So passes the time (for Mrs. Gracely and other good teachers)

Physical movement and memory are so closely intertwined that even a seemingly meaningless motion, like moving marbles from one box to another, alters the speed and tenor of recall. —Daniel Cassasanto and Katinka Dijkstra (Cognition, April 2010, Motor Action and Emotional Memory)

I remember when time was a line of school children carrying plaid canvas book satchels. The short handles, long shoulder straps, and metal buckles could be cumbersome (there was an art to mastering them), but they secured the treasures and curiosities for the day’s show-and-tell time. They also held important papers, books, and cardboard cigar boxes full of Crayola crayons, No. 2 pencils, Pink Pearl erasers, and pocket pencil sharpeners.

Some children rushed eagerly to the front of the classroom, others dillydallied in a corner, and still others lingered in the back, trying to escape the teacher’s watchful gaze. Most were content to take their place in the middle, if they could stand or sit by a friend. I stood and sat in the back, next to Roger Claybaugh. That was in first grade, before teachers marched us through the hall in alphabetical order and seated us likewise.

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My first-grade class photo

 

The classroom of my childhood was simply furnished, with the teacher’s wood desk and chair at the front, a table or two at the back, benches for rubber boots and raincoats, precise rows of lift-top desks with attached chairs, and bookshelves for Weekly Reader magazines, Dick and Jane reading books, and writing and arithmetic textbooks. Slate blackboards, framed with wood, comprised most of the front wall, with felt erasers and white chalk resting on a tray at the base of the frame and an alphabet banner posted above the top of the frame.

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Vintage blackboard alphabet charts, 1960s (ebay.com)

 

Cupboards were filled with lined writing tablets, unlined drawing tablets, paint jars and paintbrushes, gray modeling clay, plastic tubs of mint-scented school paste and plastic spreaders, reams of construction paper in assorted colors, boxes of broken crayons and short pencils with worn-down erasers, collections of seeds and beans, and scraps of felt, yarn, and paper to use in artwork. Nothing was wasted.

A manual pencil sharpener, mounted on the wall near the back of the room, chewed up our pencils, loudly grinding them to a stub. Although the mechanical sharpener didn’t work nearly as well as the pocket sharpener most of us kept in our plastic roll-top pencil cases, permission to use the mechanical one was a rare opportunity to get up from the desk, stretch, and move about.

Seated at our desks, we children looked like socially disconnected factory workers, positioned to be trained for the productivity, efficiency, orderliness, conformity, and obedience that the industrialized nation and the school system valued and expected. We pledged our allegiance to the flag of the United States of America every morning. 

The dreamers stared in a seeming daze at the door, or the floor, or the desktop, or a wall, or a window, preoccupied with some present, past, or future business stuck in their minds. They had a calming energy. Roger was a creative dreamer and liked to doodle. I watched in fascination as he drew realistic vintage cars, trucks, tractors, and horses, his soft-leaded pencil making thick velvety lines that smudged when he moved his hand over the paper.

The whisperers started in on cue when the teacher turned her back or her head away. With snap and spark, they kept pace with each other, hardly missing a single second of opportunity to murmur some serious concern or simple thought. The whisperers were daring and silly, but not really disruptive.

The rebels slumped in their chairs, looking painfully bored, uninspired, unmotivated, and distracted, ready to disrupt and make mischief. When they spoke, they had one volume:  loud. Often funny and charismatic, they could also be stubborn and annoying.

The bullies zeroed in on their target – an innocent quiet girl or boy who appeared different in some way and who had done nothing to deserve the hurtful, unkind, and frequent torment. The bullies were mean and surly, who used their social power to hurt someone less powerful. They didn’t outgrow it.

The shy, anxious ones, like me, silently kept their place in line and alertly looked to their left, right, front, back, and around again. They kept their eyes moving, scanning the whole scene as though it were a scary alleyway. When they spoke, they were curious and questioning, always wondering why about something. They also had days when they slunk into class somberly and were unable to focus.

