Sensations and Sensibilities of a Schoolyard Sissy
(Talk of the Town photo from the archives of Susie Sexton) Above, at center, Susie marches along with fellow Girl Scouts in her schoolyard days.
By Susie Duncan Sexton
Time warp! Down memory lane without a net! Sequential account of the "stages of man" (or woman or, if preferred, "boys and girls") rates as an assignment which is too tedious, too glorious, too horrifying. Must clump bodies of valuable information into categories of sights, sounds, smells and "socialization."
West Ward, the very sound of that designation blasts the eardrum as a Dickensian insane asylum, actually housed me and my buddies during our grammar school-elementary days from (morning or afternoon) "kiddie garden", or the Germanic "Kindergarten", cleeeeeeeear through 5th grade. This ancient red brick forbidding cavernous building topped with a clanging, dictatorial heavy leaden bell adjoined the less ominous appearing Columbia City High School, the two connected by a narrow, ramped bridge-like corridor running past a sweaty, mil-dewy locker room for girls only, then leading to the audi-gymatorium where high school basketball jocks, senior play thespians, choir members and a multitude of queens with courts all displayed their wares, though not simultaneously, within a proscenium arch bordered by theatrical curtains.
However, until junior high, when the high schoolers had moved on to the "newer than new" ranch-type C.C. J. (for "joint" cuz the township kids would join forces with the city students) H.S. building, we "youngsters" got relegated to THE West Ward, our own little world smelling of art teacher George Kind's tempera paint jars, colored chalk sticks, paste bottles, and squishy paper towels to sop up our messes. Olfactory memories crowd my cranium as I recall the be-spectacled school secretary, Mrs. Killian, breezing into our class-rooms bearing freshly-mimeographed hand-outs for pupils to carry safely home to parents...the pungent odor of that zippy fluid perked all squirming kids up like a powerful sniff of airplane glue. Nothing could beat that "high" except for Velma Moeller's TB "patch" tests and the rubbing alcohol she applied prior to slapping those babies onto our little flat chests and the unquestionably very best part days later during the astounding rip-off sessions! (Another medical practice exercised, during that far-away time, saved our young lives, as we ALL opened our mouths for Dr. Jonas Salk's polio-averting "sugar" cubes.) Additional fumes emitted from pine needles, melting candle wax, and candy cane ornaments combined as we students gathered into the great central hall 'round a huge, freshly-chopped-down-and-delivered Rockefeller Center type fir tree and sang our obligatory carols immediately preceding a rented Disney film offered for our enjoyment, followed by troop send-off for two weeks of Christmas-New Year's vacation. Vomit and the magic janitorial-sprinkled powder-potion which sanitized, de-toxified and pleasantly aroma-fied (to avert chain-reactions), milk from Kitson's Dairy with cookies, blue ink whiffs wafting from fifth grade fountain pens Principal Dale Pence obtained from some marketing company to possibly withstand trial runs in our antsy hands, and November popping of popcorn kernels (replicating the ears of corn shared amongst Pilgrims and Indians) whetting our hunger pangs while annually tantalizingly floating from Mrs. Sheehan's rooms full of A.M. and P.M. five-year-olds re-enacting Plymouth Rock times. Candied apples, tootsie rolls, wax lips and moustaches arrived in October when we all filed into each other's classrooms displaying our Halloween costumes we had hurriedly jumped into during our at-home lunch hours...and the lingering odor of cottage cheese from our scoured plastic containers we drug from our moms' kitchens to school for creating some kind of wacko-Easter baskets. We could boast of double sets of twins in our class--the cute identical Geiger boys as well as the handsome fraternal Smith brothers! Rushed home to view Pinky Lee and Howdy Doody on our black and white television sets.
