School Daze

Memories are often hard to figure. Why is it that I can remember my first day of school and that first year at kindergarten, yet I can’t recall where I was or what I was doing last Thursday? Was kindergarten that traumatic? Or was I so impressed with the learning experience that it has stuck with me like the wayward peanut butter on the handle of the knife I used to spread it with? I think neither, but hopefully me telling the story will amuse some and make room on my mind’s hard drive for more important stuff – like where I left my cell phone charger.

I began my educational journey in Redding during the early 1950’s when Wisconsin Senator Tail gunner Joe McCarthy was accusing everyone other than Clarabelle the Clown and recently crowned Queen Elizabeth II of being a communist sympathizer and a Soviet spy.

Redding had built a new elementary school on Lonetown Road in 1948, but before the mortar holding the bricks in place was dry, the building was woefully too small to hold all eight grades it had been designed to accommodate. It seemed that after nearly four years of war, lonely soldiers returning home to equally lonely young women resulted in an unusually high number of marriages, which in turn resulted in an unusually high number of newborn children soon thereafter. Plans for new schools drafted in 1945 and 1946 hadn’t factored in so many new additions to the student population during the 1950’s when those little bundles of joy would need to learn to read and write. Who could have known?

Redding Elementary School in 1953. The new gymnasium at the right cost the taxpayers $0. The $90K it cost to build was all raised through donations!

Prior to the new RES being built, the town had educated most of its children in the old Hill Academy building – Redding’s present Town Hall – since the late 1920’s. With RES already over-taxed, the Hill School was kept in use and housed the first and second grades as well as the town’s recently established kindergarten in its four classrooms. This is where I would begin my journey of lower learning as a five-year-old kid who was more at home in the woods with his dog than he was confined to a classroom packed with noisy kids who couldn’t count much past five.

Redding’s Hill Academy building c.1929

We lived almost on the Redding-Easton town line. Sport Hill and Rock House Roads were practically a no-man’s land as far as Redding was concerned. Some of the kids went to school in Redding, and some went to Easton. How the town’s decided who went where has always been a mystery to me. Apparently, the largest issue was traversing the Aspetuck River with a school bus. The bridges in Redding had been designed to accommodate a horse and buggy, and the company the town hired to provide the buses refused to cross at least one of them, claiming it wasn’t “safe.” That meant kids living closest to the Easton line had to walk up to a mile and a half to catch a bus at the foot of Meeker Hill. Five-year old children walking unaccompanied on narrow country roads – evidently the bus company deemed that perfectly safe since those kids weren’t in their charge until they boarded the bus.

The year I was to begin school, there were four families with kids my age living in our immediate vicinity and our parents weren’t about to have us trudge almost halfway to school before we could catch the bus for the remainder of the journey. After a few months of haggling, the town finally convinced the bus contractor to supply transportation from where we lived, not from where they felt like picking us up. They still wouldn’t agree to supply a full-size school bus, but they did agree to pick us up in a station wagon. Only one small problem. Besides the four five-year-old’s starting kindergarten, there were seven more kids in grades one through eight who needed to get to school.

Now, today that wouldn’t be an issue. Automobile manufacturers make a myriad of different sized transit vans that can easily hold between a dozen and sixteen passengers. But in the 1950’s, it was one-size fits all. We were provided with a 1953 Ford Country Sedan, a three-seat station wagon that was designed to hold up to eight passengers. We were eleven kids, and with none of us being older than fourteen, we needed someone to drive the darn thing. Twelve people, albeit some of them tiny, in a space designed for no more than eight. Can you say clown car?

That many passengers crammed into a station wagon seemed to throw the bus company’s token concern for “safety” out the window. To get kids into the space behind the third seat, the driver needed to get out and open the tailgate to let them in before slamming it shut again. Once in, the kids in the rear were at the mercy of the driver to let them out again. Yup, that concern for safety had definitely flown out the window.

With two of us stuffed into the “way back” – a space the width of the interior of the car but with only about ten inches of space between the rear window glass and the third-row seat, we were off. Seat belts? Didn’t exist. Besides, we were packed in there like sardines, where were we going to go even if the car crashed?

