Monday, May 4, 2009

Grade Three

Lincoln School no longer stands; those who want to see it can look on line at the large collections of photographic postcards of Alameda, CA.  In front of steps to the entrance was a good-sized sidewalk paved area on a slight slope, which was wonderful for roller skates.  Inside, it was one of those with very high-ceilinged, tall-windowed classrooms; you used a pole with a hook to open and close the high windows.  When needed, there was steam heat with radiators.  In California, the high ceilings really did suffice to keep the rooms cool enough; I don't remember ever sweating indoors (or for that matter, with the "fog in the morning, clearing after noon", very often outdoors).  The rows of desks were bolted down.  Gilbert Stuart's George Washington was, perhaps, in every room (surprisingly, Lincoln wasn't), but I also remember a 19th c. Joan of Arc or a Knight standing by a horse and several of Douglas MacArthur with a pipe; these all were framed and hung above the blackboards, which were real slate, I'm almost sure.  The halls' floors were covered with a tough brown sort of linoleum, and the broad mops that went around daily pushed resin, or resinated sawdust.  The classrooms had good hardwood floors.  Textbooks were issued to us, the California State Series ones; normally these stoutly bound books showed the names of up to a dozen pupils listed in the back.  In general, in these years when paper was respected marking of books was quite limited, though, of course, they all smelled of childhood—I don't know how else to say it.  The desks, made of ash, I think, were supported on cast iron; their writing surfaces were hinged, and we kept our books and supplies in them.  Above the hinges were the grooves to keep pencils from rolling (there was also a cut-out for an inkwell, not used yet in Grade Three); fountain pens were not allowed, and of course ball-point pens had not been invented.  The seats, with a slight S curve to their profile, were flipped up when we left, to facilitate the janitors' work.  We did not stick chewing gum to their undersides, therefore, but also because wartime gum was not real chicle and likelier to stick to one's teeth than to anything else.  The height of the desks was adjustable, but I suppose that for ages 6 through 13 (Grade Eight), there was more than one size.  Each classroom had a cloakroom, with open shelving above the hooks for our lunchboxes; this was behind the wall behind the teacher's desk and entered by doors at both the hallway end and the window end.
These were spacious, generous rooms, and the desk surfaces were generous, too: we had ample room to hold our arms and our paper at the right angles for penmanship.  The Smithsonian has an old-time classroom, but it must have come from a small school, and it is exhibited without the high ceilings and the tall windows which were the hallmark of well lit, well ventilated schools of the pre-Depression decades.  I loved Lincoln School.  It was solid, it was well made, it was uniform; you could count on it, in the same way as you could count on the design of banks of the same period.  It seemed normal that there were places where standing in line was natural and others, such as one's own back yard, where one did just as one pleased.
Lincoln School had the plan of an H.  In back, where we lined up to file into our classes, where we lined up to buy Savings Stamps to paste into a booklet to accumulate for a Savings Bond, we were within the 'legs' of the H.  I think that it was arranged so that K to 2, then 3 to 6, then 6 to 8 were lined up separately—certainly had Recess separately.
Then there was a street, closed to traffic, so that the playing grounds (for kick ball, baseball, softball, basketball during Physical Education period, for free play during Recess), a city block paved in tarmac and enclosed by chain-link fencing, to keep baseballs from getting out, were safely accessible from the block containing the school building.  That one block of a street belonged mostly to girls, or in marbles season to boys as well, devoted to chalked hopscotch and to jumping rope.  Cap guns were warily tolerated, but the boys were not permitted, if caught, to wrap the glass marbles in caps, wrap that in tinfoil or twisted tissue paper, and throw them hard enough to the tarmac to detonate them.  The playground, free of telephone lines and trees, too, was a fine place to fly kites after school or on weekends.
I had only a truncated semester in Grade Three by the time we got into our house.  Ms. Cheda had done her work so well, and I had had to wait for the September after my birthday to start school, besides, that I skipped the 'high third' and after Christmas was placed in 'low fourth', since the Alameda schools started each grade (having a far larger population, especially with everyone who had come for war work) twice a year.