Today I got caught amid the big yellow buses caravanning toward the school near our house in Georgia. I usually time my journeys through the nicely landscaped homes to avoid them because they back up traffic. But today I watched them as though they were an educational parade. With equal distance between them they snaked up the road for one-half mile, turning ever so carefully into the parking lot in front of the sprawling brick building. Then it dawned on me. What a great country. All across America these giant-sized cumbersome vehicles drove children to their free educations, and not one single kid was left out.
It had been that way for as long as I could remember. Watching the youngsters peer out the back window of the vehicle in front of me, I recalled my school days at the foothills of the North Carolina mountains in a two-story brick building with a pristine grassy yard, bright green shrubbery, flowers, a circular drive in front and a playground out back. In the first grade when I completed my work correctly, the teacher let me play quietly in the playhouse in the back of the room. A friend and I would set the small red table, sit in matching chairs and whisper to each other while we served pretend tea. On other days when I talked too much during class, I had to go to the corner of the room, face the wall, and do deep knee bends.
That year, in fact every year that I recall, my instructor began each day by reading a devotional and Bible verses. Then, she said a prayer. We followed that with the Pledge of Allegiance before we started our lessons. Images that stand out include those of an incorrigible young man who disrupted class in the fifth grade. Short and scrawny, with brown crew cut hair and clear blue eyes, the rowdy little fellow threw spit balls and jabbered without ceasing. Our teacher, I’ll call her, Mrs. Jones, glared at him with angry green eyes; then, told him to stand in the corner. But every time she had her back to him, he turned around, scrunching his face into strange contortions, causing the class to erupt in laughter. So, she put him in the cloak room, a narrow closet without a door, where he threw all the garments that neatly hung on hangers on the floor and banged on the wall. Finally, Mrs. Jones, a hard-nosed, no-nonsense person with red hair and a sharp pointed nose that made her look even more scary when she rose her voice, put him under her desk. For the rest of the day he crouched there, staring at the class with a pained expression. That cured him.
Mrs. Jones’ world consisted of verbs, nouns, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and interjections and how to use them correctly. As passionate about the English language as Romeo and Juliet over each other, she put the parts of speech in sentences and called on us one by one to diagram them on the blackboard until the morning and part of the afternoon was spent. The rest of the day she taught a bit of science, math, history, and geography. A student could confuse the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans and receive a calm correction. But one who mistook an adjective for an adverb incurred her wrath. Those who didn’t understand and correctly speak the English language did not leave her class. If she were still teaching today she easily could have a forty-year-old student trying to understand that a noun is the name of a place, person, or thing, so he or she could go to the sixth grade. But the fortunate students who learned her lessons breezed right through English in high school and college.
My eighth and ninth grade history teachers taught the wars fought by the United States up until that time with particular emphasis on World War II. Teaching us to recognize and reject the communist movement taking hold, they cautioned us to be vigilant to tyranny and encouraged us to guard our precious freedom. Then, freedom meant the right to worship at any church and speak of our faith in any place, to work for a better life, to have guns, which some of our parents used for hunting, to travel when and where we wanted, and to feel protected from evildoers by the laws of our country. In that era when so many built bomb shelters to survive a nuclear blast, which they feared would come from the Russians, most of us surrounded by the mountains drew security from them. The hills that towered above us with their blue tint reaching toward Heaven projected so much strength and endurance I thought nothing could touch them, harm them or move them. If we heard of the unthinkable attack I would flee to them.
Finishing eighth grade, I moved to a brick three-story building on Main Street to attend high school, where chatter about aliens from outer space filled the halls. I, like so many other students, stood outside with my father on clear nights, gazing at the Heavens, locating the Big and Little Dippers while watching for Sputnik, the Russian spacecraft that flew around the sky, possibly barely missing encounters with spacecrafts from other planets. Thoughts of skinny aliens with three eyes and yucky, slimy bodies that might descend on us, devour us, or take us back to their homes to study dwelt in the back of my mind, even when I did the Bop to the songs of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, and the Clovers. But I always told myself we all could be mistaken. They could be kind, caring creatures.
One warm, May night my best friend hosted a sleep over in tents in her backyard for six girls. After her father grilled hamburgers for us we stacked several 45 R P M records inside her record player on the back porch and danced with each other to “Whole Lotta’ Shakin’ Goin’ On,” by Jerry Lee Lewis, “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino, and “Blue Suede Shoes,” by Elvis Presley. When finally we wore ourselves out, we put our sleeping bags in the tents and breathed in the fresh spring air. Pulling back the flaps on our temporary quarters, we gazed upward at the dark, mysterious abyss lit by twinkling stars and a glowing moon and wondered what lay where we could not see, where no one ever had been. Then, one of us spotted a light streaking across the sky like a comet. Screaming at the tops of our lungs, we grabbed our sleeping bags and rushed in the house, safe from the aliens.
In the midst of it all we learned that living by God’s word brought peace, protecting our country preserved freedom, and hard work coupled with integrity brought success. I’ve attended several high school re-unions to find that my classmates grew up to be salt-of-the earth people, teaching their values to children and grandchildren. Many hold leadership positions in their communities. Some finished college, while others earned Masters and Doctorate degrees to become teachers and coaches.
Many wonderful, dedicated people instruct our children today. While I drive ever so slowly behind the processional of big yellow buses I see youngsters pouring from the doors of some vehicles already parked at the school. And I wonder what values for living they are learning.
Proverbs: 22:6, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”