I often wish my sons could experience what elementary school was like in the 1960s. I have fond memories of those days. It seems days back then were more carefree and well, just a lot different from things today.
Don’t get me wrong. My kids went to a fantastic elementary school which was run by a wonderful principal who believed in discipline. She ran a tight ship. The teachers (most of them anyway) were great. If I had to change something about their elementary education, quite frankly, I can’t think of much I would change.
But I would still love to be able to take my sons back to the days I was in elementary school just so they could get a taste of what it was like back then. I started first grade in 1965. In all honesty, my first grade teacher, Miss Whitworth, instilled a lot of fear into me. She always wore purple or blue dresses and wore her gray hair in the back of her head in a bun. She seemed ancient to me back then but in reality was only in her 60s. She was a spinster and she reminded me of the scary cartoon lady on the front of the box of Old Maid cards. Rumor had it she had a glass eye but I couldn’t tell. I never knew how she lost her eye. She never talked about it. Both of my older sisters had Miss Whitworth for a teacher and my mother wanted me to have her too. Miss Whitworth believed in firm discipline and looking back, she took it to the extreme sometimes. If you acted out in her classroom, she thought nothing about rapping you across the hands with her short wooden ruler. She left deep red welt marks on the little hands that were unfortunate enough to be rapped with her ruler. I also remember her pulling boys by their ears. I can remember vividly, her pulling a little boy who sat in the desk in front of me by the ear all the way up to her desk. When he returned sometime later, his ear was a deep maroon red and all puffy and swollen. I remember even my six-year-old self thinking this was wrong. Yes, I was
scared terrified of Miss Whitworth at times. While I certainly don’t applaud or agree with how she disciplined her students (I do believe no matter how you look at it, it was abuse), I do remember she was greatly respected as a teacher back in those days. The principle respected her. The other teachers respected her. The parents respected her. You learned when you had Miss Whitworth for a teacher. Her students always excelled in the 2nd grade. And as strange as this sounds, though I feared her, there was something about her that I couldn’t help but like. Though I didn’t agree with or like how she chose to discipline, I did, even then at my young age, get the feeling she was an effective teacher. Like I said, things were a lot different back then.
Back in those days, first and second graders used the big fat Husky pencils. They came in different colors (red, blue, green and yellowish-green), and let me tell you, it was a BIG deal to have a brand new Husky pencil! I can still remember my dad taking me out to the corner five and dime store where he would let me pick out a brand new Husky pencil. I laugh at that now. How it was such a big deal back then to buy a brand new pencil. How that made us kids so happy. I imagine kids today with their fancy phones and iPods don’t get too excited over a new fat pencil. I remember one day Miss Whitworth called me up to her desk. I was mortified. I was very shy and quiet. My main goal was to lay low and go unnoticed in her classroom. I knew by the tone of her voice that I had done something that had not pleased her. I was in trouble.
I had just gotten a brand new red pencil (and boy was I ever proud of my brand new shiny pencil) and Miss Whitworth called me up to her desk and asked me to bring my pencil with me. I obeyed. She proceeded to snatch my brand new pencil right out of my small six-year-old little hand, took out her rather large pair of metal black handled scissors, and right there in front of me, she cut off my eraser. The eraser on my BRAND NEW Husky pencil. I was devastated. She told me I was erasing too hard and had erased a big hole in my paper which she made clear to me she would not tolerate. First graders tend do those things when they’re learning fine motor skills. I cried and mourned my new pencil which didn’t look so new anymore. But you can bet that I never EVER erased another hole in my paper.
I remember everyone back in those days was expected to come to school with just a few supplies. With my kids it seems we would start the first day of school walking in carrying no less than three grocery bags full of supplies. Back in the 60s, we were expected to bring a school box which was a cardboard cigar box. There were no fancy plastic “school boxes” (or none that I can recall anyway).
These cigar boxes fit nicely in our desks and held our crayons, our Husky pencils and our school paste which came in plastic jars with a plastic spreader. I can still smell that paste which as I recall had a sort of peppermint smell to it. No wonder kids were always eating or tasting their paste! We each had a first grade writing tablet (lined) and a drawing tablet (unlined). We were allowed to go to the school’s bookstore in the mornings to buy school supplies as needed.
Back in the 60s, kids didn’t carry backpacks to school. We had book satchels. They were usually leather or some sort of imitation leather and usually brown or black. I remember mine was brown and it had plaid material inserts on the front with a matching plaid pencil-case inside. The book satchels had a long strap you could carry on one shoulder as well as a handle. They closed with buckles so they weren’t always easy to get in and out of in a hurry.
Teachers wrote on a chalkboard (or blackboard). There were no dry erase boards or dry erase markers. We took turns cleaning the erasers. I always liked cleaning the erasers which was done usually by taking them outside and “clapping” them together to remove the chalk dust. In my later elementary years, I remember a machine you ran the erasers through that removed the chalk dust automatically. Some teachers used cleaning erasers as a form of punishment while others let the more well-behaved students clean the erasers as a reward.
We received Weekly Reader magazines weekly which was always a big deal. These were classroom magazines which contained age appropriate stories with illustrations, current events, puzzles and cartoons. My mother always subscribed to summer weekly readers which my sisters and I always looked forward to getting in the mail.
Girls wore dresses to school. Pants were not allowed until I was in the 6th grade and even then, they had to be “pantsuits.” Yep, we girls in our fancy dresses, climbed monkey bars, slid down slides, and rode on seesaws. We did everything the boys did and more.
In the early grades, we had milk breaks in the afternoon. I’ll never forget lining up to go to the cafeteria for milk break and drinking our milk out of the carton with the white paper straws (that left a papery taste in your mouth). I didn’t care much for milk breaks. My husband remembers the teachers taking the straws away from some of the kids who thought it was fun to blow bubbles in their milk.
As far as music, I remember learning to play the xylophone in 2nd and 3rd grade and in 4th grade I recall learning to play the little black song flutes. They were made out of hard molded plastic and resembled small recorders but we called them flutes. The classroom teachers taught us to play those (no music teacher was brought in). Later, in 5th or 6th grade, you could join band or violin. I joined the band and chose to play the trumpet. There weren’t too many female trumpet players back then but I was determined that I could do anything a boy could do. Nobody was going to stop me from playing a musical instrument because of my gender.
Our elementary school did not have a school nurse. The clinic was run by parent volunteers. And it worked just fine that way. Scraped knees and fevers were the most common things seen at the clinic.
I remember everyone had a metal lunch box back in those day. I had a Mary Poppins lunchbox and thermos. I still have it. It was a noisy lunch room with all those metal boxes! The metal thermoses had glass liners and kids were forever dropping their thermoses and breaking them. I remember the school lunch room ladies dressing up on Halloween and turning the lights off. Teachers ate in the cafeteria at a central table. If you acted up at lunch, you had to take your tray up on the stage and eat in front of everybody. If you still acted up, off you went to the Principal’s office.
We said The Pledge of Allegiance every morning. The principal read a poem on the intercom every morning, made the announcements, and I believe even said a short prayer (boy have times changed). Different classrooms would take turns singing on various mornings on the intercom. I remember my second grade classroom getting to sing “Up on the Rooftop” at Christmas time which was a big deal.
I loved elementary school. I sometimes wish I could revisit those days. They were happy days. I still see my elementary school principal. After all those years, he still remembers me and my two sisters by name. He always remembered my mother (who was very active at the school– in the PTA, as a room mother, and working in the school clinic). He always recalled her red hair. He was nice enough to come to my mother’s funeral visitation 6 years ago to pay his respects.