On Writing

"Every fine story must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure, a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer's own, individual, unique."
Willa Cather

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Back to School, 1940s Style

           I come from a middle-class family, in a middle-size city, in the middle of the country, (Des Moines, Iowa), and started my schooling in the middle of the last century.  To those from similar circumstances who can remember that far back, no matter where they’re from, my experiences will not be unusual, but to younger generations, my account will seem as scenes from another planet.
            I well remember kindergarten.  World War  II still had a couple of years to go, and my mother was doing her bit by working as an inspector at the Ordinance plant, which before the war had been engaged in making John Deere farm machinery and now produced cartridges.  She’d chosen the graveyard shift so she could be home and rested when her children returned from school in the afternoon. 
            The problem came in the morning when my father left for the office and my brother and sister took off for high school.  I would then trot over to the neighbors’ house where kindly Mrs. Grigsby would feed me breakfast until my mother arrived.  Those breakfasts, almost all of them deliciously fried, were unlike any I’d ever gotten from my plain-cooking mother’s hand, which were invariably lumpy cream of wheat or the much hated oatmeal, a piece of toast, and sometimes a boiled egg.  My favorite at Mrs. Grigsby’s was fried sliced mush with syrup.  She also had a concoction she called  "winchels" which others may know as “toad in a hole.” This featured an egg inserted in a slice of bread and the whole thing fried in butter.  How horrified my mother would have been at all that grease!  
            The walk to school was about six blocks along U.S. 69, the main route between Kansas City and Minneapolis, and then a left turn to go another three blocks to the school.  I would meet up with a friend around the corner from my house, who was at her grandmother’s in the morning since her mother, too, did war work.  It didn’t seem to matter to anyone what the season was or what weather we had to trudge through, and in fact, I can’t remember us ever being driven to that school, not a unique situation then.
            The first day of kindergarten, my mother took me into the classroom and then left.  I was early.  No teacher was in the room to greet us few children who had arrived, so I began to explore.  I noticed a very large blackboard at the front of the room, which seemed to call for something on its pristine surface.  I took out a pencil from my pencil box and went to the board where I wrote in cursive, “Jeanne Ann.”  I was proud of the fact I could write many words as well as my name in long hand, taught to me by my siblings.
            The teacher’s reaction when she saw my handiwork was not one of equal delight.  She found the culprit easily and spanked me soundly, telling me blackboards were for chalk, not pencils.  I believe I may have scratched the board a little, for a faint outline of my name persisted throughout the following school year and might have been a permanent feature until the board was scrapped.  Anyway, the spanking didn’t scar my little psyche or ruin my school days, for I always had success and good times until the day I graduated from high school.
I'm on some steps at my uncle's farm, not my house.
            Two years later, well into the spring semester, my parents moved to a larger house, several blocks farther from school, which put me in a different district.  Still, I was expected to finish the school year at my old school, so at the age of seven, I would sit on the front steps after everyone had gone to work and school, waiting for my mother to arrive home from the Ordinance plant.  She told me later how the sight of me sitting there always brought a lump to her throat.
            After Mother had checked me over, I was sent on my way to my old school, now more than a mile away with me walking that same busy highway.  At one point, my girlfriend’s grandmother would be waiting for me and help me cross over, so I could walk with Linda to the intersection and then cross back under the supervision of a crossing guard.  How many children today would be allowed such a walk?  As I earlier said, this really was a different world, certainly safer, although indulging children, clearly, was not the order of the day.  This attitude and ambiance would last for another fifteen or so years until illegal drugs and wanderers along the highways would be instrumental in changing our country’s mores and values, and psychologists would get into the business of raising children. Was it a better time?  We'll have to judge that for ourselves from the evidence.

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