Gordon Elementary was a one story white building that from the outside looked very much like the schoolhouse on Little House on the Prairie. Inside it was one big open room. The front of the room where the teacher sat was elevated a step high, the width of the room. This gave the teacher a position of authority and also worked well as a stage for the various school programs that we kids would perform in. Her desk sat right in the middle of the platform giving her an equal view of her minions. The black chalkboard ran the whole length of the wall behind the teacher. If you were caught talking too much, Mrs. Hudlemeyer would send you to the chalkboard. You would have to draw a circle on the board and stick your nose in the circle till she said you could sit down. I still hate the smell of chalk to this day.
There were windows running down both sides of of the building providing fresh air and daydream diversions. An old upright piano sat under a window on the south side of the building. That piano was the orchestra for the school programs. Most of the time our Jingle Bell accompanist was Blind Charley. He was born with no eyes so his sister brought him to the school to play. With no eyes, his sockets were sunken and he never wore sunglasses. He was also totally bald, not even an eyebrow! Not being used to seeing a blind person, the eyes (or lack of) were a bit creepy. Add the fact that he was hairless and you are in nightmare territory.
However when he tickled the ivories he did it with joy and enthusiasm. His hands would bounce high on the keys and his feet would joyfully jump on the pedals. His head would rock from side to side and his smile would fill his face to a glow. Old Charley’s pleasure was contagious and we would all be grinning our songs out by the end of the first verse.
The desks were lined up in rows by grade and each a different size. First being the smallest and they grew as we did. If you were big for your age you were likely to find your legs cramped.
The desks were all connected by their legs to two boards, like runners on a sleigh. One on the right and one on the left that ran the length of the row. Attached like railroad cars, one desk did not move without the whole row moving. As I picture those rows I see an open air train of tykes and tomboys, prissy young ladies and ruff and tumble boys. A scholarly train of youth traveling through adolescence .
These were not half desks like those used in schools today. The desks had a 4 inch level area at the front end with a hole for an ink well on the right side. Like a cup holder today only too small for a drinking cup. The ink wells were before my time. We just used them to stick our pencils and stuff in. The rest of the top was hinged and angled down slightly. You could lift up the top and store your books and supplies in the compartment below. Occasionally during recess one of the boys would sneak back in the classroom and deposit a toad in one of the girls’ desks. Naturally I would never do such a thing.
Out in the country there were some kids that you could count on being there every year and others that came and went. My fifth grade year we had too many kids for the fifth grade row and me being the youngest in the class, Mrs. H put me in an empty desk in the back of the fourth grade row. I didn’t like that at all and told my mother that my desk was too small and it made my back hurt. One afternoon the phone in the school rings and it is my mother telling Mrs. H my desk was too small. They talked for a long time, then she came over and started studying me like a cat at the fish bowl. To be truthful, most of my pain was in my pride for sitting in a younger row. The savvy school mistress saw through my fraud. Happily within a month, one of the other fifth graders moved and my pride was rescued.
These old wooden desks had been in the education business for decades before I ever did a cipher. They were marred and carved with the scent of past learners. If you had an older brother you were likely to find his name carved in a desk top.
The school property was probably two acres and we used it all during recess as a play yard. The parking lot behind the school was our softball field. First base was the corner of the schoolhouse and third base was the girls outhouse. If you hit the ball into the road it was a triple and if you could knock it over the fence on the other side of the road, you had a homer. There weren’t enough boys to field two teams so the girls played too.
I remember Susan Severns had a strange swing. It would look like she was going to bunt but then swing all the way around like a top. She didn’t hit it far but she would almost always hit a grounder between third base and short stop. She had long legs and could usually beat the throw to first. Even at prepuberty when you watched her run in her dress and flash that pretty smile on “Safe”, you would forget that you hated girls.
Dark haired Susie Tatum was a good ball player and as cute as she could be. That girl could outrun any boy on the field. I had a bit of a crush on her my 6th grade year. I never had the nerve to tell her I liked her. You might not believe it now but I was a late bloomer in the romance department.
With that many kids tramping around, no grass would grow on the playground so it was blanketed with small cinder rocks and gravel. This kept it from being so muddy when it rained, but when it was dry, your feet would easily slide on a quick start or sudden stop. Anytime you fell you knew those cinders rocks were were going to leave their mark.
The merry-go-round was barbaric in comparison to its tame cousins you see today. Barbaric but a real thrill. It stood about a foot and a half off the ground. The outside ring bench was a foot wide and the next inside space was open for a foot and then there were boards covering the center. A metal bar was attached above the outside bench circling the entire machine, giving brave riders something to hold onto. You could sit on the outside bench facing the center with your feet dangling in the empty space and hold onto the top bar while someone else pushed from outside or ran in circles in the empty space pushing like a pony ride.
We boys would sit on our knees on the outside bench holding onto the bar while another kid would push from the empty space. When the pusher got it going fast enough we would hang our legs out and the centrifugal force have us flying straight out like little human flags hanging on the bar. This was great till you lost your grip and went flying through the air like a frisbee landing on the gravel and cinders.
For a different spin on things, we would hang under the outside bench holding on with our hands and legs. We looked like little people hammocks spinning around. One day Timmy Wilson dropped his head too low and it hit the corner of the concrete base. It cut a gash an inch and a half long. His mother took him for stitches and he had a scar but he had a funny shaped head anyway so it was no real loss.
The slide, swings and teeter totter were all attached together. The slide on one end, the totter on the other and the swings in the middle. The slide was tall with a sheet metal bottom that could get hot in the sun. We would bring wax bars from home that our moms used to can vegetables. The wax would make the slide so slick you would fly off the end and scoot another six feet on your bottom. We would pile leaves under the end for a softer landing.
The swings were boards attached to chains and high enough to prepare you for a job at the circus. To go higher, two kids would ride the same swing. One would stand with his feet on each end of the board facing one way and the other would sit between his feet facing the other way. With two people the swing was being propelled both ways and you could almost spin like a ferris wheel.
The boys would make a competition of swinging high and then jumping off at the top of your forward swing to see who could sail the furthest. One day 10 year old Roy Ford was jumping and he stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth as he strained pulling the chains. He flew high when he jumped but he fell forward when he landed. He hit his chin on the ground with his tongue out and bit a hole clear through it!
To make the teeter totter more exciting we would put two or three kids on each side of even weight. Then another one would stand-on the top of the board and walk from end to end using their weight to propel the totter.
You are probably wondering who was watching us. We had one teacher who did everything. Unless the weather was bad we were all required to go outside during recess. This was the only break she got. She would have probably killed one of us if she had to supervise playtime too. People didn’t worry about that kind of stuff back then. There was no blame or lawsuits if a kid got hurt at school. Accidents were accepted, besides in those days a small family was 3 or 4 kids, everyone had a spare.
You can find my other books at andywilloughby.com