Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Reciting in English Class

Reciting in English Class
8.5" x 11"

We finally made it. Ninth grade. High school. Many of us were there after only 7 years. And some of us were only 12 years old. In our small school, they only had 10 grades when we started to school. So, when it was decided to add the 12th grade, if our parents approved, we could skip the 4th grade. Some of us were eager to do so and to move on, anxious to get out of school and see what life had in store for us.
Calvert had always had an excellent school and turned out many successful people. We didn't have a lot of extras, but we had most of what we needed in school. Parents, neighbors, and community members made sure that we were in school and did what we were supposed to do.
One thing that helped was that we had the same teachers over a period of years, and those teachers all worked together to make sure that we learned and moved on. We didn't have frills, we didn't have much play, and the teachers seemed to be stern. There wasn't a lot of silliness, although, sometimes, we tried. We did have time to make friendships that lasted from our first days together, all through our lives, until today.
Some of those same teachers taught our parents, in fact. And, they even knew our grandparents and the rest of our families. Actually, everyone knew everyone in our little town.
Mrs. Blasienz taught English from 5th through 8th grade. Then, in 9th grade, Mrs. Brannon took over through 12th grade. Mrs. Pietsch, taught Social Studies from 5th through 8th grade. Mrs. Miller and Miss LaGrone taught typing and bookkeeping. Mr. Hunter taught music from lower grades, then moved us into the tonette in 6th grade. Some students went on into the band, then, and Mr. Hunter was our band director, until Mr. Haney came along. Coach Miller was the coach, as was the high school principal, Mr. Rushing, who also taught math. Mrs. Sullivan was the homemaking teacher. Mr. Attaway was one of the science teachers. Maybe we didn't have such a strong background in math or science because we didn't have the same teachers over a period of time, who were also very passionate about their subjects.
Well, here we were, our "big" class of about 20 students, up on the third floor-the high school. Sitting in the big desks, chairs with side arms. We were armed with our English notebooks filled with lined paper, newly covered English books, a pencil, and a fountain pen. Some of us had our own bottle of Scrips or Shaeffers blue or black ink, but there was a fresh bottle of ink on the corner of the teacher's desk, just in case we needed it.
Refilling the pen took a little time, and, if we played our cards right, we could drag it out to take quite a while! (While the teacher glared at us!) We had to get permission to get up, then explain why we needed to get up. If it was approved, we walked to the desk, unscrewed the top from the ink bottle, and the pen top. The nib of the pen was placed into the small well of ink on the side while, at the same time, slowly opening the little lever on the side of the pen, drawing up ink into the rubber bladder of the pen. The lever was then slowly closed. A Kleenex was used to wipe excess ink from the pen before closing it. After the cap was replaced on the ink, a slow trip back to the desk was made, while carefully straightening skirts, socks, and hair and sliding into the desk. Part of the trip, too, involved looking at what others were doing, and checking out who might be watching.
Of course, we could get a little extra play out of those old pens, and we could ruin our clothes in the process, if the ink bladder broke or if the pen started leaking all over the place. We were so thrilled when they came out with pens with an ink cartridge! Sometimes, those didn't work too well either. They could leak or sometimes the hole wouldn't go through the plastic cartrige and the ink wouldn't come out. But that stopped the trips to the ink bottle. Then, we had to carry around packets of cartriges or put them in our pencil bag or pockets.
For some of us, our days at school were filled with work, friends, and trying to survive teachers and bullies. And, for me, there was also a lot of time spent daydreaming and trying to hide my drawing from the teachers!
After school, there was going home to be with friends, pets, family, going to town to the drugstore or to the stores, listening to the radio, or there might be after school or church activities. Sometimes there were extra lessons in piano or dance, or parties, or listening to records.
Some students had chores to do at home before homework was done. I didn't have that, but, it was sort of whatever I took a notion that I wanted to do.
Some of the older boys had after school or summer jobs, and some of the girls found ways to make money by baby sitting or working at places like the drugstore. There weren't a lot of places to work in our little town. Especially for kids. Those of us, whose families had stores, often were taught to help out there and spent a lot of time in the stores. In our family, we started out helping customers early, sweeping, stringing handkerchiefs, putting tags on merchanidise, and even the youngest were taught to look for shoplifters. (Those were rare, of course, but it kept kids occupied!)
In some families, it was necessary for boys to work and help out. They could buy their own clothes and school materials, that way, not to mention food, and they, then, had their own spending money.
