August, 2012

Memories of School Days

Editorial Comments

by Deborah Steele Hazen

My first grade teacher, Ada Humble, often wore a lavender print dress.

It wasn’t a loud print, just small flowers on a soft greyish lavender background. I think she must have worn it at least once a week. Fifty-six years later I can still see it in my mind’s eye. I can  picture myself sitting at my desk, listening to her and watching her intently.

There was no kindergarten nor pre-school in Clatskanie in those days, so Mrs. Humble was my first teacher outside of my family. (I continue to believe our parents and other adults in our extended families are our first and ultimately most important teachers since they set our attitudes towards learning, whether or not they attempt to teach us academic subjects.)

Mrs. Humble was at Clatskanie Elementary for many years, and she was a fine teacher – kind and comforting, but not a push-over; confident in her ability to teach. She created in me a strong desire to behave well and to learn. I believe virtually every other child in the class felt the same. If they didn’t, she kept them under control.

I’m quite sure I knew my alphabet and could count by the time I started first grade. By the time I turned six in November of my first grade year, I could read and do simple arithmetic. I don’t remember having to try. I just did what Mrs. Humble told me, and suddenly I could.

There are 26 students in my first grade class picture, so there were at least that many in the classroom and there were no aides. The teachers also took turns supervising recess. I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, but that’s the way it was.

My second grade teacher, Myrtle Dear, became ill with cancer and had to quit teaching a month or two into the school year. She died the next summer. No one talked much about her illness. We didn’t have any counselors, but we had our substitute teacher, Helen Thompson, kind, supportive and grandmotherly. She still made sure we learned.

While I would point out that the numbers of support staff were far less when I was a child than they are now – even after the cuts of the past two decades – the classified employees we did have were great.

Many of us have fond memories of Don Smart, who served as custodian at Clatskanie Elementary for decades. He always had a warm smile and an encouraging word for students, and volunteered every Wednesday night for roller-skating in what is now the old gym.

My husband Phil still dreams of cafeteria cook Clara Smith’s tuna on biscuits and honey and peanut butter sandwiches.

Aili Reinikka, another long-time Clatskanie teacher with deep roots in the community, was my third grade teacher. It was another good year.

Actually, there was only one really bad year in my 16 years of formal education, and that was towards the end of sixth grade when my parents moved our family over spring vacation to Madras, and I had to start as a new kid in a new school with a new teacher. As if that wasn’t bad enough, about the second or third day in my new school, I caught a fly ball during a softball game in my eye socket. The result was a black eye – a real shiner, purple, blue and swollen shut.

Try being the new sixth grade girl with a black eye!

The only thing that got me through that spring was being able to take Johnny, my Uncle George Van’s cowhorse, with me to Madras. Our moving coincided with Uncle George selling his ranch on the Clatskanie dikelands. Johnny opened the door for me to make horseback-riding friends in Madras and let me cry out my homesickness for Clatskanie on his big strong silky neck.

But back to fourth grade in Clatskanie. There was a teacher here for a few years who did not have  deep roots in the community. She was young, she was single and she was avant garde. Some of the parents and students didn’t like her, but some of us did.

She introduced us to “The Hobbit.”

In a classroom of 28 students, she put me in the second-highest reading group, instead of the highest. I was puzzled and a bit upset about that. I’d always been a good reader – what was I doing wrong?

I started hanging out with my teacher in the library during recesses. I began reading classics far above my level – not just “Tom Sawyer,” but “Moby Dick” and “Jane Eyre,” which I returned to several times as I matured. Probably somebody should have steered me away from “Moby Dick.” There was much I didn’t understand, but I persevered, if for no other reason than to prove to my teacher that I belonged in the top reading group.

I’m not sure now if she eventually moved me up or not. Coming from a family of readers and writers, I  was  probably already on a literary track, but that somewhat eccentric (some people said she was a “beatnik”) fourth grade teacher not only motivated my own lifelong love of literature, her influence spread through me to my children and grandchildren, all of whom (who are old enough to read) frequently have their noses buried in books.

During the past week, I’ve been asking myself and family and friends of various ages to share with me their back-to-school memories and feelings. There are common themes over three generations of past or present students.

Butterflies in our stomachs, mixed feelings of anxiety and excitement.

Would we like our teachers and would they like us?

Would our classes be full of friends, or kids we don’t know?

Would we encounter bullies at recess or in the hallways?

Would lunch be something we liked or couldn’t choke down?

What should we wear to be most acceptable to the both our fellow students and the teachers?

It’s been over half a century since my elementary school years, and yet I can remember these feelings vividly.

I feel them empathetically as today’s children – my grandchildren and their peers – prepare for the start of a new school year.

I pray that they will feel safe and respected; emotionally-protected and intellectually-stimulated; that their homes will prepare them for learning – physically, emotionally and intellectually; that their teachers will make them want to learn, and that our schools will provide an environment for them to build strong friendships with their peers and supportive relationships with teachers, support staff, counselors, coaches and administrators.

And, finally, that they will be able to look back fondly on their school years one day, and realize that what they learned, and the people from whom they learned it, helped them on the way to being independent, freedom-loving, responsible citizens and to pursue, and hopefully achieve, happiness.

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