The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Do You Remember School Days?

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1986

Issue: September, 1986

Do you remember the excitement when school was about to start? There were thoughts of seeing friends you hadn't seen all summer. Older kids who had been able to work some during the summer and made a little money were counting it up and figuring out how far it would go towards new clothes. In days gone by, as school days approached, it usually meant an all day trip to town to buy supplies.

Last winter's clothing would be taken out and sorted and handed down to the next child in the family it would fit. A box full of hand-me-downs from cousins was as good as opening a Christmas present. Mothers who were handy at sewing (and most were) would be busy taking a nip or tuck here and there to make the hand-me-downs fit.

Sometimes clothing was cut apart and completely remade. In my mother's family, there were four children - my mother and three older brothers. My grandmother reworked the boys' winter coats not only to fit Mother, but to make them look feminine. In other families (who had older sisters and younger brothers) there was probably a reverse process going on. Many a dress skirt has been taken apart and cut and sewn into a boy's shirt, good as new, to face the new school season.

Do you remember a time when school books were not available to rent? Student's books had to be bought each year in the hopes they could be sold in the spring to another family with children coming up to that grade level. Many students loved their books dearly and must have hated to part with them. But, part they must, for the money from the sale would pay for their new books and they were hungry to see what wonders those new books would contain.

Do you remember what a big "to-do" was made about children's hair? Everyone, boys and girls got a back to school haircut. The first day of school everyone looked each other over, trying to recognize what they looked like before. Boys hair was trimmed well above the ears and off the neck. Girls sometimes got tight, fuzzy home permanents, assured by their mothers that in a few days (weeks?) the curls would loosen up and it would look perfect. In those days, all permanents seemed to be expected to be too tight to begin with. So, the first day of school, you could see girls eyeing each other in sympathy.

Those were the days of cotton socks and brown tie-up shoes. If you got a little more affluent, you might move up to saddle oxfords. The envy of every little girl was black patent leather shoes. We were sure we could be transformed into instant popularity and a Cinderella lifestyle if only we could own a pair of those black patent leather shoes. Needless to say, there were few pairs of black patent leather shoes trodding the school halls.

Speaking of the school halls, do you remember the smell of school the first day? The floors had been scrubbed and the wood oiled with something that smelled wonderfully spicy. The cloakroom always had a musty smell of rain boots. The school office smelled of that blue/purple stuff that looked like jell-o, which was used to make copies of tests.

White school paste came in big gallon jars. It smelled faintly of mint, and I must confess, I sneaked more than one taste of it. Was I the only one? Surely there are others out there that ate paste too.

I had another vice which seemed to peak about the third grade - pencil chewing. I knew well enough it was a wasteful habit and my parents would look at me in exasperation, "You already need another pencil?" I did pride myself that while I chewed up the wood, I never bit the eraser. Those were the days when teachers put as much stock in neatness as correct answers. No one wanted to recopy an entire paper because it was smudgy or littered with crossed out words.

There was an aura of total awe surrounding principals in those days. The very sight of him could strike fear in the most well behaved children. Every school circulated the same rumors about the horrors of being sent to the principal's office. How many of you have heard the rumors of an "electric paddle?" No one ever knew of anyone that received a paddling from such a weapon. No one I knew or talked to ever saw such a weapon, yet there was the rumors, and no one took a chance they might be true.

Most schools had a janitor. This was usually a good natured man who tended to look the other way if he saw a little mischief going on. He wouldn't tell on you if you were scratching initials on the wall. You could flip a rubber band at him and he would laugh and flip it right back at you. His aim was usually better than yours.

There is no longer an old fashioned recess as we knew it, a free play period. Children do not know what they are missing. Teachers were on the playground only as monitors to see that no scuffles evolved into fights. You ran out the doors and could choose between a ball game, swinging, seesawing, making a play house, a word game group playing something like "gossip," hop scotch, marbles... The choices were endless.

The older girls never played games, but sat dignified in the group talking to each other. Occasionally older boys (who always seemed to play ball) would wander over and do a little flirting. If he "struck out" with the girls, he always had the face-saving option of rejoining the ball game.

Do you remember other parts of school life missing today, such as singing classes and elaborate plays. Those plays were rehearsed for weeks and costumes were made by mothers. The end results were as satisfying as a Broadway hit and every bit as important. Add to this the Easter egg hunts, class picnics and dozens of other details. It all added up to something more than a daily quota of pages covered in a text book. It was a total learning experience in life itself. It was all a part of what was simply called "school."