The date is September 8, 1953 and it’s Pat Fournier’s first day of school. In this next installment of “Memories of a Boy Growing Up in Blackville”, join Pat as he walks the mile and a half trek to school, while sharing memories of the people and places along the way.
Written by Pat Fournier
I remember my first day of school. It was Tuesday, September 8, 1953, the first day after Labour Day.
We had played ‘school’ before, but this time I would be going to school for real! What we used to do was put our kitchen chairs in a row, and make believe we were sitting in class. Then Katharine or Marjorie or one of their friends who was already in school too, would pretend to be the teacher, and walk around with a ruler and bang it on the table and ask questions, and yell at us to sit up straight! I was only six years old, and knew we were only playing, but it was hard for me to believe that that was really what school was all about – – having a teacher strut around and shout at the students!
But I could hardly wait to go to school! I wolfed down my bowl of fluffs cereal, and gulped down the last drops of my glass of milk. My brother Johnny was already in school, in grade two, so I’d be walking to school with him. Mom had us all dressed up in our best clothes of course, and we had our hair parted and slicked down with water.
Our cousins Ronnie and Michael McLaughlin came out of their house across the road just as we left our house. Ronnie was in grade two with Johnny, and Michael was going to school for the first time too. As the four of us started walking to school together, I looked back for a minute and saw my mother crying in the doorway. I was the youngest in the family, and she used to call me her “little boy-boy”. So now I guess she was going to miss my not being home with her all day.
Alton Underhill came out of his door when we were in front of his house, and he walked beside Johnny and Ronnie, because they were all in grade two. Michael and I walked behind them, and compared the stuff we were bringing to school for the first time: a scribbler, a pencil, and a slate and a slate pencil.
And I can still remember all the houses and stores and things we passed on our mile and a half walk to school: First was Monica Donahue’s little house there on the right as we walked down the hill. Everyone said she was a strict teacher, and it sounded like nobody liked her. I was hoping I wouldn’t get her for a teacher!
A little further on was Jenny Hayes’ house, at the corner of the Main Road and the Station Road, with the Blackville train station down at the end. Jenny had a store a little ways down that road, where we bought our groceries on credit until Dad earned enough money to pay for them.
At the other corner, across the road from Jenny’s house, was Fred Crawford’s Irving garage. I heard someone say that he used to climb the telephone poles when he worked for the power company, until one day he touched an electric wire and fell to the ground. After that accident, he had to have his arm amputated, so now he only had an empty left sleeve that was folded up and fastened at his shoulder with a big safety pin.
Once we crossed the Station Road by Fred’s garage, we didn’t have to walk on the side of the road anymore, because now there was a sidewalk we could use. And right there near the corner after the garage was the little Blackville Credit Union office. I remember going in there with Dad once when I was very little, and he sat me up on the counter as he did his banking business.
After a couple more houses, we walked past the Urquhart’s store. The two old maid Urquhart sisters sold snack food like chips and pop and candy, as well as school supplies. Over the years, that store would be a favourite of mine and other kids too, because the ladies were always so pleasant and cheerful with us.
A little ways past their place was Ivan Quinn’s store. He sold all kinds of hardware, like the big washtub that Mom used to wash her clothes in, and I used to take my Saturday night bath in. And right across from his store was St. Raphael’s Catholic Church, where our family went to mass every Sunday.
A couple of houses later we went by Russ Underhill’s house, where his wife rented out rooms and served meals to travelers. And Mr. Underhill had a barbershop downstairs, where Dad always took me to get my hair cut. Russ had to put a big board across the arms of the barber chair for me to sit on so I was high enough for him to use the scissors and clippers on my hair. I remember how it was fun to be bumped up higher on the chair each time he pumped a big handle by the side of the chair to crank it higher.
The next store we came to was Mr. Tuzo’s store. He had a system for making change for a customer that none of the other stores had. When a customer gave Mr. Tuzo money for whatever they were buying, Mr. Tuzo would write up the bill, and then put that and the money in a locking change cup, and send it zipping across a wire up to the cashier’s office at the back of the store. Then the cashier would send the cup back to Mr. Tuzo with the right amount of change. I don’t know how that change cup moved so fast along that tight wire between the front counter and the cash office, but boy, it sure whizzed along! I used to like going to the store and seeing them do that!
After a couple of houses further down the street, we came to Frenette’s restaurant, where you could swivel on a stool in front of the counter, and listen to the songs that were being played in the juke box.
Down a bit further was St. Andrew’s United Church, up high on the hill, with the graveyard full of grey headstones. There were steep cement steps leading from the sidewalk up to the front door, and if you sat up at the top step you could look over the trees by the houses across the road, and see the school on the other side of the Bartholomew river.
Just below the church, at the turn in the road, was the big steel girder bridge that crossed over the Bartholomew River. When we stood on the walkway on the bridge, we could look over the railing and down at all the logs that were floated down the river to the mill. There were men with spiked ‘peevee’ poles pushing the logs toward a chute, where a chain with hooks hauled the logs up into the mill where the bark was trimmed off the logs, and then the logs were cut into boards. The noise from the saws buzzing and cutting up the logs was sometimes deafening.
