Tag Archives: McKenzie Elementary School

First Grade at McKenzie School

bettefirstgradeThe 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.


The Dreadful Vocabulary Drill

School was back in full swing across the county with big yellow buses, crossing guards and football games. Even though summer was way too short, I was ready for fourth grade at McKenzie in September 1952. I knew nearly all my classmates, the nooks and crannies of the old brick building, and I actually looked forward to learning new stuff.

My after-school piano lessons with Mrs. Myrtie Berry Westcott would soon start up again, and mama had even enrolled me in dancing class one afternoon a week. I loved reading, I loved music and I loved drawing, so as long as we had library books, singing and art classes school would be okay. Who knows, I might even enjoy tap, ballet, and ballroom dancing. (Not; those classes were very short-lived.)

School went fine for the first few weeks but gradually I figured out that my teacher didn’t like me. She didn’t call on me, she picked on me. She didn’t correct me, she criticized me, and I couldn’t understand why. I managed to stay under her radar by doing my work as quickly and quietly as possible and daydreaming the rest of the time.

Things came to a head one day with a vocabulary drill. My desk was away from the windows, half-way back on the hall-side row. She started on the other side of the class, requiring each row of students to make a new sentence with the designated word.

To make matters worse, she walked between the rows and faced the kid whose turn it was, tapping her pencil against the pages of her grade book as she waited. If he came up with an acceptable sentence (no matter how dumb it sounded to me), she’d check off his name and step to the next desk. Borrrrrrringggggg. Off my mind drifted into a chapter of my latest Nancy Drew library book.

Suddenly I felt her presence — it was my turn. I looked up, and there she stood with her grade book. My mind completely blank, all I could see was her scowl and all I could hear was the tap-tap-tap of her pencil. I couldn’t remember what the vocabulary word was, much less how to make a sentence with it. I had paid attention for the first row of kids, sort of half attention to the second row, but since then my mind had been many places, none of them this classroom!

“We’re waiting, Betty,” she said. My face grew hot, my tongue seemed to get tangled up in my mouth and I couldn’t get any word out, much less the vocabulary word.

After another moment, she proclaimed in exasperation, “You could have repeated the sentence the last student gave.” I could have? If only I’d been listening! Shaking her head, she hooked her finger and pointed me out of my desk and onto a straight-back chair in the hall.

It seemed like forever that I sat there, thinking how I never wanted to enter that room again and face the smirks of the other students. Betty’s daydreaming again, ha-ha-ha. But only a few minutes later she motioned me back inside the room and the day went on as if nothing had happened. I did my utmost to never let her get the best of me again.

In spite of my terrible lapse that day some good things happened in fourth grade. Our class learned an Irish jig and an old fashioned square dance, demonstrating our new abilities to the whole school on stage in an assembly program. The girls showed off our frilly dresses and slips, Mary Jane shoes and lacy socks, the boys looked spiffy in their look-alike pants and shirts, and we had a blast.

It was a pretty good year except for that miserable vocabulary drill, in spite of the teacher keeping an eagle eye on me the whole time for some strange reason.

A while back I went down to the Administration Office for a printout of my parents’ school records to add to my family tree. Out of curiosity I requested my own records, first grade through twelfth. There at the bottom of my fourth grade report was an amazing handwritten note: “Demand strict obedience from Betty from the outset. She is a gifted child. M.R., 1953.”

I wish I’d known she thought so the day of that dreadful vocabulary drill. I thought she didn’t like me, maybe even hated me — but she was trying to challenge me, to rein in my overactive imagination. She didn’t totally succeed in doing that, but she did make me pay attention and work harder in class.

As I read that little note several times, my attitude toward her changed from resentment to gratitude. This is way overdue, but Thank you, Mrs. Reynolds.

My Permanent Record

Investigating loose papers between the pages of a family photo album one day, I came across several old report cards. Some belonged to my children, but some belonged to me.

I read the teacher’s penciled comments at the end of one six weeks period and read, “Betty talks too much.” Odd, but I don’t remember talking too much in school. Another report card’s comments were on target, though. “Betty daydreams in class, she needs to pay better attention.” That I do remember, along with the teacher’s smiling admonition to me at one PTA meeting right in front of my parents. “You wouldn’t want that on your permanent record!”

I wasn’t sure what this mysterious permanent record was but I nodded agreement. “No ma’am, I sure wouldn’t.” That didn’t correct matters much, though. The next sunny spring day my imagination just took up where it left off.

I was easily distracted by the goings-on outside our classroom window – a little gray squirrel with swishy tail hunched over an acorn, or the squeal of brakes as a delivery truck slowed to turn the corner at Cheves Street and King Avenue. Even the routine of the mailman might catch my eye, as he climbed a few steps to shove letters from his bag into the metal mailbox on the front porch across the street.

My mind would wander as I silently cheered on the squirrel, scampering up the tree with his acorn before the yappy neighborhood dog got him. I might envision a shiny new Frigidaire in the back of that delivery truck, or better yet, construct an exciting adventure to break up the mailman’s dull daily activities.

Just when my story was developing really well, the teacher would call my name and my attention back to the humdrum arithmetic or geography assignment. I remember my frowned-on imaginings in those McKenzie School days. But they stood me in good stead when studying grammar, story interpretation, and best of all, story writing. A’s came easy to me in those subjects, despite the teacher’s dreaded permanent record threats.

Thinking back, I wonder – whatever happened to my permanent record? What did it contain? All those admonitions about talking or daydreaming, probably. I hope some of my A’s in language wound up in there too.

To get into college I had to submit my high school transcript, but it came in a sealed envelope marked Private, for admissions department eyes only. I never even got a look at it. Did that manila envelope include my permanent record? Well, they let me into college anyway so it must not have been too bad. It was comforting to know it was private, in a way. I wouldn’t want just any Tom, Dick and Harry reading my permanent record!

Fast forward to the present. These days most of your records aren’t all that private. With the advent of the internet, e-mail, Facebook, YouTube, instant messages, all those thousands of websites and data gatherers, who knows who is reading your records.

I myself use internet records in my family tree hobby – census records, city directories, military archives, maps, deeds, and wills. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of information from private and public records are being uploaded by professional and volunteer genealogists every year, and I’m grateful to all those folks.

But along with all that helpful stuff, credit reports, resumes, e-mails, even some medical records are flitting back and forth at the speed of light for all the world to access (some by paying a “small convenient fee” to a research company), and not all of those records are helpful or even accurate. You can try to delete inaccurate or regretted internet items but some of those faulty records could still be out there somewhere. Just Google your own name and you’ll see what I mean.

My, how the world has changed since the days of McKenzie School. The worldwide web gives a whole new meaning to the words “permanent record” – my old reports cards might just wind up in cyberspace one day. What a horrible thought!