When We Were Young
from the pen of Marsha L Burris
I recall few details about first grade but I remember this: I was a money-making machine.
Frances Mathis was my teacher that year and she remains to this day my all time favorite one at Newell Elementary School. When you’re six years old everybody is taller than you are, so it felt like Mrs. Mathis towered over us like a benevolent willow tree. When she sent us out for recess, the favorite 45-minutes of each morning for most of us, we played made-up games under the canopy of the ancient oaks in the central quad. Sunny afternoons would find us right back under those trees while Mrs. Mathis read aloud to her charges. We imagined ourselves playing various roles in the stories we heard such as Charlotte’s Web; and we could feel the cool breeze of Winnie-the-Pooh’s blustery, blustery, day across our faces. Such was the rich inner life of a grade schooler.
In 1960, Newell School was comprised of three main classroom buildings: the Main Building; the Ag Building; and the New Building. [Refer to map below. *Not to scale*]
The Main Building was built sometime in the early 1900s with bricks typical of the piedmont region of North Carolina. The collegiate gothic style building stood two stories tall and had an auditorium used for school functions, community meetings, and the not too rare impromptu performances of little kids who found a way into those hallowed halls through the basement coal chute. The principal’s office was there and so were classrooms for 4th, 5th and 6th graders.
The Ag Building, also brick, had two classrooms upstairs and two classrooms down. Ag stood for ‘agriculture’ and it is a testament to the importance placed on the science of farming in the first decades of the Twentieth Century that an entire building was dedicated to the education in that subject. Just before my time at Newell, the Ag Building was used to teach Home Economics courses to the gals and Shop classes to the guys. By the time I arrived, the pot-bellied stoves, still in situ, warmed the 7th graders who sat with rapt attention to the lessons presented to them by their respective teachers.
The New Building, aptly named (because it was new), was a long, one-story, window-clad building with furniture sized to fit youngsters, who rarely stood more than three-feet tall, in grades 1 through 3. The exterior façade on the New Building was starkly different from the other two buildings and to these eyes it was an architectural wonder. Rectangle concrete panels were attached magically somehow to the exterior of this modern building and were embedded with multi-colored pebbles. Magenta, turquoise, lemon yellow, and jade. Glorious. While my fellow students jumped rope, kicked balls, played ‘tag’ and teamed up for a rousing competition of Red-Rover, Red-Rover I invested a good bit of my time trying to un-embed those sparkling gems.
Back inside the classroom, after we had supposedly run off a little extra energy, I sat at my desk and gazed out the window where I had a clear view of Baxter’s. If you have any connection to Newell, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For the rest of the world, I’ll explain.
Baxter Caldwell owned and operated the Gulf Station that sat on the highway, right next to the school property. More important than the gasoline he dispensed to our moms and dads in their Chevys and Fords was the clear glass enclosed candy counter behind which Baxter sat on a rickety old wooden bar stool.
The contents of the candy counter were strategically placed at the eye-level of any average first grade kid. Baxter was a product-placement and marketing savant. Atomic Fireballs and Bazooka Bubble Gum stood out in contrast to the neighboring Mary Janes, Now n’ Laters (pronounced to rhyme with ‘annihilators’) and Tootsie Rolls. Penny candy. A nickel bought you five pieces of that delightful, tasty, mouth-watering, bubble-popping and cheek-burning instant-gratification-in-a-wrapper.
We were easy to please in those days when Mickey Mantle was everybody’s favorite switch hitter. And who wouldn’t be pleased knowing your nickel bought so much value. A nickel was the official currency with which we transacted business. Not a Dollar. Not a Pound. Not a Yen. You only needed four of them for a loaf of bread. And a gallon of gas could be purchased for a mere five nickels in all.
Academically speaking, I know I paid attention in the classroom enough to learn the alphabet and how to print my name. I know this because they are skills I maintain to this day. I also learned the simple arithmetic properties of addition, as in 1+1=2; 2+2=4 and 2 nickels = 10¢. But in truth, I invested as little time as I could get by with learning the Three R’s because most of my attention was directed out the window where it was pulled, as if by a great magnet, to that magical candy oasis at Baxter’s.
Unable to resist the pull, I snuck over to Baxter’s during the next recess, with a nickel clutched in my tiny little hand. I brought back three pieces of bubble gum and two fireballs – but not for my personal consumption. No. This was my initial startup inventory. I sold each 1-cent piece of candy for 2 cents. The risk I took for leaving school grounds was worth something because I knew the penalty levied on any of us who left school grounds without permission was an entire recess period given over to ‘Marching’. For some teachers at Newell, the punishment for breaking rules meant paddling. Other teachers condemned the accused to stand at the chalkboard with his or her nose stuck in a circle inscribed a little higher than where your nose grew on your face so a tip-toe stance was needed longer than Social Services would allow nowadays. The other punishment, the one Mrs. Mathis favored, was Marching. Basically, this activity was no more and no less than walking around two of the old Oak trees that grew in the school yard between our building and Baxter’s.
But never mind that now. All that mattered was I had ten cents now and I could go back to Baxter’s and buy ten pieces of candy thus doubling my income. There was positively no end to the profit potential opened to me except for what the taxes ate into, but I wasn’t yet sophisticated enough to calculate that.
I rocked along for about a week, feeling pretty puffed up with my own success. I could skitter over to Baxter’s during recess by running and playing ever closer to the edge of the school property, dashing in for the ‘buy’ and then sauntering back over the imaginary line to co-mingle with my fellow students and begin my sales pitch to them.
Then one day I was BUSTED!
After a particularly successful procurement of stock I skipped across the grassy playing field to re-join the class with the brown paper bag proudly displayed in my hands. However, on this occasion, Mrs. Mathis observed my covert movements. She motioned for me to come see her. When I arrived, head hanging sheepishly, she stooped down to look me level in the eyes.
“Does that paper bag hold something you just bought at Baxter’s?” she asked more gently than I deserved.
“And you know that we have a rule that students cannot leave school grounds during the day, don’t you?”
At least I was polite. And I had enough sense to appear contrite for thumbing my nose at the rules. And I was smart enough to not brag about how I’d gotten away with this infraction for the past four days and no harm had befallen me and my profit-seeking activities. Risky Business, indeed.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Mathis broke into my reverie. “But you’ll have to March during the next recess as your punishment for breaking the rules.”
“I know,” I conceded.
Mrs. Mathis, even when finding it necessary to impose a sentence on us as severe as Marching, never made us feel ‘bad’ about ourselves. She explained how paying the price for our actions was a result of the choices we made. These were the consequences of our actions. It kind of made me feel like I had some control over my kid-life. If you do the crime, you do the time. No harm. No foul. No shame. No disgrace.
Next recess, a few of us detainees gathered at the appointed hardwoods. We lined up, single-file, and followed each other around and around the two trees on a well-worn path while the well-behaved children enjoyed their freedom and played games without a thought for our plight. In all honesty, I didn’t really mind being unavailable for Red-Rover, Red-Rover since I was always singled out as the weak link anyway.
Oh well, I thought, in my mind. If I can’t hike up to Baxter’s, having a stroll under the Oaks is not a horrible alternative.