picked up six or eight kids at every stop and there were lots of them. I went to Orland Park for first, fifth and sixth grade and rode the bus; we lived a little closer to Orland Center and I walked there. Most families didn't have two cars, so moms didn't take their kids to school like they do now.

I'd say the biggest difference between going to school in the sixties and going to school now is all the extra activities kids do after school. We had Girl and Boy Scouts and church activities; some kids belonged to 4-H. But the only organized sport was summer baseball for the boys. No cheerleading camps, no dance, no third, fourth, fifth, sixth grade basketball, no football, no karate, no swim nothing. We did have voluntary summer school classes in art and creative writing the year I was in fifth grade. We started playing band instruments that year as well and the band teacher had us practice a week or two during the summer....just to make sure we touched our horns, I'm sure!

When I was Aaron's age, school was loud, crowded, and bare bones by today's standards. Instead of personal attention, we made every effort to be as invisible to the teacher as we could be. I don't even know if we had any kind of teacher's conferences at all! Our grade cards were sent home with us once a quarter and had to be signed and returned. I can't say I loved school, but I know I loved parts of it. I learned to meet my folks' expectations without a fuss; that was more important than any compliment a teacher could pay. My parent's were my best teachers well up into college; now that's old school

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