I remember one of my classmates, who worked at a job that seemed to be hard, dirty, work for men. The auction barn was big business in town and big trucks, loaded with noisey cattle, started rolling in for the auction on Thursday night. We could hear the noise all over town as the trucks were unloaded and cattle put into the pens. Dust , or mud on a rainy day, was everywhere. On Friday, the parking area was filled with pick up trucks and men, dressed in western suits, jeans and boots, or overalls and boots, filled the interior. Workers climbed the fences of the pens, prodded the cattle along, as the auctioneer rattled off whatever he was saying. Sometimes, ladies, children, and other community members, went to the cafe at the auction barn for dinner (at noon). The auction required a lot of helpers, and several eager younger men joined the crew for Friday, and sometimes Thursday, too. By Saturday, it was all over and all the activity shifted to Main Street.
I felt sure that our classmate had a difficult time keeping up with school requirements. Tests were often on Friday and there was homework to be done for Monday. Reviews for tests were usually on Thursday. It wasn't too cool to not be ready when Mrs. Brannon, or other teachers, called on you. In fact, it might bring a comment or one of those glares that made you wonder if a trip to the office was about to happen! And that might mean an application of the "board of education" (the paddle in the principals' office), or even worse, a call to your parents. We all held our breath if anyone didn't have their work done or the correct answer on time.
This day, our classmate stood by the south wall of the English room, a wall full of big windows. The big oak tree where we once made frog houses and played "London Bridge" on the playground below, thrust its bare limbs past the windows behind him. The tip of the tall Cedar tree at the edge of the elementary school yard showed just above the window sill. A trainer (plane) from Bryan Air Force Base hummed as it made its way back to the base from its practice run to Connally in Waco.
He stood, looking small, and shy as he read softly from the paper he held. One eyebrow slightly arched. His shoulders were pulled up close to the back of his head. A stray piece of light brown hair fell across his forehead. There was a little point sticking out from the shoulders of his brown and white plaid cotton shirt. He wore a thin leather belt with a large buckle with his khaki pants. Brown boots showed from beneath his pants. Boots, a sign of the man's world that he worked in, and not the look of other young students who wore oxfords or penny loafers to school.
Mrs. Brannon sat at her desk, listening, looking down at her desk. Her black hair was neatly tucked into rolls around her head. Her only makeup was a bit of dark red lipstick. A strand of dime store pearls were around her neck. Her sheer voile dress seemed to float with its wide loose sleeves and sweetheart neckline. There were papers beneath her folded arms. Her English book was on one corner of her desk, the bottle of blue ink was on the other side. Her red grading pencil was still in the desk drawer. She had removed her squared, rimless glasses after roll was checked.
My mind wandered as I looked past my classmate and out the windows. I wanted to be out there and not stuck in this room. I hoped that Mrs. Brannon was paying attention to the reader and not to me. Maybe I wouldn't have to be ready to participate today, if I just acted like I was listening. I also hoped that she wouldn't fuss about anything today. Maybe his reading would take all period and there wouldn't be time for her to criticize him or his work-or the rest of us. And maybe the gigling boys in the front would behave so that she wouldn't have to wave the yardstick over their heads today. Maybe I could draw something, and hide my picture under my paper so she would think that I was taking notes or doing work. Or maybe I could daydream, of boyfriends I hoped I would meet someday, of my dream home, or movie stars, or what my cats and dog were doing, or ice cream and comic books at the drugstore later, what I was missing on the radio, what we would have for an after school snack, or who I would go to play with after school.
I remember teachers talking to those who missed school, insisting that being at school was most important. They didn't seem to go out of their way to be nice to anyone who didn't have all their work done. In my view, they didn't seem to have much sympathy or understanding for anything other than school and their class in particular. That seemed to make school even harder, especially for anyone who had to grow up a little faster. They probably knew more than I understood, since everyone in town seemed to know everything about everybody. And they were trying to encourage all students to get a good education.
Now, I wonder what he read that day. Was it a story? A poem? Were we working on spelling? Or sentence structure? I do know that we didn't have the fill in the blank papers or darken in a little circle that kids get in school today.
"Write everything out," we were told.
"Cutting things short shows laziness and bad manners."
Sadly, our classmate is gone. He died this past week. I'm so glad that we all got to be together at our school reunion last summer. Like most of the boys at school, I never knew him very well, but we all spent so many years together that they were each very special. The girls seemed to stick together as friends, and the boys were close.
I always thought that this enterprising young man, grew up earlier than some of us, and he certainly was able to understand and get along in the world of work before most of us had to encounter the outside world. I'm sure that his experience and willingness to work served him well through his life. He leaves a loving family, his friends, his schoolmates, and many memories. Including mine.
Sometimes, I think it would be nice to sit in those old desks, in the old classroom, with a new package of notebook paper in a notebook, and a pen and a bottle of ink, and just write stories and draw while a classmate reads and the teacher listens. ( Of course, it would have to be without the threat of teasing, grades, being fussed at, or "the board of education"!)


Linda Blondheim said...

Thanks for the email about the sketchcrawl. A nice idea.

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