First Day at School - 1914
by Belle Dorman Rugh Œ25
I think it was Miss Thornton's pince-nez glasses that scared me. She was the principal and founder of the school, a kindly and precise Englishwoman, a teacher remembered fondly by those who knew her longer than I. But she wore those glasses which had a black steel bar across the top, so that when she put them on her brows seemed to meet in a frown. A little chain hung down from them. When she took them off, she'd give the chain a little jerk, and the glasses would zip up to a silver pin on her shoulder. Then I'd breathe easier. It's when she pulled down the chain and resumed the glasses (and the frown) that my heart would sink. I never was good at arithmetic anyway and I knew she'd find out fast.
Gradually one became used to the school routine. Opening exercises took place in the main central room, the little ones standing in the front row, and the older classes according to age standing behind, with the big girls and boys, almost ready for college in the back row: people like Amy Moore, Annie Jessup, and Archie Crawford.
There were perhaps 40 of us altogether. Miss Thornton stood facing us, with two or three other teachers, leading the exercises. There would be the roll call, each student answering "Here!" to his or her name, except for an occasional "Present!" from some maverick. Then we'd sing a hymn from the little red hymn-books. "All things wise and wonderful, all creatures great and small" was a favorite. (The boys liked the line about "the purple-headed monkey.") There would be a short prayer; then any announcements, and we separated to our classes. All five classrooms opened off from the main room.
Each of us had his or her own wooden desk, with a little groove in it where you could lay your pen, and a hole to hold the ink bottle so it wouldn't tip. A shelf beneath the desk held books or papers. No fountain pens; we had wooden pen holders into which you'd insert a fresh nib now and then. There were always some boys who liked to gently pick up the braid of a girl sitting in front of them and offer to dip it into their ink pot.
For arithmetic we used pencils. You had your own pocket knife for sharpening the pencil; and it was always a legitimate break in the routine to walk over to the windowsill and carefully sharpen the point. No electric sharpeners cut short the pleasant interval; if the point broke, it would take a little longer. Some of the boys took an awfully long time sharpening their pencils. You could look out the window and hear a donkey clop-clopping along the cactus lane outside, or listen to some farmer calling out his produce: "Sabi' el bubboo ya khyar!" ("Like baby-fingers, these cucumbers!")
But you couldn't fool around much really with Miss Thornton. No pigtails were actually dipped in ink. You could get an order- mark from Miss Thornton. These went on your report card at the end of the month, and they were very serious because your parents saw them. I think mostly it was the boys who got order-marks. The girls were generally better-behaved, except for Boadie or Dot Smeed.
From the main room of the school, a small hallway led to an outer room, probably a one-time kitchen because it had a sink where you could wash your hands. The soap was the old-fashioned local soap, large and square, yellow and very slippery. At one side were the two bathrooms, one marked "Boys" and one "Girls."
The class hours were announced by a small brass hand-bell which Miss Thornton rang. At recess we all rushed into the school yard -- a large area of packed dirt, with a big old fig tree at the east end and a couple of orange trees on the opposite side. If you scrabbled up the rough stones of the east wall and hung there with your chin at the top, you could see over to the Women's and Children's Hospital pavilions; but what was most exciting, just over the wall was a tiny house which was the Isolation Building. Who knows what deadly ills lurked there, just over our school wall: cholera, plague, typhoid...we held our breath and didn't hang there long.
Our favorite games at recess were Prisoner's Base (boys against girls), Pom-Pom and Rounders. It was while playing Prisoner's Base at age 10 that I ran full tilt into the orange tree and knocked myself out cold. When I woke up I was back at home (across the street), and heard that one of the "big boys" had carried me home -- Bert Somerville. This struck me as quite romantic.
Far off somewhere a war had begun the summer before. But it was not yet the World War, and to me it was not important.