The first day of school as a young fellow of 10 or 12 years old was almost as exciting as the last day of school. If I could go back in time, I would like to go back to the fall of 1936, at the little country school, South Clayton District No. 7.
It was here that my Dad and Mother brought me on a bright sunny morning, in Dad’s 1935 Ford car. I remember that much but no more. I was just a farm kid like the rest, but I was different. I could not speak English. My mother had come from Sweden as a young lady and worked for her uncle in a mercantile store, where she met my Dad. They married and lived with Dad’s parents, who had homesteaded the farm about 50 years earlier.
My grandparents had come from Sweden also. So here I grew up in a home where everyone spoke Swedish.
I often wondered what the first days of school were like. My teacher’s name was Dessy Schreiber, which does not sound very Swedish. I had her for the two years in the first grade. I must have really loved the first grade.
Mother picked up the English language from me, reading my first-grade books: See Dick, See Dick Run, See Jane, See Jane Run. Well, she had two years of my first-grade stuff.
As I picked up English I would talk to Dad, as he was milking the cows, and it would make me so mad, because my younger brother would repeat every word I said. But I guess that’s how he got to speak English. I can still hear Mother scolding us if she was mad. It was half English and half Swedish.
Two years later before the first day of school, Dad had given my brother and I haircuts with his hand clipper. I think sometimes it pulled more hair than it cut. Mother had scrubbed us from head to toe. I don’t think those callused dirty feet ever got really clean until about Christmas time. A few days before school we all went to Erickson’s store in Clayton for new shoes, socks, bib overalls, underwear and shirts. We also got a big box of color crayons, tablet and a new fancy lunch pail. Dad and Mother paid for this. But with our pickle picking money we could buy the fanciest pencil box our money could cover. That was kind of a show-off item; it had all kinds of gadgets in it, pencil sharpener, eraser, ruler, and things I didn’t know what they were called. The boys showed off their stuff at recess. Our bibs had a place for a pocket watch, a pencil pocket and a jackknife pocket. Of course we didn’t have a watch or knife, but we were ready.
Now that you were one grade higher you moved in to the next size desk, and maybe we had a new teacher. In the eight grades I had five different teachers.
One teacher was there only one year. I must have been in the second or third grade, and I don’t even remember her name. She used words that I was not allowed to use at home, like heck, darn, gosh and gee. Today that’s TV’s everyday language. Maybe that is why she was there only one year.
The old one-room school was spic and span. Someone must have been hired to clean it. The old wood floor had been scrubbed and oiled. The two outdoor toilets had been emptied and cleaned, and next winter’s wood was ranked up by the woodshed. After it was dry, we would form a “bucket brigade” and the wood would go from outside into the shed in one afternoon.
Well, here we were, a bunch of young, carefree farm boys, on the first day of school, dressed picture perfect, who just a day or two before were running through the fields and woods, trapping gophers, catching frogs, pickling pickles, or down at the lake fishing. We usually had nothing more on than a half-worn-out pair of bib overalls covering our suntanned bodies. Of course these also were the days when we were young enough that the only obligation we had was to keep wood in the box for the cookstove and stay out of the way.
As I grew older I was given more farm jobs to do. The days of bare feet and just a pair of bibs and playing were over. Now you were a part of the workforce of the farm. So a pair of canvas shoes was what I wore. That’s what they were called in the 1930s and 1940s. Then they became fancy and they were called tennis shoes. When you worked like a man you dressed like a man, even a straw hat.
All through the grades the first day of school was always special because as a farm kid you got a new set of clothes and shoes. Last year’s outfit became your barn clothes or maybe were too small. Also now that you had worked all summer, you could put your two cents in about what kind of shirt and pants you liked.
That first-day-of-school picture-perfect look we had as boys only lasted about a week or so. Then our nice shiny shoes began to look like we had been in a stone-kicking contest.
Brother and I had a mile and a half walk to school on a gravel road, but if we crossed the neighbor’s pastures, we could save a half-mile. But we had to crawl under or through four or more barbed-wire fence lines, so many times our clothes showed the sting of the barbed wire. But that’s OK. Who would want to waste a film on us anyway?