I don’t have much opportunity to associate with the adolescent and younger community these days, but, of the half dozen or so reluctant scholars I have encountered over the last couple of weeks, the chatter has mostly consisted of grumbling about going back to school.
So I’m sitting here remembering my own elementary school days from the fall of 1955 through the spring of 1963, and trying to figure out why on earth the youngest generation is not absolutely clamoring to get back into the classrooms. I couldn’t wait.
Throughout my elementary school years, Blair Branch Grade School had no air conditioning. I can’t even remember seeing an electric fan. We cooled the building by raising the windows and hoping a breeze might stir the leaves on a giant, towering sycamore tree that shaded the building. A few kids had those funeral home cardboard fans that were braced with long, wooden, tongue depressor-type handles to stir the air around their faces, while the rest of use made do with notebooks or textbook covers.
Of course we usually only had to contend with uncomfortable heat for the first and last months of the school year. However, the school was heated by three tall, open, free-standing, pot bellied, coal-fired stoves located in the back of each of its three classrooms. Even in sub-freezing weather, the rooms could sometimes get so hot that windows and doors had to be opened while the stove cooled down.
The main part of the building consisted mostly of one long, very high-ceilinged room that housed grades three through eight. I’m guessing that the dimensions were about 40×90 feet and 12 feet high. A “cloak room” to hang coats, rubber boots and store supplies stood at the end of the two classrooms.
A set of hanging doors ran across the middle of the room to effectively section it into two rooms. Third, fourth and fifth grades were on one side; sixth, seventh and eighth on the other. The sliding doors could be folded back to make one large room, as was frequently needed.
First- and second-grade classrooms were contained in a 15×40 foot, low-ceilinged shed-like structure attached midway behind the main structure. A much shorter pot-bellied stove separated the two classes but it lacked only a few inches from reaching the eight-foot ceiling. Students were hired by the teachers to build fires, pack in coal, dump ashes and keep the stoves clean and in working order. Both brother Keith (Keeter) and I spent several grade years “building fires” for one teacher or another throughout our tenures at Blair Branch Grade School. We were paid a dime per day. That dollar at the end of every month felt like big money to a school boy in 1960 when a Three Musketeers candy bar and a short Coca-Cola only cost a nickel each!
On Fridays, after lunch, those folding doors were pushed back for an activity that involved the entire student body. First and second graders came in to sit beside the older students. Usually several parents and other adults were there simply for the entertainment. They either stood around or sat with the kids.
The principal, who also taught the three upper grades, would select two captains to “take up sides” for arithmetic matches or spelling bees. Starting with the first graders, the captains called out names until every kid was on one side or the other. Then, again starting with the first graders, each captain selected participants to vie for spelling words correctly or being fastest at solving arithmetic problems on the blackboard. The principal served as referee for these matches and he often called arithmetic contests dead heats until one contestant had clearly beaten the other or had one had gotten the problem wrong.
When all the members of one side of the contest had been “turned down,” the other side was declared the winner and we all got to go home a few minutes early. Well, not necessarily, because, if the weather was cold, from fourth grade on, two other guys and I still had fires to put out and red hot ashes to dump.