Somehow it seemed that the first day of school was always a perfectly sunshiny day that still had the smell of wheat chaff in the air. The hollyhocks on the east side of the house were so tall by this time that they leaned over the sidewalk, the sweet peas were about done blooming and the cottonwood trees were anticipating cooler fall weather. It was good to go back to school with a new plaid skirt or jumper, new blouses and a jacket or sweater. My brother and I always stood for a picture just by the open door of the school bus that first morning. It was a sign of the times that those in the photo didn’t resist and onlookers didn’t snicker at it. The Photo By The Bus was expected ritual for any household with a camera.
The first grade teacher had taught first grade since the Civil War, as we understood things. She was friends with the really old ladies in town, because she had grown up with them. Her hair was always in a tidy little chignon snugged up against the back of her neck. She was never unkind and her students were never unruly. Her rules were few and clear, and she did not speak to her students outside of the classroom. She was our Wizard of Oz but much better by far: if the curtain had ever been pulled back on her most private life, she would have been proven to be wise, kind, helpful, prim, educated, sturdy (in her firmly laced, low-heeled black shoes) with absolutely nothing useless or pretentious in her life. She had never married, but had more children of her own than anyone I’ve ever known.
The second grade teacher had flowing hair and brown eyes like mine. She divided us into reading groups: each of us became a meadowlark, a robin or a bluebird. The meadowlarks knew they were the best readers but they were birds first and were never silly enough to think that being a meadowlark was somehow more important than being a bluebird. She liked learning new things and asked my Dad to bring his slides from the 1952 family trip to Maine and New York and Canada and show them to the class. My classmates watched quietly and listened to his explanations about big buildings and water falls.
The third grade teacher was a serious piece of work and a source of fear to the bad boys in the class who didn’t want to be quiet. Her son was in the class, but he never had to worry about being shown favoritism. Each morning we recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag and prayed the Lord’s Prayer together. The boys (including the two sets of boy-twins in our class) were always quiet when we did our pledge and our prayer. At Thanksgiving, we learned Psalm 100 by memory and recited it in our classroom every day for a couple of weeks.
The fourth grade teacher was a little scary, but kinder to the girls than she was to the boys. (I think the boys scared her a little) Just like the children in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, the country kids were each assigned a Blizzard Home by the end of September. Most of our farm homes didn’t have phones, so if a blizzard swept in during the day the Superintendent of Schools would have the long distance operator connect him to a radio station 45 miles away. The Country Mothers would listen to the radio when the weather went bad on a school day and be reassured that their children would be safe for the night and come home the next afternoon with stories about somebody else’s house. When I was in fourth grade, the teacher was my Blizzard Home. I was the average skinny and tough farm girl and she weighed at least 250 pounds, so when she gave me a pretty pair of pajamas to wear that night she gave me some big safety pins as well so I could pin them tight. (Book recommendation: The Children’s Blizzard narrates the 1888 disaster when a blizzard swept through the upper midwest catapulting forecasters, teachers, parents and children across hundreds of miles of open prairie, without warning, into a battle for the lives of the children who had been turned loose from school and sent home as the weather was moving in. Everyone fought. Many of the children were absolutely heroic. Hundreds died.)
The fifth grade teacher was timid. She was very sweet. In fifth grade, the boys were usually quiet~~I think because they didn’t want to cause her any trouble. We were old enough by that time to recognize internecine squabbles among the teachers and knew at one point that two or three of them had decided to pick on her. Sometimes when she came back to our room after noon lunch or recess, we could see she had been crying. We never talked about it among ourselves, but we knew and it made us sad. I asked my parents if they would invite her to our house for supper, giving as my reason that the other teachers weren’t being nice to her. Nothing more was ever said about that, but they invited her and I got to ride along with my Dad when he drove nine miles into town to bring her out, since she didn’t have a car. I was so proud of her as we ate our supper together, and so proud of my Dad and our farm when we walked out in the pasture later so she could see the Indian Rings and get a view of our little town off in the distance.
The sixth grade teacher was known as (not in exactly these words, but surely with Capital Letters, whatever the words were) She Who Is To Be Feared And Obeyed. All of the girls fearfully obeyed her and got through ok. The bad boys fearlessly disobeyed whenever they thought they could get by with it. When they got caught, their knuckles got hit hard with the flat side of a ruler, during which transaction the rest of us had our eyes firmly fixed on the open book on our desk top. On Valentine’s Day that year, we had the Flat-Best-Ever Valentine Train. Each of us built an individual train car (featuring our name on it) out of construction paper: freight or passenger, open box car or closed, locomotive or cattle car. On Valentine’s Day, Valentine Cards were put in the individually named cars. It was a beautiful sight, as each of the construction paper cars were, indeed, 11 inches long. Each of them had four wheels. It was a lovely sight.
In her second career, the sixth grade teacher and her husband bought the local Tastee Freeze where they hosted one of the community’s favorite hangouts for several decades. I visited with her there about the time I turned fifty. She said she remembered me, and asked about my brother as well.