For whom the bell tolls
Back in my elementary school days, we were summoned to school by the ringing of a bell. The bell was perched high up in a steeple atop an old wooden building. It was the original school structure in town and, although we didn’t know it at the time, its days were numbered.
I remember well Rudy Anderson – our custodian and good friend – whose job it was to pull the rope that rang the bell.
If you were a good boy or girl, Rudy might allow you to help him pull the rope to ring the bell. I can still visualize that rope snaking up through a hole in the entryway ceiling. It was a big deal to help Rudy.
Sometimes I would hang around the entryway hoping Rudy would ask me, but most mornings I’d be busy playing and forget all about school until the bell brought me back to reality.
When the bell tolled one didn’t simply rush into the building. There was a certain tradition to be observed. The bigger kids (fifth- and sixth-graders) had first claim on the doors. They were followed by the third- and fourth-graders. We little kids (first- and second-graders) were the last to enter the school. (This was when kindergarten was still a novel idea in Iowa.)
Our teacher would stand patiently by the door, waiting for each of us to make our grand entrance. Things had to be checked. (Dirty hands, shoes or boots were not permitted.) If one managed to sneak by the teacher and later was discovered, the guilty party was sent to the bathroom while the rest of the class giggled.
That was bad, but what was even worse was getting caught with gum or candy in your mouth following recess. The first offense meant having to stand in front of the class until the next recess. Cleaning the blackboards and erasers was the punishment for the second offense. The person who became a three-time loser really was in trouble. The teacher would make them stick whatever it was they were chewing on the end of their nose. Talk about embarrassing!
There was only one punishment in a guy’s life even more extreme: getting caught talking to a girl during class. The sentence was swift and final: sit with her at her desk for the rest of the day. (Talk about cruel and inhumane punishment.)
Recesses were what it was all about. No matter how much trouble one got into during class, there was always the promise of the next recess. It was the light at the end of the tunnel.
We’d play everything from being a dive-bomber pilot on the swings to crack the whip, but the favorite was “blackman.” The object of the game was simple - there were two safe zones with plenty of grass in between.
A few kids would be chosen to be “it.” They would try to tackle the other players as they ran from one safe zone to the other. The kid who made it the longest without being caught was the winner.
Things went well for nearly a whole year of blackman until a new family moved to town. They had a really big girl named Shirley who was in our class. No one could ever tackle her. She’d carry half our class with her as she passed the safe line without even slowing down. She was like a Sherman tank.
The only time we would ever play blackman after that was when Shirley wasn’t at school. We weren’t afraid of her, we just respected her and her skills.
That was nearly 60 years ago. Shortly after I entered junior high a few years later, volunteers tore down the old wooden elementary school. I didn’t think much about it at the time or for many years thereafter. I do now. I’d give a lot to hear that old school bell toll one more time.
(Ed Rood is former publisher of the Tri-County Times. He and his wife, Sharon, live near Cambridge.)