Rude awakening season upon entering JUNIOR HIGH! No longer the gradual easing upward and forward, accompanied by scooting of tiny chairs, within Mrs. Woodhams', Mrs. Youngblood's or Mrs. Hall's reading circles as one got promoted from a pathetic "brownie" onward to a slightly-loser "elf "and finally, a fantastic, conceited "fairy"! No more teacher patiently, rigidly waiting in a winged back chair for us to tug off boots and hang our coats and leggings and scarves and knit caps and earmuffs and stringed-together mittens upon the correct hooks in our assigned cloak rooms, then crowding around her as we sat cross-legged Indian style to focus upon her reading aloud HEIDI, JUSTIN MORGAN HAD A HORSE, or CADDIE WOODLAWN. "Crayolas" but a distant memory! Now, Roy Kilby and Mary Jane Lesh expected us to accomplish our own literary probing and then "getting back" to them via those dreaded monthly, non-plagiarized BOOK REPORTS! Ai Yai Yai! Change classes and dance! Buzzers droned...off we scrambled with eager trepidation across creaky, groaning, wooden-slatted floors. Periods of adjustment grind people down often...personally, I have yet to recover from jumping headlong into physical education regimens accompanied by communal showers and the sharing of athlete's foot, a heinous malady which just might have been avoided in the first place by canceling the public bathing routine? Girl's "menopausal-blue" flimsy shapeless gym suits seemed patterned after the uniforms of jail-bird ladies, actually. Furthermore, "Coronet Films Present:" rocked our gender-confusing world one fine sunny spring day as "gals" were herded into room 10, while the "guys" single-filed into room 12, never to share a meeting of the "minds" ever again...were it in my power to return to that mind-altering afternoon, I'd certainly insist upon exchanging rooms. Whatever mis-guided quasi-poisonous messages might have been imprinted forever onto our impressionable psyches, that fateful day, jolted our childhood innocence and happiness. Paradise lost for all time--we existed no longer as just regular folks! Let the stereotypical "War Between Men and Women" begin. "Birds and the Bees" discussions and film presentations about as helpful as my mother referring us daughters to our thin, well-worn, little booklet WHAT SHALL I TELL MY CHILD? Besides, my dad always said, "Nobody ever needs to teach a duckling how to swim!" Since those "changing-classroom-days", I also hindsightedly wish gender differentiation had not factored in re: "shop" versus "home ec" instruction, either. I'd prefer hanging onto a wooden birdhouse all of these years hence, rather than a cotton skirt actually stitched together by Mrs. Mabel Sheehan whom I helplessly, albeit craftily, conned into completing MY project herself, step by tedious step. Rushed home to watch Annette and the Mousketeers on our black and white television sets.
Now, on to my short account of the checkered blur I refer to as my blue period or "the dream-mare of high school days". High and low points for this kid? A lead role in Bye Bye Birdie, Columbia City JOINT High School's first ever high school musical senior play! A sophomore Lee Daniel award for scholarship; 3rd place over-all scholastic ranking for all four years...why not refer to myself as "always-a-bridesmaid-a-torian"?; my dad throwing luncheons in the BLUE BELL cafeteria for the high school varsity basketball teams--and Susie never asked for a date by a single one of those boys in return; "safe-driving film" (CORONET FILMS AT IT AGAIN?) which scared me outta earning a driver's license until age 19 while the juvenile delinquents regarded all of the speeding and grinding traffic accidents groovily "cool"; Mr. Gandy refusing to excuse me to attend a French Lick Conference featuring a Werner Von Braun lecture, surely denying my probablility of meeting up with Larry Bird for a coke-date; Coach Boag Johnson crouched over my dislocated knee/patella cap stating he'd never witnessed such an odd injury in his lifetime; Miss Berniece Carver angrily yanking the school newspaper THE EAGLE, I thoughtlessly perused, outta my hands during Sunshine (?) Society meeting; a visit to the principal's office my senior year cuz I was being punished for the first time within an entire 13 year spectrum of enduring public education; and the Arion Award created by Hazel Munns for outstanding musicianship, plus the great good fortune to be taught Latin and literature by Miss Lois Walter. Rushed home to complete the viewing of tragic, life-transforming, perpetual newscasts of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, Texas, on our black and white television sets.
