When Lewis left home I thought I’d instantly become an only child; I could do whatever I wanted without being bossed around by my last remaining big brother. The two oldest brothers had left shortly after I was born. They’d become U.S. Navy Seabees just before the end of World War II and only made it home about once a year. I wasn’t really sure which branch of the service Lewis had joined. I only knew he was gone and I was happy.
That feeling lasted for a few hours before Lewis re-entered our home. He ate his lunch and then he left again. I figured it might’ve been his last home cooked meal before being shipped out, but a few hours later he was back again. That’s when I learned that he had not joined Uncle Sam’s troops. He’d merely begun the first grade.
Up to that time in my life no one had ever said anything about school. If they did, I wasn’t paying attention. I had no idea what it was, and I wasn’t at all pleased two years later when my turn came to enter the first grade.
I’ll never forget the kind words of encouragement my parents gave me on that first day. “Remember! If you get a spanking in school, you’ll get another one when you get home!”
My, how times have changed! I wonder how many parents use those words today. I’d guess not many. Instead, they probably say something like, “If you get a spanking in school, be sure to line up some good witnesses. We’ll sue the pants off any teacher who lays a hand on you!”
My father attended school in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. He told me they used small slates and chalk because paper and pencils were too expensive. He attended a one-room school along with his older brother and sister. If he got a spanking, he’d have to bribe his siblings to keep the news from his mother.
The school his family went to had two outhouses, which seemed to play a part in a few of the stories his brother and old friend told while I was within earshot. If he didn’t get a spanking, it wasn’t for his lack of trying.
I managed to avoid the “rod” during my elementary school days, but that doesn’t mean I was a model prisoner. I used the term prisoner because I hated school from the beginning of my education until the end of the formal part of it.
There was a time when, as a first-grader, I was “arrested” by the safety patrol boys for throwing stones at other first grade students. It didn’t matter to the safety patrol boys that the other students were throwing stones at me. The others simply ran faster than me and got away.
I entered the Principal’s office demonstrating exactly how tough I was. I believe my exact words were, “You can’t pin any of this on me! I want to speak to my lawyer.”
On second thought, that’s not exactly what I said. My words were more like, “I don’t want to go to jail! I want my mommy!” There was also lots of screaming and crying.
It worked; I didn’t get spanked. Instead, Mrs. Leek sat beside me and calmed me down. She explained how I might put somebody’s eye out by throwing stones and that I should never do it again. I promised and was soon released on my own recognizance.
Of course, when I got back to my classroom I couldn’t admit to what had really happened. I had to let the other boys assume I’d faced Mrs. Leek’s electric paddling machine and was bravely hiding my pain. (Some myths are better left alone. That legendary torture device probably kept many young children from turning to a life of crime.)
Earlier I mentioned that I hated school. That was true for eleven out of my first twelve years. My fourth grade teacher was Miss Kraft, everyone’s favorite teacher. She was the only teacher who gave boxes of Cracker Jack to any student who had perfect attendance for the year. She was the only teacher who bribed us, and the only one who didn’t have to do so.
Miss Kraft introduced us to hand-made kites with dragons (she drew them and we colored them) and Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher. I think every boy in that class fell in love with Becky Thatcher. (To this day I call my daughter “Becky” even though her name is Jennifer.)
One of my favorite memories of Miss Kraft’s class was her treadle organ. The boys would line up and take turns pumping the treadles while Miss Kraft played. The whole class would sing along.
In truth, I had other teachers I liked and some subjects I liked better than others. Looking back, the thing I liked most about grade school is that those teachers provided us with a solid basic education that served us well as we moved through high school and on to college.
I wish the schools today would use that same basic curriculum. While I’m amazed at some of the things my grandchildren are learning in school, I’m also appalled at what they have not learned. I don’t think my grandchildren are getting enough of the basics – the three “R”s as we used to call them: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. They don’t need to be taught to the tune of a hickory stick, but they do need to be taught.
When fast food restaurants use pictures of food items on their cash registers and let the computers tell the cashier how much change to give the customer, they’re making a statement about how many young adults have failed to learn basic skills.
I could write a separate essay on the lack of basic math skills. Some people would argue that with the advent of pocket calculators, such skills are unnecessary. Maybe they’re right, but I’d still like to see my grandchildren more accomplished at simple arithmetic.
Speaking of simple arithmetic, the only spanking I received in school was my inability to put two and two together. I was in high school metal shop when the teacher grabbed me from behind and dragged me into his office. He had me bend over his desk and gave me a swat with a leather strap. When I asked what I had done to deserve such treatment he told me I was cutting his pattern. I knew better than to argue, but I was indignant. I had been wrongly assaulted.
Looking back, I was being very careful not to cut his precious pattern, but I was also being lazy. Rather than placing his pattern down on my piece of sheet metal and drawing a line around the pattern, I was taking a short cut. Fortunately my parents never found out about that swat.
Besides, this event happened about the same time Lewis finally did leave home for good. He was in the army and I was an only child. At last I had my chance to be spoiled! I wasn’t about to ruin it.