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Remembering old school days

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With the approaching time of the razing of our high school building, and also looking forward to our Class of 1939 reunion, I find myself going over the years, the schools, the teachers, and all the friends. Do you remember first grade? Sometimes I find myself humming the little song that my first grade teacher taught us. We sang that at the close of each school day as we got ready to go home. Her name was Miss Murphy. The words were: “Let us put our books away, study time is over, gaily tripping, homeward skipping, soon we’ll be at play.”

First grade back int eh late twenties was so much different than first grade today. I had attended a small kindergarten that a local lawyer’s wife conducted in her home. She taught us writing, not printing, but cursive writing. I was four when I attended. When I entered first grade at 5, I could write. Now I understand that the letters were big and seemed to be written with an unsteady hand, but I have a sample and I am amazed at what at what the lady had taught us. I started school in Shreveport.

First Grade

My mother pointed out to my teacher, Miss Murphy (no kin to me) that I had been writing with my left hand and she wanted her to change me. The teacher refused. She had been changed from left hand writing to right hand writing and she felt frustrated. My mother decided to let me continue to write with the left hand. Since my maternal grandmother and one of my uncles were left handed, I think it was an inherited trait.

Another different in school back then is the memorization that was required. In first grade we had to commit to memory several poems. One that I remember so well from that first grade was “Twinkle, twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky, When the blazing sun has set, and the grass with dew is wet, then you show your little light, twinkle, twinkle all the night.”

Each year we were assigned poems to memorize and to recite to the class. Another first grade poem that was written by Robert Louis Stevenson and in our readers was, “The friendly cow, all red and white, I love with all my heart. She gave me cream with all her might to eat with apple tart. She wanders, lowing here and there and yet she cannot stray, all in the pleasant open air, the pleasant light of day. And blown by all the winds that pass, and wet with all the showers, She walks among the meadow grass and eats the meadow flowers.”

An Escape

Later, we were encouraged to read. We were required to make book reports, not just written, but delivered to the class sometimes, I read for pleasure. Reading took my mind away from the austere days of the depression, and I read everything I could. My senior year of high school, I remember that I read 365 books, I will read a lot of books, sometimes as many as five or six a week.

I attended Zwolle School in the fifth and sixth grades. The fifth grade teacher, Miss Stella Addison, bought small stamps that held the paintings of famous artists. We studied the larger picture, and heard the story of the life of the artist. We stuck our small picture in our notebook and wrote the life story from our memory. The sixth grade teacher, Miss Hazel Tyler, wrote an unusual word on the board each day. That night we were to look up t he word, learn to pronounce it, and spell it, and learn its meaning and be able to tell the class about it the next day. We added many new words to our vocabulary that way.

In high school, as we studied the classics, such as Shakespeare, we had a number of lines to memorize and to recite to the class. Do you remember the lines from “Julius Caesar” that was Marc Atony’s funeral oration at the death of Caesar? “Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them, but the good is oft interred with their bones, So let it be with Caesar.”

And so on and on. That passage has a humorous memory for me. Miss Mary Bell was our literature teacher. We had a nice, shy boy in our class. He is a fine man here in Minden today. But in the 8th grade class, he was absolute petrified when it came time to repeat his lines. He started out “Friends, Romans and countrymen,” and he broke down and sobbed. He cried and he cried. Miss Bell was a tiny little woman even in the spike heel shoes she wore. She went to him, and put her arms around him and consoled him. He was foot taller than she but she encouraged him to continue with her prompting that he forgot. Finally he cried his way through the required lines and sat down. We did not know whether to join him in tears or break out into laughter. It really sticks to my memory. He was such a nice, sweet boy, we felt so sorry for him.

Musical Students

We had a great A Cappella choir in high school, directed by Mr. R.L. Laney. We sang on station KWKH in Shreveport and entered the competition in Natchitoches at the old Normal school. We made a Superior rating, which was wonderful. One of the boys n our class, George Calvit, tells the story of his time in the choir. He said that one day Mr. Laney called him to one side and asked if he would do him and the choir a favor. George said he was ready to take on any solos that Mr. Laney wanted him to sing, but that was not Mr. Laney’s request. He said that the best thing that could happen to the choir was if George would quit it, since he felt that George was the disrupting force that kept people laughing. George said that ended his time in the “Acapolka” Choir. Knowing what a jokester George is, he may have just fabricated this story, but it was funny, anyhow.

There are memories of Miss Ponder’s piano class. Each day in the fall and the spring, when the classroom windows were open, we could hear the students go over and over again on some piece that they would play in a recital. We could hear every note especially during what we called the thirty minute period. Immediately after lunch we had this period in our homerooms. It was a time to collect books for the afternoon classes, and possibly look over notes for a test.

A Revelation

Another teacher who taught Grammar (English) one semester and Literature in the spring would be Mrs. E. L. Lyon. Our sophomore year we studied “As You Like It” from Shakespeare. She did not assign how many lines to learn. She set up a minimum, but the more lines to learn. She set up a minimum, but the more lines you learned the higher would be your grade. Memorization was not hard for me and I committed to memory 111 lines. The minimum was about eleven. A girl (whom I will not name since she is dead now) came to me at the end of the semester and was so mad. She said I had caused her to fail and she was quitting school and getting married. This was the ninth grade. I was stunned. Never had I considered that my memorization would cause anybody trouble. I can still see the look on her face of “pure hate” and that has been over sixty-eight years ago.

There are so many memories of how school was back then, of the teachers, the things we learned, and the friendships that have grown deeper and sweeter with each passing year.

Perhaps the students of today feel as we did, but we loved and respected our teachers, and our parents would not have allowed us to be disrespectful. This year, 2005, my Class of 1939 will observe our 66th reunion (really more than that since we meet at least twice a year now, but 66 years since we finished high school) and each time there are fewer able to attend, but we all still have our memories of how it was way back then. Oh yes, I still remember so many of the lines we had to memorize and some of the little poems that we were required to memorize. People ask how I can remember all the things of long ago. I always say that an elephant and I have three things in common. (1) We are the same size (2) We have the same long memories (3) We both like peanuts. Remember?

Juanita Agan submitted a weekly column to the Press-Herald for more than 15 years until her death in 2008. She was a resident of Minden since 1935. The Press-Herald is republishing select articles from Mrs. Agan’s Cameos column every Wednesday.