My mind and thoughts jammed with memories: fourth grade teacher Miss Demaris Smalley, all of four feet in height, attempting to pummel and simultaneously shove to the pea-gravelly ground a five footer class-room bully after blowing her "RECESS IS NOW SUDDENLY OVER" whistle...and this thug-boy resembled one of those inflated plastic toy clowns which bounce immediately back into place when punched, bells all a jingle, goofy grin intact; heart-throb Ray Romano clone Harry Staley, Jr. fracturing his own arms so repeatedly on the playground that he grew up to become a world-class orthopedic surgeon I believe. Mr. Pence's authoritative booming voice on our new intercom system implying he well knew that some of us had trespassed along the teensiest corner of a grouchy lady's front lawn during our mad dash to reach our homes to plunk down television-side! His vocalized air-wave warnings served as the dis-embodied voice of God Himself. To this very day, nearly 55 years later, I avoid short-cutting across that small patch of grass at the corner of that woman's yard. Each time I reach for my eye-glasses, recollections surface of a fierce myopic plague galloping amongst us sixth-graders who collectively degenerated to near-sighted-ness seemingly at once, blackboard math problems blurring before our "WInky Dink" interactive kids' TV show eyes forever damaged from "up close and personal" viewing addictions. My appreciation survives in my undying affection for fifth grade teacher-angel from heaven, stern, strict Miss Marie Friskney--ultimately the edgiest of educators who taught me the joyous value of learning, although Susy Alberty and Susie Duncan received thunking thumps upon our naughty, yet inventive, little noggins for pantomiming the activities of THE LITTLE LAME PRINCE as our rather amused (in spite of herself) instructor abruptly interrupted her out-loud-reading, moving slowly (one orthopedically shod foot after the other), quietly, deliberately down our aisle, no longer seated at her big old squeaky desk! Such a stillness in the air. Clueless. Hadn't even heard her book slam shut! That day I learned the skill of listening as intently as a fox. My worst crime as a youngster/scholar? Tardiness, for which I unabashedly blame my otherwise perfect father who seemed a non-believer in punctuality! I arrived two hours late one autumn afternoon for Mrs. Betty Leffel's second grade class, following a lengthy lunch and shopping expedition in Pierceton, Indiana: as I climbed outta the car, I kissed my two newly-purchased Indian dolls "good-bye", for I thought I'd probably be executed by a firing squad before the dismissal bell pealed "Taps"!
Whether crowded into an auditorium, anxiously anticipating Christmas vacation while attempting to concentrate upon NATIONAL VELVET, SO DEAR TO MY HEART, or SONG OF THE SOUTH and eager to bust outta the Big House for the short duration of a paltry two weeks, or becoming indoctrinated by a 1950's repetitiously televised Holsum Bread commercial hyping that "as we mature, boys' shoulders broaden as do girls' hips", life for children truly, consistently may have commenced that very first day of entrance into the world of academia. Socialization, that oft-used explanatory school-related excuse for regimentation, looms ahead of us, sometimes a bitter pill to swallow--though a necessary giant step we all must take. A mixed blessing. Evidently, my experiences within that world left me with a huge head-ache, the occasional broken heart, my strengthened spine, some bewilderment, a rather significant amount of knowledge, and the lingering fragrances of corduroy, denim, flannel, candle-wax, pine needles, chalk-dust, dime-store cologne, bathroom soap dispensers, pencil shavings, mashed-potato-like grimed up snow, tempera paints, paste, play-ground sweat, band-aids mingled with iodine fumes, and, always and in all ways, sincere gratitude toward loving parents at home and those mostly caring, nurturing teachers at school for their support in the achievement of that SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS! Thank you all, wherever you are!