By Frances Stebbins
Recently I saw a news picture of an old school building in a Virginia town which had been destroyed by fire. Fortunately, it had been abandoned so there was no loss of life.
At the age of 6, I had begun the first grade in one of identical architecture. These buildings were firetraps, I think now, for they had open entrance halls, and lunch rooms in the basement from which escapes would have been impossible if a fire had begun; toilets were in the basement too.
I learned at least two things in that mostly unhappy year in first grade: the difference between my left and my right, and what it’s like to be bullied.
My mother, who had taught elementary school in Buchanan County before the advent of paved roads and when her pupils in one-room schools ranged in age from 4 to 16, decided that after one year she must manage to find the $10 monthly to send me to a tiny private school.
There was one downtown owned by an unmarried teacher, Louise Holladay. “Miss Louise,” as we children were taught to call her, was one of several children of a retired physician. The family – distant cousins of ours – lived in a mid-19th Century brick house on Main Street. More later about my better learning experiences there.
But back to first grade and the dangerous but imposing building on a slight rise on the northwest side of the historic courthouse town of Orange, Va. Its front had impressive white columns. Three large classrooms were on the first floor reached by a flight of steps from the entrance door. More steps went up to four more classrooms on the second floor. Third and fourth graders were up there as far removed as heaven from us small first and second graders.
There was also a smaller room for a music period one afternoon weekly. I learned “Twenty Froggies Went to School” there and a bunch of other melodies. Music for me was a high spot.
It was the Great Depression times. Virginia had no public kindergartens. I had gone briefly to two different kindergartens in the homes of a doctor and a dentist; their wives with small children of their own were, I suppose, trying to add to the family income as their young professional husbands were getting established.
Neither of the kindergartens was worth the money, my widowed mother decided. I just didn’t like other children; playing alone with small dolls and lead soldiers at home occupied me happily for hours. Five years later, the stories I made up eased into my lifelong long love of writing.
My one neighborhood friend, a little girl from a dysfunctional family, was born three months after I. Under Virginia laws of that day, August 31 was the cutoff date for entrance to first grade. July to October made the difference.
Hard times had another effect. I walked from home at 11:30 a.m. to reach Schoolhouse Hill by noon when my academic day began. It lasted until 3 p.m.
We were lined up two by two and marched up that flight of steps to our sunny classroom. That’s where I learned that our teacher Miss Margaret Banks’ desk was in the left corner of the big room. The entrance door and the coat closet were on the right side.
(Many years later, I would learn that I have a relatively minor learning disability in distinguishing my left from my right. It’s a blessing that cars are equipped with turn signals or I would be a menace on the road. My mother had taught me the four directions, and I still readily use North, South, East and West to find my way around.)
When my mother registered me for attendance, and I was vaccinated against smallpox in the spring, it was explained that children living too far from school to walk got the 9 to noon section. The town kids – and me on the very edge – were assigned to afternoon.
Looking back from decades of always preferring the company of adults to that of those my own age or younger, my lack of ease in peer groups made me a natural for bullying. I had shins kicked, books thrown in snow and reduction to futile tears that miserable year as I walked home with the town kids used to fighting back. Nor did it help that the left/right problem made me a dummy at games.
I never learned and felt comfortable socially only when I reached college age. Children, as many like me have learned, can be incredibly cruel.
Twenty years ago I saw the old building again. It was no longer a school but used for an office. If still there, it is well over 100 years old.