How Did We Survive? Part II

How Did We Survive? Part II

I am back. After a couple of sessions with my therapist, I feel well enough to continue. He is convinced that my fragile emotional state is directly related to my early educational experiences.

I anxiously waited for those ditto copies to come back my row. I would put my nose right on my paper and also on the rest of the pile when I could to allow those molecules the extra opportunity to make it into my nasal passages. I wasn’t alone. A quick look around the room proved that half of the class was hooked on the ditto-fluid vapors too.

Speaking of rows – the desks at that time were fastened to a wooden rail that ran along both sides of the seats, and moving a desk was impossible. If the desk and seat placement didn’t fit you, it was just too bad. Adjustments did not exist. If a fire drill alarm (not announced then, like today) sounded, you somehow managed to get out.

Each desk had a large hole in it, about the correct size to safely store a baseball. It had something to do with an ink well that they quit using about two or three years earlier. My older sister used it, and came home with more ink on her hands and arms than Dennis Rodman.

Please tell me how we survived. How did we get by? How did we make it?

If you were left-handed, how did you see your paper with your shoulder shadowing all of your work? Do you remember that EVERY room had the desks positioned so that the light from the windows came over the students’ left shoulders, and not their right sides? So if you were a lefty, you were emotionally scarred year after year. At least that’s what we were led to believe.

In our elementary school, each student was assigned one hook in the cloak area. Book bags? Not invented yet. Back packs? Only in Cub Scouts. A locker for your books? No way – they belonged under your desk or under your seat with your school-issued tablet made of brown paper, white cover and blue ink, ruled (three quarters of inch apart) lines.

Where did we store our wet gloves during the winter? In our coat pockets, of course - unless you already had your earmuffs in there. By the way, how did we get through the winter without losing our eyesight with that spring-loaded metal band that held those earmuffs together? That spring had enough tension to hold a bear in a leg trap. At times it took three students to hold that spring closed when placing your muffs in a pocket. Never mind about the loss of sight– lawsuits hadn’t been thought of yet either.

And a change of clothes in case of an accident? There was no available space to store extra clothing. And for some of the poorest students, that would have meant bringing your entire wardrobe to school. Maybe changing clothes was meant to prevent embarrassment on the part of the student? Nah, never mind that idea because no one ever heard of self-esteem back then. If you pooped your pants, too bad – that’ll teach you not to do that again.

Did your elementary school hand out those huge green pencils sans erasers? Ours did, and my pencil had the girth of a Lincoln Log. As Bill Cosby once said, “It was as heavy as a horse’s leg, and you rested it on your shoulder as you wrote.” The lead inside was about as soft and dark as a chunk of anthracite coal. And it required a special large black hole in the pencil sharpener to allow for its size.

Because our teacher collected the pencils after each use, and because I sat in the rear, I got what was left as they were passed back. I never chewed my pencil. Mom told me lead was poisonous. But it never failed – I got one that looked like a beaver went wild in Mrs. Beckman’s desk drawer. With teeth marks everywhere, I was afraid to hold that pencil. And its condition worsened with every day’s use. I shouldn’t have worried though, because diseases hadn’t been discovered and what you didn’t know, didn’t hurt you.

Mae Jean Plummer never got a chewed pencil. The teacher always saw to it that she got a good one. But she was in the First Reading group, and one day I actually heard her read the word “machine” aloud. Can you believe that? Machine! No wonder she got preferential treatment. She was the smartest person I knew, next to mom and dad that is, and maybe Mary Topper, who was also in the top reading group.

The teachers hadn’t come up with identifying the groups by bird names like the bluebirds, redbirds and blackbirds. And they never even thought of using the A, B, and C designations at that time either. We were identified simply as first, second, third and fourth. I think I was in the last group, but I can’t honestly remember because of the ditto-fluid fumes.

With Mary and Mae Jean both being so smart and so popular, it was only a matter of time until camps developed as to which one was the brighter and prettier of the two. They were both out of my league and I didn’t have much of an opinion one way or another. Until….

One day, Mae Jean boarded the bus on the way home and sat next to me. At first I was confused, thinking that the bus was full for some reason and that she had nowhere else to sit. But her seat selection was intentional and I sat there as proud as a peacock the whole way home. What a day that was! Naturally, even though she never sat with me again, I thought Mae Jean was smarter than Mary and had better taste in boys.

One mandated position that our school did fill was that of school nurse. She sought us out for our annual eye and ear checkups, which were done right in the classroom, back in the day – not in private, not one at a time, but with the whole class closely watching.

I guess that the term “time-on-task” hadn’t been invented yet either, because our teacher never even tried to teach during these health checkups. We just sat there and waited quietly for our turn on the eye test. Because many of us still hadn’t learned our letters, we were required to stand and to use hand signals as to which way the shapes and figures were pointing. Had the nurse required the students to name the letter, I doubt if half the class would have passed those early “eye” tests. What memories!

This quiet wait for the students gave the teacher a small break while the nurse performed her duties. And the teachers no doubt deserved a break because planning periods, activity periods and study halls were not common back then either. She had us all to herself, every hour of every day, all year long. No wonder she wasn’t assigned recess duty! And no wonder we thought she was mean.

Oh, and on occasion, the nurse came in and ran her hands through about seven or eight students’ hair. She was looking for signs of head lice, but didn’t check everyone, only a select few.

When finished, she announced for a couple of the students to go with her. They didn’t return that day. And some didn’t show up for a couple of days. School employees knew nothing about being discreet back then and obviously gave little thought as to how those students felt being sent home because of a lice infestation. As difficult as it is to believe, even those students asked to leave the classroom somehow managed to get by. They survived – they made it.

More coming…

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA