How Long the Day?


You might have warmhearted recollections of that first day back to school in the fall, or you may remember having nightmares leading up to the day. Either way, I am certain you can recall a few incidents that helped to make that day memorable.   

In September of 1962, I was a 10-year-old veteran entering the fifth grade in our elementary school in the coal mining town of St. Michael, Pennsylvania.  My older sister had moved on to the junior high and I was the big brother, assigned to assist my younger sister Stacie with her debut into public education.

Keep in mind, Kindergarten had not been invented yet, at least not in our district.  And no First Grade Orientation Days or Meet the Teacher Nights were scheduled either.  In fact, most students had never stepped onto a bus before in their lifetimes.  Years later, I realized how fortunate those of us who had older siblings attending the same school really were.  But for the time-being, it was my turn to help with Stacie’s (and Mom’s) apprehension.

Their biggest concern was not the mean-spirited teacher that I had four years prior in grade one.  That lady was still there completing what seemed like her century-long career, and I was surprised my sister wasn’t as worried about her as I would be.  Instead, Stacie’s anxiety dealt mostly with recognizing and getting aboard the proper bus for the return trip home.  

With Mom’s approval, my suggestion was that Stacie wait for me by the large garbage can (a converted oil drum) positioned just outside the exit door.   It was a good choice as a landmark because all the kids would pass by there on their way out to the playground and bus pickup area.  The fact that the drum possessed a putrid stench and was surrounded by flies can’t be blamed on me.  After all, my plan was intended for one quick meeting, for one day, only.   

As we entered school that first morning, I directed Stacie to the site, emphasizing its location and feeling sure that I would see her there after dismissal.

Imagine my surprise when I noticed her standing there all by herself during our mid-morning recess.  I did not know if she wasn’t listening to the teacher’s directives (indicating this was recess) or if she simply thought her day was done.  Or, did the first grade teacher finally lose all touch with reality and send the kids home?  In any event, I explained that the day was not over and that I would meet her there again later at that same spot. (Author’s Note: Teacher-supervised recesses hadn’t been invented yet, either.)

Stacie did exactly as directed and I later found her waiting patiently by the trash can.  The time of day still remained an issue.  It was just past noon and the kids were outside playing during our post-lunch time recess.  I was bewildered but did my best to reassure her that this was not the end of the day either.  She scampered off indicating only that she was listening to Mom’s orders and did not want to take a chance on missing that bus home.  

I must admit I was not totally stunned when I spotted her as she waited at the can for me again during our mid-afternoon playground session.  Remember, teachers and curriculums were not yet ruled by state test scores and getting outside in nice weather in mid-morning and mid-afternoon for ten to fifteen minutes was not considered taboo.  

This story has been repeated often in my family, and it does have a happy ending.  Promptly at 3:10, Stacie was there at the can yet again, waiting for her older brother at dismissal time just as she was asked to do.  Her long day had finally come to a true end.  It was her first, but clearly not the last long day she or any of us would spend in school. 

I walked her to our bus and spent the required five seconds with her making sure she had a seat.  I don’t think I sat with her, but again, you must understand - I had my image to maintain and surely preferred to sit with my cronies (who I hadn’t seen all summer) rather than with my younger sister.

Today, Stacie is retired from two successful careers in law enforcement.  After employment with the FBI in Washington, D.C. she was assigned as a special agent in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office where she investigated Medicaid fraud claims.  It’s obvious her first day of school did not leave her scarred for life emotionally.

I have to wonder though, “Just how long was that day for my sister in 1962?”  After all, her day ended four different times and no adults even noticed.  Are some parents and teachers so caught up in their own daily toil that they’ve forgotten how slowly time goes by for a child?

I still remember getting some single days mixed up into two also.  And I’m sure many of you can recall days that seemed to never end, especially if you didn’t particularly enjoy a certain subject, teacher or class. The simple fact is, however, that grownups too often forget just how long a day is for a kid.

Our legislators, state directors, administrators and policy officials might well want to try to visualize an entire day through the eyes of a preschooler or early elementary student. Childhood only takes place once and educators can little afford to squander it.

You see, before bureaucrats bring more to an ever-expanding school calendar and suggest increases in an already long day, this old teacher longs for that outdated, three-recess day.  Unfortunately, like permanently fastened desks, fountain pens and inkwells, those days may be gone forever.

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