Monday, August 18, 2014

The start of school ~ My Column from Sunday's paper

School starts back this week for many areas around the country, and I spent time reflecting about my early days in school. 

Some kids would rather step barefoot on a rusty nail than go back to school in August. Fortunately, the first bell didn’t ring until after Labor Day when I was a kid, and I was excited to begin my education.

My mom ordered most of my clothes from the Sears & Roebuck catalog, but the week before school started, she took me to town to pick up a few last-minute items. 

My new school booty included a football-shaped lunch kit and paste that smelled great, even though I suspect it was toxic. The metal scissors were sharp enough to lash off the fingers of a careless kid.

The pencil was my favorite. It was fat as a link sausage and each time I sharpened it, I could smell red cedar. It was a comforting smell, and holding it made me feel important. People wrote things down with pencils. Important things.

My mom wrote things down all the time. She had a notebook where she scribbled down recipes for confections, fruitcakes and good dishes she came across. She also wrote letters to family members who’d moved off up north. I think this fueled my love of writing.

Even though I was excited, it was scary at first. One kid cried from the time we got there until we left that afternoon. The teacher’s voice purred like a kitten trying to sooth his jangled nerves, but for him, school was too much too fast. 

My older brother Neil didn’t want to start to school either. He was chubby for his age and the overalls made him look even bigger. He was self-conscious by nature, so I can understand why he wasn’t excited about school.

He spent the first week of class under the train trestle that ran behind the old grammar school. He probably would have missed the whole year had a neighbor who’d walked the rails to town not seen him napping under the trestle. 

That first hooky experience didn’t turn out well for him once word got back to my mom.

What I remember most about the old school is how it smelled. The halls and classroom floors were made from heart pine. The maintenance guys used cottonseed oil to clean and preserve the wood. Even now, I can close my eyes and remember how they smelled.

The wainscoting on the walls reached up to my shoulder and was the color of tobacco. Once when I walked down the long hall alone, I could hear my footsteps echoing off the walls at the far end. 

The old clock that hung on the wall by the entryway looked as big as a refrigerator with hands that pointed to Roman Numerals. 

Mr. Evans was the principal the years I attended Dora Elementary. He wore thick black-framed glasses and bought a new Rambler automobile every few years. 

The teachers there were good ones and they laid the foundation for my education. I was happy there.

I hope years from now, the kids entering school can look back with fond memories of their first day of school. 


  1. I don't remember my first day but I do remember many after that. I was excited to get my new school supplies ... it was fun. For me school was a haven from home. I too hope kids can look back fondly on first days of school :-)

  2. I remember elementary school vividly but high school I disliked and so remember little.
    Our school was very strict and paid more attention to clothing than on lessons.
    Most teachers sounded bored and mumbled in front of the class and the math teacher had his feet on the desk reading the newspaper. I loved the English teacher I had. He seemed to really care.
    Unlike today, Kids had to sit, grin and bear it.

  3. Hopefully, students today will have great memories, but many will have different memories as well. Many students today are home schooled, more than you would think. I do know how much I loved all the students I taught through the years and hope their memories are great!

  4. Dear Rick, your rich and evocative memories brought many wonderful scenes back to my mind. I went to school in a 1863 building. It was a real Civil War mansion. The front part of it was the three-story convent where the Sisters of Mercy lived and gave music lessons. The back part was two-stories with two classrooms on the first floor and two on the second. At the side was a veranda on both the first and second floors and we walked down the veranda to get to two of the classrooms. I learned so much in those rooms and I had such fine teachers who worked hard to help all of us learn. Good memories. Thank you for sharing yours along with the smell of cedar and the cottonseed oil. Smell brings back so many memories.

    I'm sad that your brother felt he was overweight and so didn't want to go to school. I hope that changed as he grew older. Peace.

  5. I have memories of my elementary school that I have of no other school. Two stories, built at the turn of another century, with an art deco facade that paid tribute to the Native American tribes of my part of Ohio. The particular teachers who shaped my life, for good and the one who told me I would only be average. She meant it, in the meanest way. I wonder if she laid on her death bed, afraid to die because she might have to make up for that bit of meanness.

  6. My school years are far too long ago for me to remember them, just saying.

  7. Great description of the school and how you felt, enjoyed it. But what I liked was the muscle kid (future Charles Atlas), beside a 1956 Ford. My daddy would have liked Mr. Evans, dad turned into a Rambler man after George Romney took over. (smile)


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