The motivated ones sat attentively in their seats, eager to learn, practice, and master the day’s reading, writing, and arithmetic lessons and drills. They paid attention and stayed on task, engaged and confidently committed. I had days like that also.

So passed the children’s time.

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My twin sister and me, first day of first grade

 

Some children heard the teacher say that the important thing is showing up and doing your best, that making mistakes is a part of learning, that people can change, that you can learn to calm yourself down and focus, that you can improve your abilities, that practice makes perfect, that hard work is its own reward, that everyone struggles, that if you stick with your project you can succeed, that trying is meaningful and might even be fun, that choices have consequences, that you have what it takes and you can do it, that you are wanted and cared for, that your interests are worth pursuing, that life is full of possibility, that you have unique gifts and talents to share, that you belong.

Other children heard and felt that they had failed, that they would never succeed, that they would never learn, that they were slow or stupid or unlikable, that trying was meaningless, that everything was too hard and confusing, that nothing was fun or possible, that they were too different from everybody else, that they would never belong. Others believed that school was just something they had to get through.

Some children found purpose and pleasure and were committed to learning and playing together. Others disengaged, shrugging off the teacher’s guidance and encouragement. Others engaged through disruption, thundering their objections to a spelling or arithmetic test. Some dabbled in what interested them and ignored the rest. Some tried hard at everything, eager to please the teacher at school and make proud the parent at home. Others dreamed away the drudgery of the day, safely harbored in their imaginations, seemingly unnoticed.

So passed the children’s time.

The elementary school day included a morning milk break – white or chocolate milk in a small glass bottle served with saltine crackers – and a longer midday break that allowed plenty of time to play outside. When the teacher let us out for recess, we cheered and ran through the playground. Some children climbed the immensely amazing jungle gym to daring heights, swinging and leaping from bar to bar like monkeys. They took turns climbing up and sliding down the aluminum slide. On a sunny day, the girls wrapped their skirts tightly under their bare legs to protect them from the scorching heat beating down on the slide.

Children twirled on the merry-go-round, holding on for dear life, one child doing death-defying tricks as another child spun them around as fast as he could. Others jumped rope, swinging short ropes to exhibit fun footwork and fancy rope tricks. Sometimes children would swing two long ropes at once as multiple jumpers jumped between them, advancing their skills with greater speed until the ropes caught and tangled at their feet and they had to begin again.

Some children rolled and kicked a large, inflated rubber ball awkwardly around the field in a game of kickball. Others played a competitive game of tether ball, planting their feet firmly on the ground, concentrating on hitting and wrapping a volleyball around a stationary metal pole before their opponent could take even one swing at it. Small groups played games of Tag, Hide-and-Seek, Red Rover, Simon Says, Mother May I, and Blind Man’s Bluff, surviving all manner of tests.

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My second-grade class photo

 

Mibsters like myself rolled marbles in chase and ringer games at a quiet corner of the school building, aiming to win a prized aggie, onionskin, or colorful bumboozer from our opponent. We mostly played “for fairs,” though, which meant returning the captured marbles after the game so no one went away feeling bad. Shooting marbles, we admired each other’s collections and negotiated good trades.

When I wasn’t playing marbles, I could be found on the swing set, pumping my legs powerfully, propelling the swing higher and higher, trying to reach the clouds. Other children sat on the wooden teeter-totter, seesawing with their best friend, springing and bouncing each other gleefully, and trying to balance the splintered board with their feet off the ground.

After a period of exhaustive play, we dutifully returned to the classroom, placed our heads on our desks, and rested.

So passed the children’s time.

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Elementary school rest period (photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

 

The school system believed that orderliness and compliance were good and nobody was meant to excel too high above the average or to be too different in the school environment. They put us in the same class because we were born in the same year. They trained us for the industrialized world and set up classrooms like the factories and businesses that employed many of our parents.