1953 Ford Country Sedan – Holds twelve in a pinch.

As I look back, I think it was only the kindergarten kids from our little neighborhood who were the ones who took the “bus” that first day. When we arrived at the school, one of the older kids pointed the way to our classroom. As we walked through the door, we were greeted by the bedlam of twenty mothers saying a tearful goodbye to their precious little toddlers. The four of us had no idea that parents would be there. Our parents had simply wished us a well and sent us off to the slaughter alone. Class was scheduled to be half day affair, and these moms were acting as if they were sending their kids off to Europe by themselves aboard the Queen Mary. They would see them again in three hours – what did they think was going to happen to them in such a short span of time?

We stood there looking confused until an extremely elderly looking woman approached us. It turned out that she was going to be our teacher. Her name was Missus Golder. She looked to be somewhere north of ninety. At least to a five-year-old. She was actually fifty-two. And why was she a missus rather than a miss? I’d watched television before. All the schoolteachers on TV were young, pretty, and unmarried. But here we were with Grandma Moses. Maybe she baked good cookies.

Most of the bawling moms were gone by around 9:00 AM. A couple of the kids were still pretty upset that they had been abandoned. Missus Golder did her level best to convince everyone that learning was going to be fun while a couple of the boys in the back were hurling punches at each other as they argued over who was going to sit at the desk closest to the window.

About ten minutes later, a neanderthal of a man walked through the door. He looked like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians. Dressed in a dark gray suit he stood about nine feet tall – eyes of a five-year-old, remember? He was actually about six-foot-four, but to us he was a giant! And then he greeted us. With a deep, booming voice, he introduced himself as Mister Goodfield, the principal of the Redding Elementary School. The guy was scary. A couple of the kids began to cry.

After King Kong had assured us how much fun we were going to have learning our ABC’s, he left. As soon as Missus Golder had everyone calmed down enough to continue, she announced that it was time for our milk and cookies. Thirty minutes in and we were getting fed? She asked if anyone could count past ten. Stupidly, I raised my little hand. I’m not sure if I was the only sap who did so, but I was chosen to walk down the hall and retrieve twenty-two cartons of milk. That was more than ten. I knew that much even though we hadn’t had our first lesson in arithmetic. But I also knew that I could count to fifty. Most of the time. With only a few minor mistakes.

Missus Golder assigned me two helpers. Evidently twenty-two half-pint cartons of milk were really heavy. The three of us meandered down the hallway and entered the storeroom where the milk had been deposited earlier that morning. One of my helpers was named Jackie, and Jackie was pretty sure that he could also count to ten – perhaps not realizing that twenty-two was a higher number. Who was I to argue?

“One, two, three, four, five, six…” so far so good… “Seven, nine, eleven, ten, twelve… Nine…”

Okay. I was guessing that Missus Golder was going to want us to return with the correct number – or at least somewhere closer than what Jackie was going to come up with – and sometime before the end of the day. I counted out the milk and the other two hauled the metal wire milk crate down the hall. It turns out I got lucky in one way and not so lucky in another. I had hit the right number – I had exactly twenty-two cartons of milk. But, in doing so, I had earned the permanent position of head milk counter. Every day for the rest of the school year, I had to accompany various pint-sized, prize mathematicians to the storage room and watch as they attempted to count to twenty-two. I think it was mid-November until one of them hit the right count on their first try. A year’s supply of Rice-a-Roni goes to the winner!!!

While I had been hoping that Missus Golder might be a Betty Crocker award winning cookie baker, I was disappointed when the cookies turned out to be boring store-bought graham crackers. At least the milk washed them down.

After milk and cookie time came quiet time. Seriously? When were we going to start learning something? Quiet time meant laying your little head on your hard wooden desk, closing your eyes, and staying completely quiet for the next twenty minutes. Missus Golder lowered the blinds and turned off the lights. I’ve never been certain, but I think she then stepped outside for a smoke.

After quiet time, our graham crackers were well digested, and we were ready to sing a couple of songs. So far, I had learned way more watching Miss Frances on Ding Dong School on television that I had during the first hour and a half with Missus Golder.

Our song fest complete, it was time for recess.

The entire school body was out on the front lawn. The Hill School had no playing fields, only a front lawn that bordered on Hill Road. There was a lot of yelling and screaming going on. Some of the first-grade boys were playing football. My buddy Tommy was my age and we often played with the older boys in our neighborhood. However, our neighborhood didn’t have a caste system. Evidently, the Hill School did.

