1955. Second grade at the Hill School in Redding meant we were the big kids. Hill was a four-room school that housed kindergarten, two first grade classes, and one second grade. Another second-grade class and grades three through eight were in the Redding Elementary School about a quarter mile away. Our teacher was Miss Hatzis.

Our Fearless Leader – Miss Hatzis

We began each day with the usual pledge of allegiance and the singing of America the Beautiful. While there was seldom any direct mention of religion, it was apparent that Christianity ruled the day in Redding. Teachers were allowed to recite a daily prayer should they choose to, and most did. It was a different world.

The year had started off with the entire student body being lined up outside the building to receive their first dose of Jonas Salk’s lifesaving Polio vaccine. The first go arounds required needles – later doses would eventually become oral, greatly reducing the excruciating screams of children who saw a hypodermic needle as a lethal weapon that would end their young lives as soon as it was jabbed into their little arms.

I can’t recall if those vaccinations required the permission of our parents or if the town had simply decided we were all going to receive them come hell or high water. For half of us it was no big deal, for the other half, it was as if the world was going to come to an end as soon as they saw that needle. The fact that they had watched those ahead of them in line get their arms poked didn’t help when some of those kids let out ear piercing screams followed by streams of tears as they were swabbed, jabbed, and bandaged in an assembly line fashion.

By the second grade we could read about half of what was written, but three and four syllable words could stop us dead in our tracks. That would be the main focus of the reading part of our education that year. Our writing skills were crude, and our spelling ability was nothing short of laughably atrocious. Spelling would take top priority in the writing category. Math was a crapshoot. It was still nothing but memory and finger counting for some kids. Adding and subtracting was still challenging for some, but at some point in the second grade we were going to learn simple multiplication – Yikes!!!

The 19 Rugrats of Miss Hatzis’ 1955 second grade class at the Hill School in Redding.

Every year in every grade we rehashed the pilgrims and their first Thanksgiving. You know, the one where the pilgrims and the Indians all sat around the camp fire and sang Kumbaya after gnawing on turkey legs and eating their pumpkin pie. They then snapped the wishbone to see who would do the dishes and get to own the land they were standing on. Evidently, the Indians got the short end of it.  

Before you all go deeming me as being politically incorrect, America’s “indigenous peoples” were still referred to as Indians in the 1950’s. There were Indian motorcycles, Indian Brand pistachios, Genuine Indian Brand canoes, American Indian Brand cigarettes, Red Indian brand plug tobacco, and the list goes on and on. The Indian head hood ornament on Pontiac cars even lit up in red. America was still a long way from thinking about becoming all-inclusive and more sensitive in its use of nomenclature.

After Thanksgiving, it became too cold to have recess outside on most days. Instead of wreaking havoc in the schoolyard, we were then allowed to go wild making Christmas decorations inside. Lots of red and green construction paper, a couple of pairs of shared round nose scissors, and some water and flour to be mixed into a goopy mess that was supposed to resemble white glue. Several boxes of Crayola crayons were available for creating pictures or munching on when the teacher wasn’t looking.

We made our own Christmas cards. They closely resembled those fancy Hallmark cards if you looked at them at midnight on a moonless night with your eyes closed. We cut out extremely asymmetrical Christmas trees and pasted them onto the outside of each card and then used our Crayolas to write our well thought out verses on the inside in various size letters that resembled those ransom notes you’d see on television detective shows.  The word Christmas was way too long, so we mostly chose Xmas as a suitable substitute.

Paper chains made with alternating colors for each link seemed to be the decoration of choice for most of the class. This required laying out the sheets of colored construction paper, carefully drawing lines on each using a straight edge ruler as a guide, and then cutting them into strips, making sure not to follow your lines so that the links would be uneven and crude when glued together with the flour & water paste you mixed, tasted, and smeared all over your clothes. The finished product looked just like something an average eight-year kid would make. Perfect!

Miss Hatzis had much more faith in our abilities than was warranted. Perhaps the fact that we were only the second class she had ever taught and that she was single with no kids of her own to go by factored into it. Somehow, she thought that we would be capable of making candles to give to our mothers for Christmas.

Hot wax and 19 eight-year kids can’t be a good mix but somehow, we managed to come away unscathed. Although, I am pretty positive that Miss Hatzis went home that evening and poured herself something a lot stronger than a cup of herbal tea.

We had been doled out several dixie cups that we would use as molds for our not-so-Yankee Candle handmade votives. We were also allowed to wash out the little cartons that our daily allotment of milk had come in to make a larger mold for a larger candle should we choose. We cut the string that would be used for our wicks, and we were allowed to select from several colors of wax that Miss Hatzis would melt in pots over the small propane camp stove she had brought to class that day.

Amazingly, she let most of us pour the wax into our own molds. While some of it spilled over and onto the floor, none of us ended up wearing much of it.

Layered wax of varying colors seemed to be the preferred choice, the gaudier the better. I had chosen the milk carton as my mold. When the cardboard was peeled away, I decided to pour a little additional hot red wax over the entire candle to give it some texture. What I ended up with was something akin to a rectangular volcano with a molten lava flow on all four sides. It would be a gift only a mother could love.

As the holiday approached, we began to decorate our classroom. Miss Hatzis supplied us with window stencils and a couple of cans of Glass Wax, a weird concoction of something that was likely lethal in one form or another – most products of that era were. Anything that claimed to clean glass as well as metal couldn’t have been too innocuous. Poured onto a sponge and dabbed across the stencil, it left a white residue on the window that depicted various Christmas and winter scenes. It had a rather pleasant scent and it dried fairly quickly. I am all but certain that at least one of my diminutive classmates would have tried to taste it.

Gifts were a must. But since some kids were more popular than others, Miss Hatzis insisted we each purchase one gift and that it go into a Christmas grab bag for distribution on the final day before the Christmas vacation. She assigned a boy/girl tag that equated perfectly with the number of each gender in the class and randomly handed the tags out. The price limit was likely somewhere in the fifty-cent range.

The final day before vacation was always a half-day affair. There was nothing academic involved. By 9:30 all four Hill School classes were lined up and warmly dressed. We would be taking our annual walk up Lonetown Road to the Redding Elementary School where we would be given our Christmas treat from our teachers – the showing of Laurel & Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers. Good old slapstick comedy with plenty of mayhem. Very Christmasy indeed.

Ollie Dee and Stannie Dum

From the big brick school, we would be loaded onto our regular buses and hauled home to enjoy Christmas with our parents and siblings.

I think my mom still had that gaudy red candle when she died, and until I sat down to write this story, I had forgotten all about it. Hopefully, this tale has sparked a memory or two from your own childhood Christmas days.

Merry Christmas and to all a good night!

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By Bruce Nelson

Director of Research for the Historical Society of Easton Town Co-Historian for the Town of Redding, Connecticut Author/Publisher at Sport Hill Books