School Memories

Young Lois

My first memory of school is kindergarten. I adored my teacher. Her name was French, Diapere (pronounced Die-a-peer’). My father would tease me by calling her Miss Diaper. I would object, of course, because I didn’t like anyone disparaging my teacher; in my eyes, she was the smartest person in the world. Many years later when I taught kindergarten, I learned that most kindergarten children feel that way.

I was fortunate to be taught first grade by Miss Bowman, who had already been in that position at Roxbury School for many years. Teaching was Miss Bowman’s life. During my first grade year, I contracted Scarlet Fever and missed months of school, during which time Miss Bowman had the children cut pictures from magazines and bring photos from home in order to make a scrapbook for me. She would print something clever under each picture or photo.

I still have the scrapbook, which I treasure.

We moved from Roxbury to Moxham, a different section of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, right before my third grade year at Cypress Avenue School. One day after school when I was in fourth grade, I decided to play with my ball before going home, because one of the walls on the outside of the schoolhouse was perfect for bouncing the ball. I liked to play a game in which I’d throw the ball against the wall and let it bounce on the ground a certain number of times while I’d perform various activities such as clapping hands or turning around, going from number one to number ten. On this particular day, I was in the midst of this game when I made a wild throw and the ball hit a window and broke it. I began to cry, and a boy who was nearby said, “Ooooo, you’re in trouble! The principal is going to use his spanking machine on you!” Just then, fifth-grade teacher Miss Geiger came out of the school with my ball in her hand. She ran over to me, put her arms around me and told me that everything was fine and that she knew it was an accident. I asked her about the spanking machine, and she assured me that there was no such thing. Then she handed my ball to me and told me to go home and forget all about the accident.

The following year, Miss Geiger was one of my teachers. We changed classes in fifth grade, with Miss Geiger teaching some of the subjects and Miss Burns teaching the others. As nice as Miss Geiger was, that’s how mean Miss Burns was. We were fortunate in having a gymnasium in our school, so we were able to play games, even in winter or rainy weather. One day, we were having a relay race in the gym, when I had my finger in my mouth. Miss Burns stopped the game to tell me to take my finger out of my mouth. A little later I just had to take care of that hangnail, whereupon Miss Burns said, “That does it! Your parents need to know that you bite your nails.” On another occasion, when our class marched into Miss Burns’ room, I had a big wad of bubble gum in my mouth. I didn’t want to throw this fresh gum away, so I put it on a piece of paper and slipped it into the desk at which I was sitting, planning to retrieve it before returning to my homeroom. After changing classes, I suddenly remembered my bubblegum. I ran back to Miss Burns’ room, just in time to see Ray McGraw handing the piece of paper with my bubblegum to Miss Burns. She said, “Your parents need to know about this!” Sure enough, when I received my report card, in the deportment section, even though there was no area for remarks, Miss Burns had written in pencil. “Bites fingernails – Chews gum.” I wondered why she used pencil, when the grades were written in ink. I really think she was hoping I’d erase the penciled remarks so that she could use the opportunity to shame me again. Funny thing, though, my parents didn’t make a big deal about the comment. In fact, they laughed about it.

On another occasion, we were having a geography test for which I’d failed to study. Our Dad had taken my sister and me to a movie the night before. When he had asked if we had homework, I’d said I didn’t, so we went to a movie, leaving me no time to study; therefore, I was ill prepared for the test. We’d been given explicit notes, so studying for these geography tests was easy – we just needed to memorize the notes. I was sitting at my desk drawing a blank, when a boy in the class went up to the teacher who, fortunately, was the nice one, Miss Geiger, and said he didn’t feel well so could he take the test later? Miss Geiger said he could come in before school the next day to take the test. I went up to her desk and told Miss Geiger that I, too, didn’t feel well, so she said I could take the test the next morning also. That evening I memorized all my notes and was well prepared to take the test. I went to school early, but when I got there, I couldn’t conjure up the nerve to go into the school. To this day, I don’t know why I couldn’t go in, unless I feared someone would ask me why I went in early, or perhaps I was afraid I’d run into Miss Burns. As a result, I got a D in Geography on my next report card – the only D I ever received.

Cypress Avenue School had only grades K through 5, so we had to go to Village Street School for sixth grade. This school was some distance from our home, but not too far for us to walk. My mother didn’t like packing lunches, so she gave us money to buy lunch. My sister was in junior high school, where there was a cafeteria, but there was no cafeteria at Village Street School. As I think about it now, I don’t know why I didn’t pack my own lunch – probably because I pretty much did what my mother suggested. So each day I walked to the Dairy Dell and bought lunch. After several days of this, Mr. Miller, the school principal, who also ate there, saw me and suggested that we eat together, and he even drove me to and from the restaurant. My family had never gone to a restaurant, so I knew nothing about tipping. One day I noticed some change on the table as we were leaving and pointed out to Mr. Miller that he’d left some money. He said, “Let’s just leave it there.” One day he asked me if any of the kids teased me about eating with the principal. I responded that I didn’t think any of them knew. I really didn’t have any close friends at this new school. In addition to being principal, Mr. Miller taught sixth grade math. There were two boys in my math class who hadn’t learned the basics they should have learned in lower grades. Mr. Miller was determined to catch them up, spending our class time on remedial math for these two boys. Consequently, the rest of the class never learned our sixth grade math, so we went to junior high school knowing nothing about decimals or pre-algebra.

