Mrs. Carrie Hamilton, my first grade teacher, was a woman from Victorian times living in the post WWII world. She wore Red Cross shoes and the dowager’s wardrobe that made her look 80 years old although I am certain she was much younger than that but, as was the practice of the time, she had declared herself old at age 50 and proceeded to play the part. And there she was with forty-four six-year olds to foster through the very long school day and into the world of the late Twentieth Century.
She made neither effort nor pretense of effort to get with the times. Oh sure enough, she let the girls with their poodle skirts play Elvis’ Hound Dog while skipping rope at recess, but I am certain that she felt duty bound to bring us to her world and not the other way around.
And that is why it must have been so very hard for her to reconcile what was planned for Wednesday of the coming week. I don’t know whether her actions were carefully thought out or a simple reaction. But she had a plan and she began to let it unfold.
“You should all bring in newspapers on Monday. We will have a project.” And dutifully, as was the way of time when teacher’s word was to be remembered and obeyed, that Monday we brought in yesterday’s news for some secret project. The Sun- Telegraph and the Eagle. The Post- Gazette and the Press. All were piled on a huge stack. There was an air of excitement and curiosity. All morning, while working with our Think and Do books we stole furtive glimpses of the papers. What were they for?
We would learn soon enough. After lunch we began our work. We opened the papers and, using the round- blade scissors allocated to the primary kids, cut them into 2-inch wide strips. Over and over. We continued until we had 50 of them – some of us could count that high – and then we threw away the considerable piles of scrap.
Next we began to weave the papers just as Mrs. Hamilton demonstrated. Over and under. Over and over. What resulted was a mat about 20 inches by 30 inches. And we secured the loose ends with that cheap library paste that had a smell so strong that it could even overpower the typical background smell of any contemporary elementary school –floor wax. We initialed them. We put them aside to dry. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to take this to my mother as a gift. They were not very attractive. Tuesday came and went – the mats remained in place.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. White, our principal, came to call. He told us about an “air raid drill”. Some eyes opened wider. Some faces tilted and took on a perplexed look. Even as kids we were vaguely aware of the atomic bomb and the Russians, but this was a shock–we never imagined a war could come to us. There might have been questions but I think everyone was too frightened to ask. At 10 o’clock sharp, from half a mile down the road, the siren at the Penn Township Volunteer Fire Dept, cranked up and began to moan at full volume. The stray dogs that seemed to live on the playground stood in place, raised their noses to the sky, and began a sympathetic yowl. We took our places under the tables with Mr. White coaching us about how to duck and cover. Under my table I could see others across the room. Wisecracking Bobby was silent. Jovial Waldy was suddenly serious. Fearless Betsy had eyes like saucers.
Despite whatever nightmares may have been born that day, our little bottoms did not get dusty. Our teacher, the woman from our grandmothers’ age of gentility, had ensured that we had mats to sit on. Thoughtful, I guess, but even to a six year-old, it seemed incongruous.