Tommy was soon being shoved to the ground by a couple of belligerent first graders. Someone needed to intervene. Now, even as a five-year-old kid, I wasn’t a complete idiot. I ran across the field and found Kenny, Tommy’s, older brother – a second grader! Kenny grabbed a couple of other second graders and we were off to rescue poor Tommy. That was the end of the playground caste system. At least for that year. Tommy returned to class looking a little like “Pig Pen” from the “Peanuts” gang. I was clean as whistle.

Back inside, it was learning time! Yea! It was 11:15 and our morning session wouldn’t end until noon. We had forty-five minutes to actually learn something!

 Missus Golder announced that the first day we were going to learn our numbers. One to twenty! I was already ahead of the curve! She had number cards all made up on yellow construction paper. How exciting! She called off each number – thank God in sequence – and then showed us what each number looked like. For forty of the next forty-five minutes. I could see by the look on Jackie’s face that he was surprised that eleven came after ten. By the looks on the faces of some of the others, I could see that some of them had no idea of what the number thirteen looked like. All riveting stuff.

When class ended, we were herded outside and corralled alongside of the parking lot. There were no buses. Evidently, the town fathers of Redding didn’t think it was going to be inconvenient for mothers to drive to school at noon to retrieve their five-year-old kids after a grueling morning of learning from Missus Golder. This despite only about ten percent of the families in Redding owned two cars.

That first day, the parking lost was busy since most of the mothers had borrowed their husband’s cars to both drop off and retrieve their kindergarten aged toddlers. But going forward there would be a lot of carpooling for midgets at noon. Parents had to pick up the morning students and deposit any who were scheduled for the afternoon session.

Happy looking bunch, weren’t we? The “head milk counter” is the tall kid in the light-colored shirt in the center of the back row.

When we had moved to Redding, my dad realized my mom was going to need a car. After purchasing the house, there hadn’t been a lot left in the budget, so dad bought mom an inexpensive little station wagon. It was a Crosley.

Never heard of it, have you? Well, you’re not alone. It wasn’t a barnburner of a seller. Powell Crosley Jr. had made his fortune manufacturing home radios. That made him wealthy enough to buy his own baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. In 1935, he changed the name of Redland Field to Crosley Field and installed the first lights in the nation so that families could enjoy baseball games at night after work.

Crosley also thought that middle class workers should be able to purchase an affordable automobile, so given his success with producing affordable radios, why not produce an affordable line of cars?

Well, the Crosley brand was certainly affordable, just not very good, and certainly not very powerful.

We were the only two car family amongst the four families with kids in our neighborhood who attended kindergarten at Hill. That meant my mom was elected the retrieving driver by default. There was another kid in our class who also needed a ride home at noon, and his house was on the same route that we took. So, that meant that mom would pick up five kids to shove into her 28hp peanut sized station wagon built for a maximum of four. On some occasions mom would bring along a neighbor who needed to pick up something at the market and we would have as many as seven bodies in her oversized Tonka toy of an automobile.

Using a little self-deprecation to sell a car that few people aspired to own. Put a set of rotary blades underneath it and it would have made a great lawnmower.

The Crosley could barely maintain 40 mph on flat land with a normal load of four people aboard. When the car was loaded, the trip across Cross Highway from the Center to Ridge required a minimum downhill speed approaching the Little River bridge of 40 mph, anything less and it wouldn’t make it up the other side without stalling. When that happened, the kids all got out and walked up the hill as mom crawled by not going much faster than our little legs would carry us.

After a year of owning Powell Crosby’s masterpiece, dad bought mom a new Hillman. As a sedan, it held fewer bodies but at least it could make it up hills without having to shed passengers. Luckily for my mom, I would successfully complete my stint in kindergarten, meaning that the following year, I got to go to school all day and ride the “bus” both ways.

I would complete two more years at Hill. By 1957, the town would complete an addition to RES that would finally allow all eight grades to attend the same school. By then, I could count to a hundred, recite most of the letters in the alphabet in order, and spell Connecticut correctly two out three times. I was happy as a clam – until I found out we were going to learn to write using cursive letters.

But that’s whole nother story.

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