Cochran Junior High School consisted of grades 7 through 10. My 7th grade math teacher, Miss Brown, was extremely overweight, had a manly voice, never left her desk, and was kind and an excellent teacher. She began each math period with a quick written quiz, with each student running to the front of the room and lining up when finished. We each kept a personal graph showing our accuracy and speed in these quizzes. The first few weeks of her class, she quizzed us on the things we should have learned in sixth grade. I’ve always been good at math, but did poorly in these quizzes, when the questions were about sixth grade basics, which we hadn’t learned. As a result, I received a C in math on my report card. It didn’t take long for me to change that C to an A. Also, the accuracy markings on my graph had a sharp incline, although I didn’t do too well on speed.

One of the first things I learned in junior high school was that I loved physical education class. We were required to buy gym suits that were one-piece blue shorts overall-type outfits. There was a pocket on the front left side of the top, and we were required to have our names in yellow on the right side. Embroidery was preferred, and Millie, a distant relative who lived with my grandparents and was like another grandma to me, did beautiful embroidery, so I asked her to perform this task for me. She suggested that my mother, whose penmanship was spectacular, should write the name for her to embroider. My mother wrote my name with a special flair, which Millie caused to be even more beautiful with her meticulous needlework. Whether it was true or not, I believed I was the envy of every girl in my gym class. But the uniform wasn’t the only thing I loved about this new phenomenon – physical education! This class was responsible for my favorite ninety minutes of the week. We had PE class twice a week, which was two times a week too often for most of my friends, but not nearly often enough for me. I didn’t even mind the compulsory showers at the end of each PE class, even though this gave me a chance to compare and see how far behind I was in the area of physical development; and I wasn’t embarrassed when we lined up according to size and I was the very last one in line. I did well in every activity in PE, and I excelled in tumbling, which was a rather tame introduction to gymnastics. Much of the tumbling was done on mats. One event involved a student crouching at the end of the mat, with arms and legs tucked in, with the other students jumping over the crouching student, tucking their bodies, and ending with somersaults. Then another student would crouch beside the first croucher, then another, and another, etc. Each time, all the other members of the class would run, jump over all the crouching students, tuck their bodies, and end with somersaults. We had a tumbling assembly, in which I was the champion tumbler, clearing ten crouching students, after all the other tumblers had dropped out, one by one, as the number of crouching students increased.

At the insistence of my mother, I enrolled in the Commercial Course, rather than College Prep. At this point of my life, I’d been forced to give up any idea of college or becoming a physical education teacher. I actually enjoyed the Commercial Course, though, and excelled at Typing, Shorthand, Bookkeeping, and Business English. I received awards for fast and accurate typing and shorthand. I would practice shorthand for hours every evening, loving every moment. In my senior year, my shorthand teacher was so impressed with my characters that she’d ask me to write examples on the blackboard. I’m still quite proficient at shorthand and find it helpful when taking notes and creating stories and poems. At the beginning of my tenth grade year, the boys who had no college plans and were enrolled in the Commercial/Technical Course decided to stage a sort of rebellion. They were tired of being represented each year in student council by College Prep students, so they selected one of their own to run for student council president – a very nice looking, soft-spoken, intelligent young man by the name of Don Irons – who won the election. Don was a buddy of mine, he and I being a part of the group of kids who played softball almost every evening at a local playground. Neither of us had a steady at that time, so he asked me to accompany him to the tenth grade prom. The student council president and his date had the responsibility of leading the grand march at this prom, which was quite an honor. I was thrilled!

I spent my junior year at Johnstown High School, with the friends with whom I’d spent four years of junior high. I belonged to the Leaders’ Club, a group of girls who loved physical education, and I’d been assured by the PE teacher that I’d be a cheerleader the next year when I’d be a senior. Then my family moved to a different part of town, and I decided to spend my last year of school there instead of finishing at Johnstown High. I later regretted this decision, when I decided it had been a mistake not to spend my last year of high school with my long-time friends. I did have a good year at Westmont-Upper Yoder High School, though. I made a few friends, and I lettered in athletics, based on a point system for individual and team sports. This was unique to this school. Girls didn’t receive sports letters at Johnstown High School. I also set a record for receiving a letter in one year, which happened because I was fortunate in being on many winning teams. Another happy event for me was that I was cast in the senior class play, which began my enjoyment of theatrical performances that would last for over 70 years.

My parents refused to finance the college education I desired, believing that they could afford college for only one of their two daughters and that my sister was the logical one to receive such an education. After I was married and had two children, at the age of 30, I began college. In four years I achieved a B.A. and earned a teaching credential. I couldn’t have done it without my husband’s support. He believed in me, even though my parents hadn’t.

Lois McKinney
January 2021