The teacher taught the narrow curriculum, administered the standardized tests, and provided us an approach to learning that was designed to produce conformity in behavior and achievement. Everyone ate lunch together in the school cafeteria and played together at recess. Everyone basically got the same, not necessarily what was needed or wanted, and not necessarily in a very deep way. The teacher followed the rules of the system and expected us to follow the rules also. For the most part, there wasn’t much face-to-face, back-and-forth learning interaction between the students. 

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My twin sister and me, first day of second grade

 

There were notable exceptions:  Mrs. Gracely and Mrs. Metzger were two of the best teachers. Creative people, who could do something else and think differently, they both believed that learning could be fun and could occur outside the standard curriculum and formal classroom. Balancing a stern face of authority and discipline with a soft smile of affection and acceptance, they knew instinctively that we all needed stories, personal attention, sympathy, empathy, alone time, togetherness, play time, and meaning.

They provided opportunities for all of us to feel like we belonged; they also provided time for everyone to do something on our own that interested us. They created activities and games in which everyone could participate and succeed; they also set aside time for individual projects. 

Some children made puppets and produced entertaining puppet shows. Some children created elaborate pencil drawings, finger paintings, and chalk drawings that the teacher displayed around the classroom. Other children set up make-believe forts and battlegrounds, commandeering household items and transforming them into bridges, boulders, trees, grasslands, and rivers.

Other children checked out their limit in library books and shared the adventures of their favorite characters in show-and-tell storyboards. Some children shared the puzzles they had successfully solved and the cartoons they had especially enjoyed from the latest Weekly Reader magazines. I collected leaves, rocks, and wild things from the Auglaize riverbank and nursed ailing baby birds back to health in little nests I’d made, feeding them warm milk through an eye dropper.

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My third-grade class photo

 

The good teachers looked for, found, and encouraged each child’s unique interests, strengths, and talents. Whatever adversities, specific learning challenges, and environmental influences any of us faced at home or at school, they helped us move through them. They helped us see that we were not helpless or hopeless or alone. Recognizing when a child was struggling to get through the day, the good teachers helped that child harness the resources she needed to get through and beyond her struggle.

The good teachers laughed, played, hugged us, smiled at us, called us by our first names, and told us what a good job we were doing. By praising our efforts more than our achievements, they helped us find our way to thriving. With a presence that conveyed calm, warmth, wisdom, and caring, they created a secure environment for learning. Above all, they practiced kindness.

So passed the children’s time.

At the end of the day, we all waited for a bell to ring, or a whistle to sound, or the teacher’s command to dismiss us. After being dismissed, by the bell or the whistle or the teacher’s gentle words, some dashed out of the classroom and then rushed back to retrieve forgotten objects – a show-and-tell treasure, a bag of marbles, an overdue library book, a book satchel and pencil case, or a lunch pail with a cookie for the walk home. Others, empty-handed, raced out the door, through the hall, out the building, across the lawn, and down the street – far away from there.

Still others stayed with the teacher and helped her wipe off the desks and straighten them to make the custodian’s job easier. We erased the chalkboard for her and stepped outside to clean the erasers, clapping them together, the chalk dust flying all around. We lingered inside as the teacher filed papers and cleared her desk. We liked to watch her, and we liked how she smiled at us. We liked to be there with her. We helped her turn off the lights and lock the door. We liked to hear the switches click and watch the lights go out one by one. We liked to feel the weight of the door as we pulled it shut. We liked to walk and talk with the teacher a while before we had to leave. And we looked forward to doing it all again the next day.

So passed the children’s time.

I remember when time was a line of school children, who went on for reasons of their own. I remember the gentle teachers, who took a real interest in their well-being and helped them find their way.

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For amazing photos of 1960s classrooms, search gettyimages.com. To see what school looked like the year you were born, read this article. And for a look back at dozens of vintage playgrounds from the early 20th century, see this collection.

