By Tom Irons
Every so often I get back to southern Ohio and my old hometown. Usually it is to visit friends and family; now all too often it is to say goodbye to a loved one.
The passing of time is hard on people and sometimes it’s most harsh on those things in our life that had meaning beyond all understanding; like an old school house, like the Edenton Rural School house.
I drove by my old elementary school last February, situated in the northeast corner of Clermont County. The years haven’t been so gentle. The tan brick, laid in 1917, has dulled, paint is streaked, faded and chipped, the large window coverings used to block the prying eyes of present day gawkers like me are sun blanched, ripped and torn. Under the plush blanket of fresh snow, I knew mud holes pocked the front area where the busses let off and picked up their daily allotment of abecedarians back in 1952. In 1977 the Clermont County Board of Education sold the school and surrounding land to a couple that now make my old alma mater their home. On the day I stopped by laundry hung from the railing on the west side of the building; an ignoble use for a hallowed structure but in all likelihood this has saved the building from the wrecking ball. I’d like to think this couple have a large family and make use of the gymnasium and maybe they hold neighborhood dances, potlucks and get togethers, too. How sad it would be for that old building to no longer have the screech of youngsters, the pounding of feet on the stairs, the whispers of secrets shared in the privacy of the ever-musty coat closets.
Fifty-six years ago I entered first grade, eager to learn, happy to follow the steps of my ever so wise sisters. There were four rooms for the eight grades and I remember how big the older kids appeared; how intimidating.
The steel post in the foreyard (wasn’t it called a May pole?) is gone but I’ll never forget that evil monster. It was the winter of 1952 when, while waiting for the bus, I discovered that it had a coating of ice and thought I’d just have a quick taste. What kid doesn’t like to chew on ice? Much to my horror it didn’t work that way.
My tongue and lips froze to the pole and I was stuck fast. I heard my sister calling from the bus. It was leaving and she advised from the window to, “Get aboard, now!” She didn’t understand the predicament I was in. I still remember the searing pain that came with the ripping loose from that wintry vise.
I remember choking on the blood that filled my mouth and throat but more than anything I remember the depth of embarrassment I experienced knowing that I had been a fool in front of an entire bus load of kids. It did not matter that I was only six years old.
Their laughter at my expense still rings across that deserted playground, still echoes off the peaked fore-tower that reaches skyward over the main entrance and it still burns my ears.
On the first day of school mother delivered me to Mrs. Ruth Emma Murray, a pleasant, matronly woman wearing a simple cotton dress.
Her demeanor was welcoming as she showed me to my seat while informing me in her soft voice that she expected me to “Follow the rules.” She then walked my mother to the door while assuring her that I would be fine. I don’t think Mother had much worry along those lines, visualizing instead having her weekdays free of a six-year old’s constant questions and distractions. Little did I know, as I sat there in my seat, just how many long, dreadful hours I would spend in that hardwood chair following a never-ending list of rules.
The first thing I noticed was a hole in the upper right corner of the marred desktop. The second thing was that if you rubbed your finger around the edge of the hole you could color it a shade of blue never to be found in nature and one not easy to remove from the skin, either.
Mrs. Murray told us that hole was where a student’s ink well used to be placed, but that was in an age long past, “Now-a-days we use lead pencils.” I remember how fat those pencils were, how soft the lead and how much I came to appreciate the thinner, yellow #2’s with their harder lead and its ability to hold a sharp point.
That first day of school I met Tommy, Ted, Mark and Gary. There were some girls, too, but that day we five boys became fast-friends and for the following six years spent two recesses and the noon hour together.
Fall was football season; first we played tackle but that was soon ruled out, then we played touch football but that all too often devolved into being too rough for the principal’s approval and we quickly lost that option.
Fall and spring could offer an occasional kite-flying day but the fragile wood struts and crepe paper bodies often fell prey to too many helpful hands and one too many nosedives.
