At long last the day arrived! Robert was to enter the first grade at Pine Village School. He had spent the past two years wanting to go to school, and now he was finally going.
Ida had rehearsed with him everything that he was to do. Charles accompanied Robert to the pair of doors where he was to wait with the other children until the doors were opened from the inside. With his heart beating fast, Robert stood expectantly. He said hello to a boy who was also coming to school for the first time. His name was Mitch. He had a happy personality. Then Robert saw Susan, whom he already knew from church. She, too, would be in his class.
Suddenly, the doors were flung open, and the children crowded into the hallway. A teacher guided Mitch, Susan, and Robert to Mrs. Yvonne Hail’s room. It was at the far west end of the hallway. Mrs. Hail was friendly, but her demeanor made it clear that she expected compliance. Her eyes sparkled behind her pointy-framed glasses. Her red lipstick matched her red blouse worn beneath a stylish gray-checked short jacket and narrow skirt. When the room became too warm, she hung the jacket over her chair at the desk that stood in the front.
Mrs. Hail directed each student to an assigned seat. She wanted the class in alphabetical order by last name because she had so many students. Robert’s class was one of the largest in the school’s history! It was a huge elementary class by any standard and would have been split in a larger school. In the opening weeks, the students became acquainted with one another and bonded closely, forming many lifelong friendships. Robert liked everyone, and he liked learning. Mrs. Hail kept everything lively but orderly. Privately, she may have confessed that she had no idea how she would manage such a big class, but, in her room, day by day, she led her charges through the lessons with businesslike precision. In Mrs. Hail’s world, everything was shipshape!
Attending school measured up to Robert’s intense hopes.
Every noon, he walked briskly home to have dinner. Several of the children who did not ride a bus but who walked to school also walked home for dinner. Most farmers still preferred to call the noon meal “dinner,” rather than “lunch.” The former word implied a large meal, and farmers needed the energy from such large meals to continue their hard physical work throughout the afternoon. So Robert went home for dinner. Before long, though, he was calling the meal “lunch” because his classmates whose parents bought them tickets to eat in the cafeteria were on what was called the “school lunch” program. In the change from the word “dinner” to the word “lunch” could be detected a shift in farm life.
Robert had to hurry back so as not to be late for the resumption of lessons in the afternoon. Typically, he had finished eating in time to join his classmates for the recess after lunch.
Mrs. Hail had been Yvonne Lafferty when she attended the same school. She had married John Hail, who ran the elevator. When Robert was in elementary school, married women customarily were called by their husbands’ names. Accordingly, Mrs. Yvonne Hail should have been called “Mrs. John Hail,” but her first name was unusual in the town—so much so that people could not resist using her name. When she was called something besides “Mrs. Hail,” she was “Mrs. Yvonne Hail”!
Ida had given Robert strict orders that he was not to brag that he could read. She had told him that he was to take the reading lessons seriously, even if they repeated what he already knew. Had she only known it, Robert’s mother had no reason for concern. Robert had no desire to boast, and he enjoyed starting at the beginning and learning exactly how to read. For him, learning was the greatest joy.
One day at recess, Robert’s friend Dennis said there had been a fight on the playground between two older boys in his older brother’s class. One of the boys had sustained a bloody nose, and he had wiped his hand on a telephone post beside the road. Dennis, Robert, and a few of their friends took time out from the games to see the post. Sure enough, a red handprint was visible on the dark brown wood of the post. The sight turned Robert’s stomach. He wondered how anyone could willingly inflict such pain on a fellow human being. To him, a bloody handprint was a symbol of a terrible injury.
Robert’s ancestors were Quakers. They left South Carolina to come to Ohio in 1806, when Ohio had been a state for only three years. They migrated to Indiana in 1826 and 1827. Later, many would migrate onward to Iowa, but Robert’s ancestors stayed in Indiana. His great grandfather was raised in the Methodist Church, which had succeeded in attracting several of the Quakers. Even though there had been three generations of Methodists before Robert, several Quaker beliefs lay just beneath the surface of his upbringing. One was a determined belief in the efficacy of peace. The red handprint stood for whatever was the opposite of that peacefulness, and it was abhorrent to Robert.
Robert looked forward to the recess in the afternoon. Quite often, Mitch’s mother, who ran the cafeteria, brought trays of lettuce sandwiches to the playground for the children. The crisp lettuce, the fresh butter, and the soft white bread were delightful.
The girls’ restroom was adjacent to the classroom, but the boys’ restroom was all the way to the east end of the school. Those were the high school rooms. Again and again, Mrs. Hail told the boys to walk quietly in a line to the restroom, but, every now and then, a few of the boys would be boisterous—especially when cranking brown paper towels from the dispensers. The boys’ noise brought Mr. Taylor from his classroom. He always appeared in the doorway of the restroom as a towering giant with a yardstick in his hand. He slapped the wall of the restroom with the stick. The sound got the attention of all the boys. Mr. Taylor then patiently explained that they needed to remain quiet so that the high school students could learn their lessons. Robert was frightened of Mr. Taylor, but, years later, when Robert was in high school, he came to know and like him.
Mr. Horn was the principal. He demanded discipline, and his presence called for respect. One of his mannerisms was to slip his glasses from his nose, hold them in one hand, and wear a dignified expression on his face while gesturing with the hand that held the glasses. If he should step into the hallway from his office, an instantaneous hush would fall on any child otherwise inclined to cause a ruckus. He was known to paddle the worst offenders. Years later, Robert began to realize that Mr. Horn was a gracious gentleman who simply brooked no nonsense from students in his school.
Susan’s mother, Mrs. Brutus, was the secretary, and she, too, commanded respect. Robert knew her from church, where Mrs. Brutus played the organ, and he recognized that she had a kind heart.
In only a short while, Robert had settled into a pattern of schooling that would last for twelve years. He never regretted a moment of that time.