The First Day of School

No matter how long it’s been since I was a student, there’s still something about the end of summer and the beginning of autumn that makes me think of school. It doesn’t have anything to do with back-to-school sales or remembering to watch out for school buses on busy streets. It’s about knowing that the start of a new school year could bring an important change to your life.

I’m not alone in that thought. As I learned from working with the Fulton Public Library on their Memoir Project, lots of us have vivid memories of our school days. In the five years since the library has been asking people to share their recollections of life in our city, many have focused on their first day of school. To honor the start of this school year, I’m revisiting some of those memories in this column.

I’ll start with Julia (Judy) Smith, whose introduction to education took place in a one-room schoolhouse. Judy grew up on the Silk Road in Fulton, and she and her siblings attended the nearby Ludding School. Here’s some of what Judy saw on her first day at Ludding:

“The school bell was on the roof and our teacher, Mrs. Downing, used a long rope to ring the start of our morning. As we walked in the door, we hung our coats on hooks and put our boots on the floor. Before class started, Mrs. Downing took roll call and led us in the Pledge of Allegiance. We sat in desks like the ones on Little House on the Prairie.  They were fastened to the seat in front of us and had inkwells in them. I didn’t have pigtails, so I didn’t ever get my hair put into an inkwell.

“The school had a potbelly stove, which burned wood for heat. There was no inside plumbing, so we had to use the outhouse—and, boy, it was cold in the winter! There was also a well for water, and in order to wash our hands or get a drink, we had to pump the well’s handle.”

Not all of us had the unique experience of a one-room rural schoolhouse, but we all had our first day as a kindergartener. For those of a tender age, our neighborhood schools could look pretty intimidating. Here’s Fultonian Paul McKinney describing what he saw on his first day of school:

“Of all my memories of Erie Street School, my first day of kindergarten was the most exciting.  Back in the early 1950s, preschools were rare and many school districts didn’t even offer kindergarten as an option.  So, for a five-year-old, going to kindergarten was a big deal.  After all, we were going inside that imposing yellow brick building that sat majestically on the corner of Sixth and Erie Street.  And, to boot, we would be there for half the day, away from home, with a bunch of other kids we might not even know.  Yikes!  Some kids even cried!

“We were finally going to see the inside of this place the older neighborhood kids talked about all the time. Walking in a straight line through those huge double doors facing Sixth Street and seeing those imposing oak steps ahead was overwhelming to a five-year-old’s eyes. Those worn oak stairs seemed to go straight up in the air forever. There had to be a hundred – maybe a million – of them.  Then there was the smell of fresh paint on the walls and the sparkle from the glistening oak floors.  All of these fused together with a faint scent of chalk dust in the air to form my first impression of Erie Street School.”

After graduating from kindergarten, the start of each school year became almost routine. We learned what to expect: sharpened pencils and a full ream of paper, new clothes and sneakers. But there were times when one person made the first day of school something special. For Sue Martin, who had a long career as a Fulton educator, meeting her second grade teacher made all the difference. Sue attended Phillips Street School, which had an end-of-the-year ritual called “Moving Up Day,” where students would meet their teacher for the next school year.

“I was completely swept away by my teacher for second grade, Mrs. Mary Robarge,” Sue wrote. “First glance told me she was a kind woman because she didn’t just smile at her pupils, she ‘smized,’ – that is, she smiled with her eyes.  Just the way she looked at us let me know that here was a teacher who was going to give me the keys to the kingdom of knowledge.  It was as if the world was now seen in Technicolor, instead of mere pale shades.  

“I must admit it was Mrs. Robarge’s jewelry that hooked me.  She wore earrings with seed pearls, rhinestones, and aurora borealis crystals.  What seven-year-old girl could resist such beautiful accessories?  Paying attention to the earrings, pins, and necklaces she wore became a daily assignment for me, one I took to heart quite seriously.”

It was more than Mrs. Robarge’s jewelry that made such an impression on Sue. She was also influenced by how her teacher taught:

“Mrs. Robarge’s class was always a safe haven, where never a cross word was spoken by her.  I don’t recall anyone being reprimanded for ill behavior, as she brought out the best in each of us.  Along with our assigned classwork, we received encouragement and respect on a daily basis.”

This week, in every classroom of our Fulton schools, teachers are making impressions on their students. Like our Memoir Project writers Judy Smith, Paul McKinney, and Sue Martin, every boy and girl will be wondering what the new school year will be like for them. With the right teacher, and with the right attitude, this could be the greatest school year ever.

Erie Street School, once one of Fulton's neighborhood schools, where each September children learned what the year had in store for them.

Erie Street School, once one of Fulton's neighborhood schools, where each September children learned what the year had in store for them.