Grade school is about more than getting A’s

George Brown
By George Brown

When our second grader grandson was at our house a few weeks ago we happened to be talking about the length and width of something we were working on. I’ve forgotten what it was but our grandson began translating our measurements into meters and millimeters, which he seemed to know better than I know inches and feet. He is a bright boy and is being considered for the gifted program when he begins third grade.

Later, Yvonne and I were reflecting on this and it prompted a conversation about our elementary school years, about the curriculum we experienced, and the grades we received.

Yvonne attended Oyler School near Eighth and State in Cincinnati for nine years. She was a bookworm, winner of spelling bees, teacher’s pet, and a straight A student. In eighth grade she appeared on a local television program to read her award winning paper, “How I can make my community a better place in which to live this summer.” One cannot help but wonder how such a beautiful, brainy, brilliant, buxom blonde could wind up marrying the academically challenged class clown, Charlie Brown.

The story of my grade school years is a little more complicated than Yvonne’s. I began first grade in Newark, Ohio, a couple of blocks from where we lived in the little shack by the levy. I was excited to start school and quickly made friends, but by late September fall was in the air so, with no source of heat in that little shack, we packed our meager possessions and moved an hour away to a farm house near Bristol.

I completed first grade in a one-room schoolhouse located about a mile up the dirt road from our house. I have vague recollections about a boy named Dick and a girl named Jane but cannot say for sure if they were classmates or characters in a reading book. What I do remember is recess, playing tag, and a game of marbles called pee-wee. Still, I managed to be advanced to second grade.

At the end of the school year we moved again, an hour or so in another direction to a gray, weather-beaten farm house on Chestnut Ridge a few miles from Millwood. That fall I attended school in Howard and rode the bus for the first time. (You may recall from a recent story, while attending the one-room schoolhouse near Bristol I either walked to school or rode on Harvey’s white mule.)

I have no recollection of second grade except that Dick and Jane followed me there, and I made my first best friend, Stevie. We chummed around the playground at recess, shared our lunches, and, happily, got to sit beside each other when we started third grade. I have three memories of third grade – being the first student to drop out of the spelling bee, having the teacher send a note home asking my parents to help me with long division, and having to tell Stevie goodbye when we moved away in February.

This move – two hours away in yet another direction – was prompted by hard times, even harder than usual. As I recall, Mom and my Stepdad sold a lot of our furniture and we slipped away by dark of night, moving to the little asphalt shingled house on Brokaw Road where we had to carry water from the neighbor’s and from Mohican State Park for three years. I slid through the rest of third grade at Butler elementary, and then had the good fortune of having Mrs. Cook for my fourth grade teacher. Under her instruction I finally figured out how to do long division and even learned the multiplication tables. I remember Mrs. Cook gave me my first A – in health.

Hard times persisted during the three years we lived on Brokaw Road. My standard sack lunch consisted of an apple and a sandwich made from a big can of army surplus peanut butter and Wonder bread (on sale 10 loaves for a dollar at A&P); although, I do recall there were times when my sack lunch consisted of two biscuits smeared with a generous amount of mustard.

My single memory of fifth grade is the teacher talking about the importance of a healthy diet and then asking each student to describe what he or she had for breakfast that morning. I either had no breakfast or possibly a bowl of cereal with powdered milk, so to avoid embarrassment when my turn came I made up a big whopper about having a breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, cereal, and orange juice. The teacher must have known I was fibbing but was kind enough to not call me out on it. I think she even gave me an A in health.

About this time my folks became acquainted with the Seventh-day Adventist church and we moved to Howard Street in Mount Vernon where, thanks to a kind benefactor, I attended sixth through eighth grade at the SDA church school. My grades improved a bit to mostly C’s and B’s and I recall not being eliminated from a seventh grade spelling bee until the third round.

I concluded the last eight weeks of eighth grade recuperating at home with a broken ankle. Consequently, I skipped final exams and missed graduation, but still received passing grades and a diploma. I had, in spite of myself, survived grade school.

I’ve left a good bit out, but this, my friends, sums up my elementary school years. Our frequent moves and occasionally going to school hungry probably did affect my academic performance – I have to blame those D’s and C’s on something. Who knows, if I’d had better nutrition and a more consistent academic experience, I might have grown up to be a six foot four rocket scientist, but, looking back, I have no regrets about the circumstances of my childhood.

We always lived on backcountry roads, which allowed me to spend summers and weekends roaming through the woods and over the hills and dales of a large portion of central Ohio. This provided a great naturalist education and prepared me well for a retirement career of hiking and camping. My childhood experiences also taught me two important lessons – learn to accept and be content with what you have, and learn to do the best you can with what you have.

These and other lessons learned during a difficult childhood have served me well throughout life and still do today. After all, I did win the heart of that bright, beautiful, blue-eyed blonde, and I must be doing something right because, after all these years, she’s still by my side.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township with his wife Yvonne.