Postscript

When I was in elementary school, more than 50 years ago, I struggled academically and socially. My test scores changed dramatically from test to test, indicating a potential reading problem or other issue, leading Mrs. Gracely, my first-grade teacher, to meet with my mother in our home. They speculated about what the matter might be but were never certain. My reading issue and inconsistent test scores continued through the sixth grade, after which I excelled in school. One influence was the school system’s decision to separate my twin sister and me throughout elementary school. Our first day of first grade was our first day apart, ever. But it was more complicated than that.

In elementary school, I vacillated from shy to anxious to dreamy to motivated. Whenever I felt the pressure mounting and anxiety overwhelming me, I lost my ability to stay present. Retreating inside myself, I lost focus and comprehension. When I felt more secure, I could stay calm and motivated. Over time, I learned to manage my anxiety and breathe through it while maintaining focus on my studies. I developed an early interest in reading science fiction books, novels with strong female characters, biographies, and nonfiction books that explained the strangest things in nature. I also developed an interest in writing, but it all sure took a lot of work to come around. 

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Me, in the high school newspaper office, senior year

 

After I passed first grade, Mrs. Gracely followed my academic path from grade to grade, sending me a handwritten note each time she saw my name on the honor roll published in the local newspaper. She came to my high school graduation, where I was among the top five student speakers. With her warm, familiar smile, she congratulated me and wished me well in college. I don’t doubt that she did the same for many other students, but the fact that she was so kind and generous to me was everything.

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My high-school senior class photo

 

I honor Mrs. Gracely, other favorite teachers I had in school, and every teacher who makes a difference through good teaching, caring, and kindness. While our world has changed and we no longer live in the industrial society of the 1960s, but rather in a more fluid society of technology, innovation, exploration, and globalization, our education systems and approaches to learning have also changed. The definition of “good teaching” has changed with them, but the need for kindness is constant.

Our nation is now in the eleventh week of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency, since the federal emergency declaration of March 13. Schools are closed to in-person classes, teachers are conducting lessons and activities online, and parents are struggling at home to balance the needs and demands of teleworking (if they’re fortunate to have that option) with the responsibilities of providing childcare and at-home schooling.

My colleagues who have young children at home are struggling with everything. I tell them what a remarkable job they are doing in these extraordinary circumstances and remind them that it’s okay, even necessary, to slow down. With the ever-changing, uncertain conditions we’re facing, we all need support to help take the pressure off. The fact is this situation is difficult; it requires struggling. We feel depressed because there are very real, depressing things happening. We all need to give ourselves and each other some grace.

Teachers all over the world are doing amazing things in online learning spaces, and they deserve appreciation for all that is expected of them. The challenges to learn new technologies and provide meaningful distance learning activities are numerous and complicated. Equity issues, for example, must be considered in what and how to teach, because not everyone is equally empowered or equipped to engage in distance learning. The longer this situation lasts, the more difficult those decisions will be. How will teachers and parents help children accomplish their individual possibilities and find their own paths in this emergency, in its recovery, and beyond? I don’t know.

Perhaps we will realize that as much as we have been able to adapt and change to meet the tremendous demands, obstacles, and priorities that this emergency has placed on us, we have been expecting too much of ourselves and each other all along. It might be time to adjust expectations permanently, to devote more resources to health care and well-being, to provide more options around how and where and when we do our jobs, to build in more flexibility, breaktime, and human interaction.

I imagine that teachers, parents, students, and co-workers all over the world are looking forward to the day when the bell rings and they can go outside and play together. I know I am. I’ll hike to the river and forest, collect rocks, and shoot marbles with a fellow mibster. Until then, I will continue to stay home, telework, practice physical/social distancing, and wear my mask for public health and safety.

So passes the time.

Composed on May 20-24, 2020, during the eleventh week of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency. The federal emergency declaration was March 13, 2020. This writing was prompted by one of my lockdown projects – to sort through and organize old photographs and collectibles – and a recently recurring dream of childhood memories.