Boy with copybook

School memories are some of the fondest memories for some.

Thousands of young people have returned to school in the Greater Delaware Valley over the past several weeks. Across the country, the number of young people returning to school would in the millions.

For some, it was the first time to enter a school building. This phenomenon, of young people returning to school, is apparent if you drive or take public transportation to travel to work or other places around the city. I do not know about you, but the first several weeks of school bring about a special feeling; a feeling that I desperately attempt to retain for I know, unfortunately, that the excitement and desire I am experiencing now may disappear long before we get to the end of October. On several occasions, I have taken our readers on trips, at this time of the year; trips through elementary, junior high or middle school and high school years and reminded us of those fond memories that many of us still embrace. These school memories, unfortunately, have been left to those days that I refer to as back in the day.

In spite of the years that have gone by, many of us continue to reflect on school life of the past. Interestingly, I received an email from state Sen. Vincent Hughes; an email that he sent to his constituents Sept. 10, 2019, in which he expressed views that are close to mine; views that many of you also share. Hughes pointed out, “We rang the bell and started another school year Tuesday, Sept. 3. Public school students all over the city of Philadelphia were welcomed to their schools with high fives, handshakes and words of encouragement from city officials, public servants, celebrities and others who are rooting for their success. It was a great start to the year — but that feeling of positivity begins to fade when you consider what some students will endure until summer 2020.”

As you will note, Hughes also projected that the positive start of the school year will disappear once we reach the summer of the current school year. How sad! Why is it that the positivity, of the beginning of the school year, cannot continue through the entire school year as was the case, in the past, when I was in school, back in the day?

I have many fond memories of school, particularly my elementary school days. I often think about the cloak room, the bench desks with ink wells, going home for lunch each day, indoor and outdoor safety patrols, window poles to open and close windows and yes, morning prayer, as a regular part of the educational experience. I will always remember my Martha Washington Elementary School Principal Marie Chase calling students to her office to have them wash out their mouths with soap and water when they used profanity. These examples and many more are permanently etched in my memory. What great times we had, back then!

This was evident last October when I joined with approximately eighty-five classmates and their guests to recognize our 61st class reunion from West Philadelphia High School’s class of 1957. Although this gathering was in recognition of our school days of more than 60 years ago, as I met former friends and associates, I could not help but to go back in time and resurrect some fond memories of West Philadelphia High School, Sulzberger Junior High School and Martha Washington Elementary School, all schools that I attended.

I suspect that you have many fond memories that you have retained over the years. Any thought, of school back in the 50s and 60s, causes me to smile, hum and even sing some of those songs that brought a gleam in children’s eyes and a broad smiles on their faces; songs that disappeared from classrooms many years ago. Some of you recall these words. “I’m a little teapot short and stout, here is my handle, and here is my spout. When I get all steamed up, I will shout, just tip me over and pour me out.” Or, perhaps you remember this song. “Good morning to you! Good morning to you! We’re all in our places with sunshiny faces. This is the way we start a new day.” “This is the way we wash our face, wash our face, wash our face. This is the way we wash our face so early in the morning.” You may recall, the song was repeated using other phrases such as “brush our teeth” or “comb our hair.” I do not know about you, but whenever I think of kindergarten or the first grade, my thoughts invariably turn to one of these songs.

As I observed children returning to school this year, I could not help but observe how students were dressed as I always recall the way boys and girls dressed for school during my elementary school years. I observed many wearing uniforms while others were smartly dressed, the way young people dressed for school in the past. Unfortunately, however, I did not see the same standards with regard to how teachers dressed. In the past, teachers dressed like teachers. If you are from my era, you must understand my drift.

What I saw and did not see, caused me to resurrect my good, but fictional friend, Little Johnny, who reminds me of how teachers dressed in the past. Little Johnny, a fifth-grade boy, told his mother that he wanted to wear “his Sunday, go to meeting clothing” to school on a particular day. His mother thought that this was out of character for her son but agreed because of his persistence. She helped her son get dressed in his suit with a tie and shiny shoes to go off to school. Little Johnny went downstairs and asked his father if he could borrow his derby. His stunned father reluctantly agreed. Now, the little boy asked his father if he could borrow his briefcase. Finally, the boy’s parents asked in unison, “What is going on? What is behind this desire to go to school all dressed up?” Little Johnny responded, “Well dad, well mommy, I just think that someone in the classroom should look like the teacher.”

If you were around, back in the day, you know that anyone that stood at the front of a classroom looked the part; they satisfied our traditional image of a teacher. If this story does not make a point with you, then think back to the appearance of your child’s or grandchild’s teachers over the past several years or even during the first several weeks of school. You will find teachers in jeans, sweat suits, even shorts; attire that a teacher would not have thought about wearing when many of us were in school. Some outfits that I have recently seen suggest that the teacher is going to a cookout as opposed to a classroom.

Our teachers were very special and made us feel special. They were so special that many of us can recall the names of our elementary school teachers. Considering that this was some 70 years ago, that is quite remarkable. At Martha Washington Elementary School in West Philadelphia, I could feel the loving and caring spirit of my teachers. Perhaps, this special feeling had something to do with our looking like them and our teachers looking like us. We loved them, they loved us and our parents loved them. They did not just do what was called for in textbooks. Teachers, back then, focused on the whole person. Not only was a student given strong educational tools but they were also taught survival skills, interpersonal relationship skills, speaking skills, and writing skills. They focused on things like logic but good grooming was not ignored. I will not deny that there are some outstanding teachers today; yes, some.

Interestingly, I do not recall a lot of bad kids in school back in the day. Perhaps it was related to the respect for and fear of our teachers. Perhaps we knew that our parents would not tolerate the nonsense that we see today. Also, in the past, I do not recall arguments and debates on issues of adequate funding for our schools. Apparently, there was a greater willingness to support education back then and some issues present today were nonexistent back then. A sign given to me by a parent when I worked in the Newark, New Jersey, school district says it all, in terms of the climate of education today. This sign reads, “It will be a great day when our schools have all the money they need, and the Air Force will have to conduct a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

Indeed, what we experienced as school students was very precious. Unfortunately, these experiences are things that too many of today’s youth will only experience during the early weeks of the school year or hear or read about when someone reminisces as I have about school, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at backintheday@phillytrib.com or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 S. 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146

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