From the bridge we could see the Blackville schoolhouse, up at the end of the School Lane. But there was a ‘School Patrol’ boy stationed at the end of the bridge, and we had to wait for him to lead us across the road. He was a boy from one of the big grades, and he was in charge of getting all the school kids across the road safely. He wore a special ‘uniform’ belt, which was a wide white belt clipped around his waist, with another belt that crossed from front to back over his shoulder. It was his job to stop the kids from crossing the road if there were cars coming. And he had the authority to make oncoming cars stop for school kids, by holding up his hand, then letting school kids cross to the other side.
The schoolhouse was a big white two-story building at the end of the School Lane. The school was built in the form of a “T”, with the top of the “T” facing towards the School Road. There were high windows in all of the classrooms on each of the floors. And while there were big double doors at the steps at the front of the school, only the teachers were allowed to use them. All the students going to school had to enter the back door.
Shortly after we arrived in the schoolyard, a big man with bushy eyebrows and dressed in a suit came out the back door and stood on the cement step, holding a bell in his hand by its black handle. I remember thinking that it looked like he was mad or something, because he seemed to have a stern look on his face. Someone said his name was Mr. Sobey, and that he was the school principal. After looking around for a second, he rang the bell and all the kids stopped playing, and rushed to get in line at the steps to go into school. We all lined up at the steps with the big grade twelve students first in line, and then all the lower grades after them. So I was one of the last kids in the line, with all the other grade one students who were going to school for the first time.
As soon as I entered the school, I smelled a strange pine tree kind of smell, which I later learned came from the green Dust-Bane powder that Mr. MacDonald, the school janitor, spread on the floors to keep the dust down. And I also later learned that if there was enough coarse Dust-Bane powder on the floor, and you got a bit of a running start, you could slide down the hall on it – – if there were no teachers around to catch you!
Some of the school rooms were occupied by two grades, with the teacher dividing her time between each class. So the grade one kids sat in the back seats, and got to hear what was being taught to the grade twos. And the grade two kids got to listen again to what they’d already learned the year before.
So I finally got to sit at a real school desk, not a pretend one with a kitchen chair! There was a little glass ink well at the front corner of each desk, but the ink wells were dried up, with a crust of black ink stuck on the glass around the inside. And the desks had hinged tops that we could lift up and put our stuff inside.
Miss Vickers was the teacher for both grade one and grade two. She went down each row and asked the new grade one kids their names, and when she got to me, I answered: “Patty”.
Then she asked me how I spelled my name, and when I spelled “P-a-t-t-y”, she said, “No, that can’t be right! ‘Patty’ is a girl’s name!”
I remembered my mother saying that when I was born on St. Patrick’s Day, someone said I should be called “Paddy” instead of Patrick or Pat. But then instead of “P-a-d-d-y”, my name ended up being spelled like a girls’ name!? At least that’s what Miss Vickers said. So I didn’t know what to say back to her, but I remember I felt there must be something wrong about what she said. But I couldn’t argue with her, so I just sat there and bit my lip and tried not to cry!
After she got everyone’s name, we had a sing-song! Usually she’d ask what songs we’d like to sing, and we’d often choose an old Stephen Foster song, like ‘Swanee River’ or ‘Old Black Joe’. And we could hear kids in the other classrooms singing their favourite songs too!
Then halfway through the morning, we heard an airplane flying low near the school. I excitedly dropped my slate on my desk, and ran over to one of the big windows to look for it! But when I looked around, I saw that I was the only kid that did that! Then Miss Vickers asked me to please return to my seat. But I knew she wasn’t mad at me, ‘cause she was smiling when she said it!
A lot of the kids laughed, so I felt a bit foolish and shy. But see, we didn’t see very many planes back then in the fifties, so when one flew low it was pretty exciting. I remember once when I was smaller, when just Mom and I were home by ourselves, we could hear planes flying low to spray the trees for spruce bud worms, and she put me up on her shoulder when one flew low right over us, and in my imagination I felt like I could reach up and touch it!
Later, Mr. Sobey rang his big bell out in the hallway, and everyone left their classrooms and went outside for recess. It was a hot sunny day, and a bunch of us went and stood in the sun in the front of the schoolhouse. After a little bit, I looked around and found that I was the only one standing there! I guess Mr. Sobey had rung the bell by the back door, letting everyone know that it was time to go back into school, but I didn’t hear it!
So I thought, now what was I going to do? At first I thought that I might be able to go in the back doors and back to my seat and no one would notice. But of course they would! But what if I went downstairs to the boys’ bathroom first, and then back up to the classroom? That might work! But what if the back door was locked after everyone else went in?
After going around to the back school yard and confirming that no one was outside but me, and not knowing what to do, I figured I’d just walk down the School Lane by myself and walk back home. But just as I started walking away from the school, Johnny came out and got me to take me back inside. I guess Miss Vickers noticed that I was missing from my desk, and sent Johnny out to find me. I sure felt stupid as all the other kids looked at me – – again! – – as I sat back in my seat.
When I got back home at lunchtime, I told Mom what Miss Vickers had said about me having a girl’s name, and she was mad at her for saying that!
“It’s not a girl’s name!” she said. “It can be for both boys and girls!”
And I later found out that she was right, because there were at least two other kids named “Patty” who went to our school – – Patty Ross and Patty Gamache.
So it finally turned out okay about my name, but what a way to start school!
The teacher said I had a girls’ name!
I was laughed at for getting up to look out the window for an airplane!
And then I didn’t hear the bell to go back in after recess!
That was one heck of a first day of school!
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