Back to school!
It’s September, and that means the kids are back in school. I realize some of them have been in the classroom since the middle of August or even earlier. Back in the dark ages, when I was a youngster in Ottumwa in southeast Iowa, school never started in August. It was always the first week of September, most likely the day after Labor Day. (No air conditioning in Ottumwa schools back then—I’m sure that had something to do with the later start.) I always looked forward to the first day of school, at least that was true for my elementary school days.
My grandmother (Dad’s mom), Hazel Irene Judd (1896-1990), was a schoolteacher before she married my grandfather in 1920. (The photo to the right is from her teaching years.) I don’t know much about that part of her life, but I always thought it was pretty cool that she taught in a one-room schoolhouse somewhere near Ottumwa. Back then, schoolteachers were almost always female and almost always single. In fact, it was an unwritten law that female schoolteachers would resign their positions when they got married. That was true in Iowa, at any rate.
I attended three different elementary schools in Ottumwa:
• Stuart for kindergarten—the building was converted into apartments many years ago; that’s Mrs. Stempel’s morning kindergarten class (and yes, that’s me under the star—I’m happy to say I’m still connected with two of my twenty-two classmates);
• Jefferson (torn down decades ago) for about three months in first grade while we waited for . . .
• . . . Pickwick to open its doors for the first time in November 1958. What fun—moving from a dark, creaky, seemingly ancient building to a never-been-occupied modern school with three “clusters” (four classrooms each), windows everywhere, new playground equipment, and some wonderful teachers. The gymnasium had a stage that could be closed off. It was the only darkened space available for viewing films. (I think we watched that dreaded “health film” there—the one where we learned about sex—well, probably not sex—maybe it was “our changing bodies”—my memory is sketchy—one film for girls and another one for boys. Maybe we learned about “the birds” in grade school and “the bees” in junior high.) Sadly, Pickwick was razed in 2015. They replaced it with an early childhood education building. They kept the name though.
In 1961, when I was in fourth grade at Pickwick, my older sister Julie and I got desks for Christmas. I still have that desk! It’s in the garage. I use it to pot flowers (most summers) and store gardening paraphernalia and other junk. It’s almost sixty years old! Wow! Julie no longer has her desk, but she recently reminded me she changed diapers on it for a few years back in the eighties. I think they call that "repurposing."
I walked to school every day (until high school which was on the other side of town), even in kindergarten. School busses were reserved for the country kids. At the end of my fifth-grade year (May 1963), our family moved to a new house almost across the street from Pickwick. (We were seven by then. We definitely needed more space.) All the next year—sixth grade—skipping home for lunch was a piece of cake, and when I was on patrol at the corner of our street (Kingsley Drive), I could wave to Mom while she watched me from the front door.
In June 2018, on my research road trip to Iowa, I spent some time at the Iowa State Historical Society Research Center in downtown Des Moines. I wanted to learn about elementary school curriculum in Iowa during the mid-1940s. My novel’s protagonist, seventeen-year-old Phee Swensson, has three younger siblings: ten-year-old identical twins Gus and Tris (starting fifth grade in 1944) and eight-year-old Mollie (third grade). The kids attend Bryant School in Algona (Iowa), not far from the parsonage where they live with Phee and their dad, Frank. (Frank is a Lutheran pastor and a widower. I’m sure I’ll blog about him eventually.)
While at the Research Center, I came across a couple of education journals where I found some interesting advertisements and articles. In the September 1944 issue of Midland Schools (published by the Iowa State Education Association from 1896 to 1972), I saw this Josten’s ad. The company, established in 1897 in Owatonna, Minnesota (the location of one of Camp Algona’s branch camps, by the way), was directly involved in war production during World War II. They manufactured precision parts and assemblies for the Norden Bombsight, and their war department was awarded the Army-Navy E for excellence for producing that bombsight and other precision instruments. The company is still in business. They’ve made championship rings for thirty-one Super Bowls and continue to produce yearbooks and letter jackets and other graduation items. I still have my high school ring. (“JOSTEN 10K©” is stamped on the inside of the band.) If I remember, I’ll wear it at our next reunion.
At the end of September 1944, the Iowa State Teachers Association held their Southeast District Convention in Ottumwa. (I didn’t find a convention listing for the Algona school district folks.) On the convention program was an impressive array of speakers, including:
• Robert Bellaire, Chief of the United Press Asiatic Bureau who was taken prisoner in Tokyo on December 7, 1941. He spoke about his six months of terror and starvation and his observations of Japan;
• Dr. Ralph W. Sockman, Pastor of Christ Church, New York City, who was a famous radio speaker and best-selling author; and
• Dr. Richard Struna, noted commentator and military authority who was the last American to leave Czechoslovakia (I’m assuming in 1939—it doesn’t say)
And speaking of sex education (I was, earlier, sort of) . . .
I found this article in the May 1946 issue of Educational Bulletin (published by the Iowa Department of Public Instruction from 1945 to 1971).
The article goes on to say that, essentially, the adults in the room need to get over their inhibitions about sex. Talking about it in a natural, casual way—(“casual” is used three times in the article)—like talking about the weather or measles or the new neighbors—would surely improve their communication with children about sex. Sex education should not be a “special” class but blended in with the total program. According to Miss/Mrs. Hull, it should not be a big deal.
In the mid-1940s, there was already an established campaign to publicize and eradicate syphilis in Iowa. The article suggests that, since people are speaking freely about venereal disease—how it’s contracted and treated—“we can learn to do the same with sex education.”
Miss/Mrs. Hull promotes the idea that every child needs to have a dog or a cat at home so they can “watch the miracle of puppies or kittens” (a cringe-worthy statement today, considering the number of companion animals living in animal shelters across the country). Questions raised during the birth of a puppy or kitten can be answered truthfully. The children are then armed with that truth and they can speak confidently to their peers about it. It is “beautiful” and “natural”.
In answering the question posed in the article’s title, the writer says the responsibility for teaching children about sex is placed first and foremost in the home (where those puppies and kittens are born), but the school and church must “step in also.” (She does not say in her article how the church should be involved.) It doesn’t matter what sex ed classes are called; it matters how the content is presented. Children should be allowed to “grow and learn naturally and honestly, and at their own rate and speed.” Both parents and teachers share the responsibility, accepting the “challenge so that our children may grow to be healthy adults, mentally and physically, and honest people who face life squarely.”
That last bit sounds reasonable to me.
Blessings to all.
Sally Jameson Bond is retired and lives in Southwest Virginia with her husband and two dogs. My Mother’s Friend is her first novel. You can find her web site here: www.sallyjamesonbond.com.