Winter meant snowball fights (against the rules), icy feet, runny noses and fingers so cold you couldn’t hold the fat pencil after recess. After a large snowfall we would play ‘Fox and Goose’ until the playing field was destroyed by non-players’ careless feet. Winter wear clogged the cloakroom with damp coats, assorted rubber boots and soggy mittens. The wet sheep smell of dripping wool outerwear would pervade the classroom and mingle with the radiator odors created by heating all the errant drips and spills from little hands; crayon parts, food stuffs, drool, white paste glue, and much more.
Spring was the start of the much-revered game of baseball. Rag gloves for the lucky ones, real leather for the wealthy. Baseballs with most of a cover were prized; rubber coated ones allowed us to play on rainy days. We’d argue over the rules and penalties for the rule breakers, argue about boundaries, debate base size (bases were a square scratched in the baseline), baselines were subjective and arguable, yet somehow we managed to play and play and play.
One of our best was Margie and she could swat that old egg like we imagined the Babe did in his heyday. Then she’d fly around those esoteric baselines, touching every one of the almost imaginary bases, long brown hair streaming out behind her,
and grinning like an imp. Luckily, Margie was a few years older than us five lads and that was really our only saving grace. Back then you were not ever supposed to be outplayed by a mere girl.
When we weren’t playing baseball, tag or marbles we made up games. (I discovered the wisdom of not playing ‘keepers’ when Mark took a large portion of my marbles on one of my bad days.) We learned how to interact, negotiate, compromise and debate.
We learned pushing and shoving, too. Most of us boys carried a pocketknife; how else could you play mumbly peg and I don’t remember it being against the rules, but it surely had to have been. There’s a word I don’t think I’ve ever written before; mumbly. Maybe I don’t know how to spell it but I could sure play it as a young schoolboy. Nowadays it’s a criminal offense to bring such a dangerous weapon as a penknife to school. Where did we go wrong? Back then none of us would have ever considered threatening someone with a knife. And how do kids sharpen pencils without leaving their seats these days?
In 1952 we five, six-year old boys, met and for six years we scrapped, played, learned and mentored each other. I think it was Mark who taught me how to search the playground for Popsicle sticks until we each had five in fairly good shape.
Then we interlocked them and ‘presto’ we had a stick flier; part flying saucer, part boomerang. We five boys remained thick as the proverbial thieves until I left at the end of the sixth grade. Dad had died the previous September, Mother had sold the farm and we moved to the big town nine miles up the road. Two years later we were all reunited in high school but there we were just five in a class of one hundred, in a school of four-hundred. Needless to say, we drifted apart.
Now, fifty-six years later one of us lost his battle with cancer, one has retired from the military, one is an associate vice president at Eastern Kentucky University, one removed himself from the area and has stayed incommunicado and there’s myself. I was the second Tommy of our gang. I live in Alaska and now and then visit home.
The old school house has shrunken over the years; somehow becoming smaller in my eyes. My six-year old mind still holds it as an imposing structure. At sixty-two it has lost some of the grandeur.
Conversely, Mrs. Murray’s legacy has grown. She taught gentleness toward others, acceptance, the joy of reading and the need for writing and math. And she taught that learning could be fun.
If she were alive today and I could stand before her I would still look up at her with respect and love.
Time moves on, people die, buildings become obsolete, inkwells disappear and we call this progress; thankfully, memories linger. That old school house with its’ buttocks-numbing seats and finger staining inkwells also offered caring and dedicated teachers who knew and loved each and every student. It had large playgrounds only slightly and seldom monitored yet it provided a reasonably safe place for youngsters eager to run and play, to learn and grow.
It may have held some dangers like icy poles, mixed age groups and corporal punishment but it also offered the lessons for youngsters to learn how to flap their small growing wings in the airfoil of this thing we call life.
About Tom Irons
Tom Irons left Ohio in 1965 for the U.S. Navy. He now lives in Alaska and a 3-minute trailer of his documentary on life in the wilderness may be seen at www.jeanaspen.com
Mrs. Ruth Enna Murray taught eight years at Edenton.