School Reflection Circa 1952
by The Reverend Paula Lawrence-Wehmiller
For Teacher Anna Sondack
It is the fall of 1952 and I am in second grade. One hour over bumpy, winding country roads, the noisy, old school bus comes to a grinding stop at the side of Old English Church road. As he reaches for the big silver lever to unfold the door, Mr. Gurky, our cranky but faithful driver, looks into the rear view mirror, adjusts his grey cap, and searches in the dim reflection of his charges for offenders of his unspoken rule: big guys stay seated: little children out first. Rule breakers have to give him a half of their sandwich from their lunchbox. One of the big boys once made him an egg shell sandwich and broke the rule on purpose.
I see the little red school house through the now-foggy bus window. When Mr. Gurky is satisfied that his rule is in order, he opens the folded door and we all parade off the bus – a motley and mixed parade – little children first. Through the crowded aisle, down the three giant bus steps, I feel fine in my hand-me-down dress, my everyday brown oxford tie shoes and thin anklet socks. My brown, thick, curly braids bounce along on my shoulders a little worse the wear from the humid school bus ride. I have in my hand my big, black lunchbox packed by my father. The faint smells of homemade baked beans from my thermos and a sandwich of peanut butter and bacon on pumpernickel remind me of home and my father’s enthusiasm for his own cooking inventions.
We are a colorful and lively parade, pouring off the bus, with our names, our histories, our temperaments, our looks, our fears, our haves and have-nots, our novice politics, our baseball teams, and our futures, whatever they are to be. Our sturdy red schoolhouse awaits us as does the surrounding blacktop play yard where we will play hopscotch and “Mother May I” and “Steal the Bacon” at recess later in the day. Beyond the blacktopped yard is a sandy area with seesaws and a hill down to a meadow below. Swings and kickball games, complete with rules and arguments, wait for us in the meadow. Beyond the meadow are the woods and finally a stream. Occasionally our recess games will venture over the stream. Mrs. Sondack, our beautiful, dark-eyed, soft-spoken teacher stands tall by the side of the red school house ringing the school bell, welcoming us to school.
We begin the day standing in a row by our desks, turning to face the American flag that hangs at the back of the room, dutifully putting our hands over our hearts for The Pledge of Allegiance. Next, Mrs. Sondack leads us in singing our ABC’s and reciting a strange string of phonics exercises: “Bb,Cc,Dd….A with another vowel is A, E with another vowel is E”…Then , “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, and what can be the use of him is more than I can see” (which I always thought was part of the alphabet, and only later learned was a poem by Robert Lewis Stevenson!)
The morning passes punctuated by the loud noise of the clock slamming first forward then back to the minute. I sit in my swivel seat attached to the flip-top desk both buttoned permanently to the ancient wooden floor – a long, slender indentation for the too-fat pencil, a vacant well for an ink bottle once used by children who sat in this desk long ago and carved out their presence forever on the desk top. I love to hear the steady, slow beat of Mrs. Sondack’s footsteps on the creaky wooden floor and the sound of her number two pencil clicking on her wedding ring as she rolls it slowly between her hands while walking up and down the aisles to check our work. Her footsteps slow to a pause as she reaches my desk, and I know she is looking for lower case letters formed carefully between the solid and dotted lines on my paper. She says nothing out loud, but a gentle tap on my shoulder before she moves on signals approval.
The clock ticks forward then back to noon. I am called to go to cloak room to get my lunch. I stand among the boots and the mess of things that have fallen to the floor. I reach up high on tip toes to get my big black lunch box `with the high, curved top. Back in my seat, I wait with my hands folded When Mrs. Sondack rings the little bell on her desk, I unlatch the two black latches and flip open my lunchbox. And as I do, the smells of home bring with them happiness and warmth and the vision of my father, standing tall in the early morning light of our kitchen, slicing the pumpernickel bread, lovingly overloading the peanut butter, lacing it with crispy slices of bacon, and wrapping the sandwich in waxed paper closed with a double fold. I neatly arrange the sandwich, the thermos of baked beans, and the apple on my paper napkin, and anticipate a pause in the midst of a long day at school. It is a moment mixed with the taste of home and the warmth of school. It is a moment of feeling at home at school.
I never missed a day at English Church School. At the end of first grade for me and second grade for my sister Sara, Mrs. Sondack gave us twin halter top and shorts sets as awards for perfect attendance. Sara’s was green and mine was red. Somehow, Mrs. Sondack gave me the feeling that school would not go on without me. It was a feeling that would last the rest of my life.