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Volume 16, Issue 36 - September 4 - September 10, 2008

First Grade Is a Rite of Passage

For Grumpy and for Grandpops

School days, school days, good old golden rule days …

Granddaughter Grumpy, aka Mackenzie Noelle Boughey, headed back to school this morning filled with glee and anticipation. Thus comes another rite of passage (following losing her first baby tooth several weeks ago) in her young life. Today she’s going into the first grade.

But it isn’t entering into the long process of grades that’s the big thing.

Know what that means most to this six-year-old girl at Gibson Island Country School in North County? You’ll never guess. It has nothing to do with scholastics, teachers, subjects, the beginning of a more formal way of education, none of that.

Beginning today, no more sitting around small tables with other pupils. That’s kid stuff. Beginning today, she has a desk of her very own. For the whole school year, it will be hers alone. What a thrill it was shopping for what’s going into that desk: traditional pencil box, extra pencils, erasers, glue stick, scissors and crayons that were carried to school this morning in the new LL Bean knapsack of red with her name on it.

She’s now a big and very happy girl; no concerns that this is the first of probably 16 or more years of formal education, each year probably more regimented than the previous. The same with homework that will rate priority over soccer practice, bike riding, watching DVDs or playing Chinese checkers with Grandpop, who has found, like most other old-timers, that rites of passages for grandchildren are also rites of passages for them.

Where has my little girl gone? Once she was satisfied to have her own little desk in Grandpop’s office, cutting out paper dolls and drawing pictures for me while I wrote. Now she has another desk as a center of her learning and development — at which there will be more studious and formal things to do. No more taking a break whenever desired to make a hot chocolate, take a walk or play a game with Grandpop. Formal education rules.

My Golden Rule Days

As Grumpy headed off to school today driven by her mother, camera in hand to preserve the occasion, I couldn’t help but recall what I remember about my first day: the one-room schoolhouse with four grades within, a teacher named Miss Griffin, my first desk — and how fortunate I was because it was next to a window. I wasn’t driven to school. During the Great Depression, families were lucky to have one jalopy. Ours had taken my father to work.

The school was a tad more than a mile away, and with my year-younger sister Ruth in tow, Mother walked us to the Cherry Valley schoolhouse where Miss Griffin, big brass bell in hand, was ready to summon inside about 30 students from five to 10 years of age. Thereafter, the walk would be by me alone, rain, snow or shine; the only school bus driven by Johnny Mann after he milked his cows was for kids who lived more than a mile out in the sticks.

I had no pencil box, but I had a box of crayons and a pencil in my pocket, and I toted a brown sack with a sandwich and cookie. I didn’t know what a snack was.

William Straight was a status symbol; he had a thermos bottle, the first I had ever seen, then called a vacuum bottle. The rest of us drank from a tin cup fed via a big earthen crock filled by Miss Griffin. The water was tepid, but then most pupils ate peanut butter sandwiches, the most affordable at the time, and anything wet was welcome.

Lavatories? They were two small unheated and aromatic outbuildings at the end of well-beaten paths in back of the schoolhouse, one for boys, the other for girls. If you had to go, you raised one or two fingers and waited for approval from Miss Griffin. TP was outdated Sears & Roebuck catalogs. There were no faucets to wash the hands.

Parents and pupils looked up to teachers. Though only in her early 20s, Miss Griffin ruled. No one questioned her. There was no PTA. Occasionally a parent would visit school briefly to see how things were going, but for the most part the quarterly report card was the sole communication between parents and teachers. And the going rule was the teacher is always right. Get the leather strap on the backside for school misbehavior, and you didn’t complain at home for fear of getting it again. Girls sometimes gussied up as girls still do, but not in wintertime. They took their turns lugging in wood for the pot-bellied stove that heated the room. Air conditioning? Open the windows.

Playtime was segregated. For girls it was hopscotch or jacks. For boys it was ball or tag, and when snow was on the ground fox and geese. No one complained that we might get hurt. Toughing it out was a rite of passage. Torn clothes were sewed at home, scrapes and cuts ignored.

They had a more effective system than cash for good grades. You were expected to live up to potential. Flunk to the tune of the hickory stick. You, not the teacher, took the blame for failure.

You didn’t dare blame the teacher for anything, as Aunt MiMi learned when the teacher told the class to draw a pitcher, her way of saying picture.

MiMi drew a pitcher, complete with cap and ball. Incensed, the teacher batted MiMi so hard on the hand with a heavy ruler that MiMi carried a scar the remainder of her life. But she didn’t dare tattle. Why risk double jeopardy?

Step 1 to Independence

So Grumpy is off to the first grade, a far different first grade than mine. Her classroom has but one grade, not four as did my Cherry Valley, and there will be field trips, assembly programs, hands-on lessons, a playground, plays, recitals, programs, parents’ nights and so much more unheard of in the 1930s.

First grade is the first of many steps toward independence, maturity and responsibility. Her proud grandfather is thinking that little desk she has looked forward to all summer will someday be a big desk behind which she’ll handle business, write scientific papers or conduct other important and worldly matters.

Grandpops is now for after-school hours, weekends and vacations. As studies, homework, sports and other school activities require increasingly more time, Grandpops becomes more spectator and supporter than participant. It is our rite of passage.

Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2008 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.