September never arrives without my thinking back on the beginning of school in my small town, or the later years when I became a teacher myself.
In my older memories, school always began on the Tuesday morning after Labor Day. As in the 1950's movie "Picnic," Labor Day was celebrated as the beginning of Fall. Summer was over and it was time to gather pencil boxes, new Crayolas and Big Chief tablets and head for the schoolhouse.
My school in Dallas County housed and taught all twelve grades inside one building. It was a one-story red brick structure, and there were two entrances at either end facing the street. The entrance on the left led to the elementary grades. The entrance on the right led to the upper grades, 7-12. Inside was a stage and auditorium in the center of the building dividing the two levels.
When I walked up three steps at the age of 12, crossed the wing of the stage and walked down three more steps, I was in a different world. I was suddenly in what was then called Junior High.
At the front of my first elementary school room was the cloak room and it served three purposes. In winter, we went there to hang up our coats and sweaters. There was a shelf just above the cloak rack for lunch sacks to be stored until noon. And for punishment, the misbehaving student was often sent to the cloak room for the remainder of the hour.
I entered first grade in September, 1949. Both my first and second grades were taught in the same room by Miss Julia. While she was teaching one grade, the other grade was busy completing pages in their workbooks. This did not seem odd to us at all and the "Workbook" group never uttered a sound while she was teaching on the other side of the room. Miss Julia taught first graders to read from a book featuring Alice and Jerry (not Dick and Jane) and they had a dog named Jip. "See the red ball, Alice?" "Run to Jerry, Jip!"
Each morning we began our day with a Bible reading and prayer for our safety and our concentration on learning. Roll was taken by the teacher looking out over our desks.
On Monday mornings, lunch ticket money was collected. Tickets cost $1 for the week and days were punched off each noon by the lunchroom lady. Those with sack lunches and those eating the lunchroom meals all sat together at long tables. The elementary students entered single-file first and sat at the first two tables and, minutes later, the "big kids" entered and took their food to the tables in the back. Their teachers did not have to sit with them, but instead sat at a round table in the space dividing the lower and upper grade tables. The teachers' table had salt and pepper shakers.
As a "town kid," I could go home during the lunch hour if I wished, but I rarely did. The lunchroom cooks were mothers of my friends and their homemade meals served with yeast rolls, cupcakes and cobblers were delicious. How the school could afford them on such little money I will never know.
Our clothing? Girls wore dresses and boys wore long pants. Some of the boys began the year barefoot until the school board made a rule in third grade that shoes must be worn by everyone. It was common to wear the same apparel for the entire week. When it was cold, Mama made me wear a pair of corduroy pants beneath my dress.
The teachers were exacting and demanding. We were made to memorize sentence parts and to know how to diagram them. We were also made to memorize our arithmetic tables and upper math theorems without use of calculators, which were still unavailable then; slide rules were in vogue for the more studious.
My 10th and 11th grade teacher, Miss Mary, gave me the only creative writing experience I still draw on today.
It was not at all uncommon for one teacher to serve two grades in elementary school or more than one subject in the upper grades. All together, I only had a total of nine different teachers in my 12 years of schooling. Yet, as I look back, I cannot question the quality of education I received in that small schoolhouse.
Out of my class of only 17 students came some high achievers. One became vice president of Anthony Timberland, Inc., the seventh-largest lumber supplier in the state. Another owned his own lumber business employing other drivers. One owned his own State Farm franchise in Hobbs, NM. One was a pilot for Continental Airlines. One is the highest producing saleswoman at a large Chevrolet dealership in Little Rock. And my friend from the grade ahead of us is the largest land owner (118,000 acres) in Pulaski County.
We may have been a small school, lacking many of the programs and frills of larger schools, but I would say we received a good education where we were, and were also taught the "Golden Rule" and civic responsibility by teachers who really cared.
Brenda Miles is an award-winning columnist and author living in Hot Springs Village. She responds to comments sent to [email protected]