Our education shapes the person we become. Out of this soil emerges our self-concept, character, and view of the world. For me, the world was predictable, stable, and supportive. It matched my home life on the farm.
When I attended school in 1960 this was the old building that housed grades one to five, The new school addition had grades six and up, as well as the school auditorium and school office. The school day ran from 9:00 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., with an hour off at noon and fifteen minute recesses in the morning and afternoon. Interestingly, we never entered the school through the front doors shown in the picture, but entered at the back.
Boys and girls entered the school through different doors. The basement underneath the old part of the school was divided into a boys section and a girls section. So the boys entered the school by going through a door and down stairs into their section of the basement. I often thought that it was hard to see when going down these dark stairs into the basement after spending time outside on the playground in the bright sunlight. Our eyes had to adjust from the bright light of the sun to the dimly lit basement.
Along one wall of the basement we were each assigned a coat hook where we hung our coats—with another hook above for our caps–and below on the floor we left our boots. On the one end of the basement opposite to the door by which we entered, and just below basement windows, were rows of wooden boxes in which we left our lunch kits. Then to the right of these shelves or boxes was the stairs leading up by two flights to the main floor.
During my years in this old building, I don’t think there was a single time when I was in the girls’ section of the basement, though I may have glimpsed it once or twice through an open door. I think, though, that when I was in grade ten there was a typing lab set up in a corner of the girl’s side of the basement with ancient manual typewriters sitting atop old desks. It was here that I learned the keyboard, something that I am using now as I type on my computer keyboard.
If we were not able to go outside (due to poor weather) for recess or during the noon hour, we would sometimes go to the basement—the boys to their section and the girls to theirs. There we would play games like pum-pum pullaway (or “pump pump pullaway”). “Pum pum pullaway, you all come now or we’ll pull you away!”
I began school in September 1960 in Miss Lawson’s grade one classroom. Miss Lawson was a single teacher who began teaching in Donalda in 1937 and retired from teaching in 1968. She taught thirty one years in Donalda. This means that Miss Lawson must have been in her late fifties when I was in grade one. I perceived her as grandmother figure: roundish, though not plump, always in a dress, never in pants, with greying hair.
I think Miss Lawson was friendly and welcoming to the timid little lambs that entered her classroom on their first day of school. My brother Arthur showed me to my classroom on my first day; it was just beside his room, the grade five classroom.
I remember Miss Lawson as one fully in control of her classroom, though not severe or intimidating. On one occasion she displayed a little frustration as she used a yardstick to settle down an unruly boy by tapping him on the head. I went to school in the age when teachers could still use the strap on misbehaving children, but I don’t recall that ever threatened us or kept us in line by the threat of such punishment. She was firm, but also kindly. I learned from my cousin that she would force left handed students to switch to their right hand if they were in her class–making it more traumatic. It was a different era.
There was much to adjust to in making the transition from the freedom of my life as a pre-school boy on the farm to the regimentation of the classroom. I enjoyed the freedom of being on the playground at school during recess and at the noon hour break.
Once when all the other kids left the playground at the end of recess when the buzzer sounded, another boy and I stayed outside. We preferred being on the playground. The school janitor, Charlie Stiles, and our teacher, Miss Lawson, soon appeared by the doors to the school and coaxed us to come inside. We learned that we were not free to do as we pleased, but had to return to our classroom during class time.
I don’t recall how Miss Lawson assigned our seating on that first day of class, nor do I remember if I sat in the same place throughout the year. I do remember at one point sitting behind a girl, Rhonda, with her blond hair. I remember she once leaned her head back so that her blond hair was laying in front of me on my desk. I didn’t know how to handle this, and said nothing. What is a boy supposed to do when a pretty girl lets her hair fall on his desk?
I was shy as a boy—I still am shy—and did not like to have attention drawn to me. One ordinary incident from grade one illustrates my shy nature. It was the ordeal of having my photograph taken by the school photographer. The photographer had his camera and lights and backdrop set up in a corner of the school gym. Like all the other grades, our grade one class was led to the gym where we stood in a line and had our pictures taken one by one. For some reason, I found this to be a very unpleasant ordeal. When it was my turn and the photographer told me to “smile” I couldn’t seem to do it. To make matters worse, I saw my teacher, Miss Lawson, and the photographer laugh at the way I “smiled.” I felt that I was being laughed at, and felt shamed by my inability to smile. One can perhaps sense some of the discomfort and even terror in the photograph taken that day. To this day, I won’t smile when people take pictures of me.
