The first day I walked into McKenzie School I loved it. Except for McLeod Infirmary (where I’d spent a memorable few hours in the X-ray department once after swallowing a nickle), it was the most interesting building I’d ever seen.
There were so many fascinating niches and stairwells to explore, steps going up here a few steps, down there a few steps. Down a long hallway were corners leading to short hallways and more corners.
My mother accompanied me that very first day, knowing I was academically ready for the work but not sure I would find the right room on my own. She was too familiar with my innate curiosity and snoopiness, I guess.
The academic aromas at McKenzie were interesting. I could stand in the front middle hallway and smell the odors of hardwood floors and fresh bread baking in the school kitchen. School lunchrooms had working kitchens back then and hot meals were prepared right there on site. There was the hint of turpentine too, probably left over from cleaning paintbrushes. Everything gleamed with new paint!
The classroom blackboards were really black, and no chalk dust yet coated the board or erasers. Two sides of my first grade room had blackboards. Mounted to the wall above them were large printed and cursive ABC’s and numbers. I already knew how to write those but my handwriting didn’t come close to resembling those flowing curves and arrow-straight lines.
Colorful posters about Dick and Jane hung on part of the third wall, in between doors to a small cloakroom where we hung sweaters, jackets and coats in cold weather.
Our room overlooked the semicircular curve of Gregg Avenue as it turned into Cheves Street, and the fourth wall was a bank of tempting wide windows with venetian blinds kept raised halfway up. There was always something neat to see out there…
Miss Leftwich was a young teacher but she seemed so sophisticated, so intelligent and wise, and to top it off so beautiful that I don’t remember any of our class ever misbehaving (much) in her room. She and her classroom were ours for the whole day, the whole year. We could settle down and make ourselves at home, knowing that stuff stashed in the desk stayed there, no worries about papers and pencils having to be carted home and back the next day.
After she called the roll that first day, she rearranged us to desks she preferred for each one. Wigglers in front, perhaps? Or alphabetical? I’m not sure, but I felt fortunate to have my desk be mid-row next to the windows.
Our first assignment was probably to demonstrate how well we could write our letters and numbers. Fat yellow pencils were distributed along with coarse ruled paper, darker blue lines interspersed with lighter blue lines so we’d get the heights of the d’s and depths of the g’s right.
Some of us former kindergarteners had this pencil-gripping part down pat. The rest were treated to a few extra minutes of personal attention as Miss Leftwich positioned their pencils and guided their fingers in making an A. Then at the blackboard with smooth sticks of new chalk, she used large strokes to show the proper way to make a capital A.
Soon the black turned to a dusty gray as she filled one section with triangles and crossbars to create A’s, the next section with 1’s and 3’s jammed together for the B’s. I made a neat row of A’s and B’s, then stared out of the window and imagined adventure stories in my mind for a while. “Daydreams too much” appeared on my report cards on a regular basis.
At story time Miss Leftwich handed out Dick and Jane books, read a sentence aloud and pointed out how individual letters made up words. We had embarked on learning to read, my favorite of all subjects ever in school. Already a reader, I flipped ahead to see how the story came out — it had a happy ending, I was glad to find.
Recess came too soon to suit me. Around the schoolyard to the back, girls and boys were separated for playtime. I’d rather stay inside to read or explore but that wasn’t allowed. Who knows what boys did at recess, but for the girls jump ropes were brought out and new songs taught to go with various routines. Double ropes were provided for the older, more nimble girls. Not a good rope-jumper, I joined the hopscotch contingent.
While the front and sides of the building were planted in sturdy green grass, the playground was mostly dirt with small trees and bushes against the back fence, a few oaks providing shade plus handy twigs for drawing implements.
Tiring of other activities, stomping on acorns to hear them crack and feel them crunch supplemented our exercise. We were entertained no end by counting how many acorns we could stomp before the bell rang. “One potato, two potato, three potato STOMP,” we’d sing as we stomped our way around the oak tree.
The lunchroom was a low-ceilinged room where each class sat together around a rectangular table. Miss Leftwich had us bow our heads. We respectfully repeated “God is great, God is good, now we thank Him for our food” and tucked into our lunch.
No hot dogs, no hamburgers, no tacos: we enjoyed real rice and gravy, meat loaf and garden peas, dinner roll and whole milk. Dessert might be cubes of red or green jello, squares of yellow cake with chocolate icing or halves of canned peaches. The room was noisy but lunch time was short.
Recess had worked up a good appetite so there wasn’t a lot of chatting. But with our mouths full we could still make plenty of noise with feet and shoes, jiggling our chairs and “accidentally” kicking our neighbors. Clanking our dishes while jabbing our elbows at each other added to the clatter. If demerits had been handed out to first graders we’d have run up quite a record, but Miss Leftwich kept us more or less in line with a stern look and a raised eyebrow.
Then it was back to the classroom for naptime, believe it or not. We were instructed to put our heads down on our desks and shut our eyes for a few minutes while Miss Leftwich did paperwork. “Pssst.” “Shhhh.” “Psssssssst.” “Shhhhhh!” If anyone actually fell asleep it was a miracle.
We didn’t pass notes since we didn’t know how yet, but the boys flicked folded-up squares of paper at each other like miniature missiles. The girls just giggled at the boys. “Eyes shut!” In ten minutes or so Miss Leftwich would declare naptime over and we’d move on to our next adventure in learning.
I don’t remember all that we learned in first grade, but we surely loved Miss Leftwich. Toward the end of that first year we were devastated to be told we’d have a new teacher next fall. Oh, no! No, No, No!
We were convinced our broken hearts proved persuasive, for indeed Miss Leftwich was promoted to the second grade, right along with us. That next year she expanded our education with memorizing one plus one equals two and two plus two equals four, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing Row, Row, Row Your Boat, improving our handwriting and reading more wonderful stories about good old Dick and Jane.