Last weekend’s tax-free shopping days for Iowa kids heading back (or starting) school this fall, sent me down memory lane to the time I headed off to Kindergarten for the first time.
My, how things have changed.
It was 70 years ago when I started school. Over those decades, Iowans have felt the effects of an ever-changing population. Many family farms have been devoured by much larger conglomerate farms and that has led to a drastic decline in Iowa’s rural population, even though Iowa’s farm economy is a national leader.
With a greater rural population many decades ago, plus the scarcity of school transportation in the state, country schools were a big part of the education cycle. Most of the rural schools were one-room wooden structures – there were no water fountains, but a water cooler stuck away in a corner; there were no restrooms, but a wooden two-seater outhouse tucked away in a corner of the school’s playground.
Teachers weren’t assigned by class or subject. Teachers in Iowa’s rural schools taught everything and moved from subject to subject as they taught Iowa kids in each of eight grades.
Just getting to school posed a logistical problem for many youngsters in rural Iowa.
There were many obstacles. Rain and snow were big ones for kids walking a mile or so to school five mornings every week. Somehow, though, most managed and most even learned in those schools.
Some youngsters faced more serious obstacles along the way.
Trolls, for example.
Those nasty, unpredictable, inhuman Trolls were hard, if not impossible, to avoid on a walk to school.
I remember my own first day in a rural schoolhouse about two miles straight west of Stratford, just before the first turn in what is now a paved road that leads to Dayton. My parents rented a farmhouse west of Stratford. Instead of making the first turn, a gravel road leads west, makes a sharp turn to the right, goes over what once was a bridge over railroad tracks and heads toward a dead-end. Just before the end of the road, a lane leads down to a spot where an old frame two-story house once stood. It was known then as the Meyer house.
It was there we lived in 1948 and I was thrilled with the ever-flowing Artesian well, my very own room at the top of the stairs and playing outside with my little brother
My dad drove our only car off to work each morning. In preparation for my first day of school, my parents drove me slowly along the route I’d have to walk. It wasn’t difficult to remember the route. After walking up the hill, I’d walk to the right and the road would lead me around to a spot where my first schoolhouse stood.
What Mom and Dad didn’t explain to me, though, was how a boy who wasn’t yet 5 years old could safely walk across the bridge to escape the Troll that lived below. I had to figure that out myself.
On my first day of school, wearing my best go-to-school clothes and my first new pair of shoes in more than a year, I grabbed the brown sack my Mom had filled with goodies for lunch and obediently headed up the hill to school.
Things went well until I neared the bridge over the railroad tracks. I’d been thinking about that old Troll all the way and as the bridge came into view, I began to walk on tiptoes. I glanced from side-to-side hoping I’d catch a glance of the Troll so I could scamper by on the opposite side of the bridge.
But, he never appeared and it left my young mind thinking about the peril that was ahead of me.
I sneaked quietly toward the left side of the bridge, taking a quick peek over the side. “No Troll there,” I thought. Then, I sneaked to the other side and looked over. Still the old Troll was nowhere in sight.
I imagined the Troll had somehow sensed my arrival and was hiding below, just waiting for me to walk across. I was not going to do that; I wasn’t going to give the Troll any type of advantage.
I thought about getting in the middle of the gravel road and making a run for it, but decided that was too dangerous and probably just what the Troll wanted me to do.
Evidently, my planning and my fright lasted longer than a 4-year-old mind could imagine. After some time, I finally decided I just had to make a run for it. I stood in the middle of the road, took a deep breath and sprinted as fast as a chubby kid’s legs could move. I was well past the bridge before I stopped and looked back.
There was no Troll chasing me. I’d made it. Proudly, I walked on toward my first day of school.
That’s the way I remembered it. My late Mother had a different recollection.
“You didn’t get to school until Noon,” she told me years later when I told her of my angst that first day. “In fact, we had some bachelor brothers from Stratford who came out and took you to school from that day on.”
I don’t remember that part of the story. Somehow, that takes away my imagined bravery of walking to Kindergarten every day. So, I decided I’d tell my children and grandchildren my own version of the story.
My story is better than Grandma’s was.