Miss Lawson taught me how to read. We learned the names and sounds of each letter, and how to read the stories in our readers about Dick and Jane. She had us follow along in our readers as one student after another would read a line or two. She used a ruler to put under the line that we were to read, going from student to student as we sat in our rows of desks.
Miss Lawson initiated a special fund-raising project that was also educational. Students were invited to bring spare pennies to school for this fund-raising project. I don’t recall now what these funds were ultimately for—it seemed like it was for a local need, like a family that had suffered loss in a fire. I simply cannot recall. A daily part of our daily classroom routine was for us to give whatever pennies we brought from home to Miss Lawson, who would take them and lay them each day in a row along the wall of the classroom. The goal was to bring enough pennies to go entirely around the perimeter of the classroom. Each day she would lay out the pennies brought that day along the floor against the wall and then mark how far they went with a thumb tack. The pennies were then put into a large jar, and then the next day the row of pennies was extended from the point of the thumb tack along the wall. I believe we did eventually get enough pennies to go entirely around the edge of our room. At that point Miss Lawson put these pennies in paper rolls.
When this was completed, we had a special day when we took these pennies to the bank in Donalda. We each carried two or three rolls of pennies as we walked the few blocks from the school to the Bank at the end of main street. There we were even taken inside the bank vault as we entered through its massive doors.
After the bank was closed, it became the Donalda Art Gallery.
Miss Lawson also taught us how to print. For some reason in grade one we used large diameter pencils, apparently because it was thought that they would be easier to use than regular sized pencils. In grade two we were able to use ordinary pencils. I don’t think we were able to use pens at school until grade four. Also in grade four as we learned how to write cursively, rather than simply printing, we used stick pens that we dipped into little ink bottles that sat on our desks.
This was always a somewhat risky exercise, and I recall at least one student accidentally tipping her ink bottle onto her desk and clothes. But maybe our grade four teacher, Mrs. Olson, was onto something with her idea that it would be easier for us to learn how to write beautifully by using a stick pen rather than a ball-point pen. We were allowed to use a ball-point pen for our regular work in grade four (other than arithmetic), but we had to use our stick pens for our writing classes. I still remember the ball-point pen that I had for Mrs Olson’s class. It was blue plastic, not round but had three sides, and it had a retractable nib that one operated by turning the end of the pen.
Miss Lawson went to extra effort to make our celebration of Christmas a special one. Along with the rest of the school the last day of school before Christmas holidays was given to a Christmas party. One aspect of this celebration in Miss Lawson’s room that year involved all of us gathering in a circle around a big square galvanized steel wash tub that had been filled with saw dust.
There were different colored threads of yarn coming out of the sawdust in the washtub, with each of our names on a little tag attached to the ends of pieces of yarn coming out of the wash tub. Each child found their name and held onto the end of their piece of yarn. At the same moment we all together pulled on our pieces of yarn and each found a little toy—like a Dinky toy truck—attached to the end of the piece of yarn. This was a present to each of us from Miss Lawson. As we stood around the washbasin we said together, “he stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum” and at that point we all tugged on our threads and pulled out our Christmas surprises.
Living in the country, in a small, stable community meant that I was able to grow up with my peers. All the children who entered grade one with me were there when I graduated in grade nine. That gives one the illusion that life is safe and predictable. For a quiet introvert, this was ideal.
Here is my grade nine class at Donalda School. Most of these kids were with me in class from grade one on. I am in the center of the back row.
Ecclesiastes holds a somewhat pessimistic view of life, with a nostalgic remembrance of youth.
“Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment. So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.” 11:9-10
“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, ‘I find no pleasure in them’ . . .” 12:1
Not only was the Teacher wise, but also (she) imparted knowledge to the people. . . The teacher searched to find just the right words, and what (she) wrote was upright and true. . . 12:9-10