So, you ask yourself, what about those pictures of the elementary schools he mentioned in his Leonardo blog entry.
Well, here is the first one and a description of some of my adventures as a kiddygarter through 4th grader.
When it came time for me to go to school I was very excited. Now, I would finally be able to read comic books! Such is the great lie of kindergarten. We wouldn’t be getting on to reading for at least a year and it was a couple of more years till I could actually read comics. Sigh.
James Whitcomb Riley Elementary was on the corner of Urbandale Avenue and 53rd St in Des Moines, Iowa, and was built in 1917. It had two stories and a basement as I recall, with the basement being a half-flight down from the entrance. I think the older students had their classes on the upper floors.
I attended Riley from kindergarten to fourth grade, when we lived on Merle Hay Road. That would be 1953 through 1958. I transferred to Moore Elementary for fifth and sixth grades when we moved to 52nd St.
I remember all my teachers at Riley although I’m not sure I remember the spelling of their names perfectly.
Here they are:
Kindergarten – Miss Gode (Goad?) (Margarite?)
1st – Mrs. Fisher
2nd – Mrs. Florence Tenney
3rd – Mrs. Kappelman (Thelma?)
4th – Mr. Cooper
I suppose just about everyone loves their kindergarten teacher, I did. I don’t remember a lot about the class. I do remember that they had a kind of blocky playhouse with a slide and I remember her making us lay down at nap time, much to my displeasure. She had very white hair.
Mrs. Fisher was the first teacher I ever had a run-in with. She had this unique punishment that we all lived in mortal fear of. For a long time I had only observed it being administered to other students. “Not me,” I hoped, “Not me!” But such was not to be my fate. On the playground one day, one of the girls clobbered me and only being six years old I clobbered her back. She wasn’t seen doing it. I was. Hauled in front of Magistrate Fisher the verdict and sentence were swift and sure. Her hand shot out and she pinched my chin between her thumb and forefinger. Shaking up and down, my teeth went clickety, click, click.
We were also introduced to Dick and Jane in this class. See Spot run. Run, run, run and all that. There was a “Think and Do” workbook that came with the series. I remember two activities, one was a page with a picture of the characters for us to color. I colored the house black and was called to task for that. Another one showed an overhead view of the neighborhood with Sally and Spot in the foreground and their house in the background. There was a small circular park in the middle of the road. They must have lived on a cul-de-sac or something. Our job was to sketch the paths that each of them would take to get to their house. Being a good, obedient, and proper boy, I drew them dutifully staying on the path as they were surely expected to do. One of the kids drew a straight line for Spot cutting right across the park on the shortest route. I wonder if this was some early test to identify students who thought “outside the box” or maybe to identify future troublemakers and jaywalkers.
During the years it had stood there, Riley felt the pinch of increasing enrollments. They had built an annex off to the side of the main building. I always assumed it was during the baby boomer years which I was an early part of. But the photo I got from the Des Moines Public Schools shows the annex with a 30â€™s vintage car out front so the annex must have been built much earlier. You can see half the annex off to the right in the picture at the top of this entry.
My second grade class with Miss Tenney was in the left classroom of the two the annex housed. I was given to believe she was a first-year teacher and we were her first class but I think now we were her second or third one. She was pretty young at any rate and I liked her a lot.
That year we learned how to shoot marbles and that started a craze all across the whole school. We were taught the traditional game with a circle and a player trying to knock the other guy’s marbles outside the ring by thumbing his marble into the center. We didn’t care for that much though. Our preferred game was to have the two players stand next to each other. The first one threw his marble out ahead of him. The second player threw his marble trying to hit the first one. If he hit it, it became his. If he missed, it was the first player’s turn again and he tried to hit the second guy’s marble. This went on, back and forth, till one player hit the other’s marble and won it. We had a subtle variation on this game. We put up a marble as the prize of the competition, but we did our actual gameplay with another marble. Sometimes this marble was called the shooter, but more often we called it a boulder.
Most normal marbles were made of glass, about a half inch in diameter. They came in three types. Puries (pure ones) were clear glass and could come in many different transparent colors. My favorites were green and gold. Sometimes they would have an air bubble inclusion in them. I found that by putting a clear one up to my eye it would function as a magnifying lens. The second type was the cat’s eye. It usually was completely clear, no color but had a painted swirl in the middle reminiscent of a catâ€™s eye. These could be quite beautiful depending on the colors used in the swirl. The last type was the least desirable. It was opaque glass and often had stripes or swirls of different colors on its surface.
Boulders were bigger than the normal marbles, about an inch in diameter. They came in the same colorations as the others. Boulders were seldom put up as prizes to be won or lost. The most prized boulder was the “steely.” It really was a ball bearing the size of the other boulders. Since you would hardly ever be able to win the other guys in boulder, the next best thing was to hit it hard enough that it would explode. Using another glass boulder yourself meant yours could be the one that exploded just as easily. One advantage that the steelies had was they wouldn’t break.
With all the marbles around, there were bound to be marble incidents. I was showing my collection to some guys one time when a big kid, I donâ€™t remember his name, sneaked up behind us, swooped down, and scooped up a handful of my marbles and ran off. What could I do, he was a big kid? Well, I told a couple of my own big kid friends, Billy Leffler and Rod Atha, and they roughed him up a little bit for stealing from me. Long after that he had a ruptured appendix and died. The marbles didn’t have anything to do with that of course, but as a kid you associate unrelated things sometimes and I worried I may have been the cause of it somehow.
Approximate location of the infamous marble heist
As you would expect, lots of marbles in lots of little second-grade pockets led to almost constant spills as hands went into pockets to retrieve some other non-marble object. It was so bad that marbles were in danger of being banned altogether. Miss Tenney came to the rescue. She came up with a project for us. Granted, it didn’t seem quite right to us boys since it was kind of a girlish thing. She had us make marble pouches. These can be any size but most often they were three or 4 inches square when finished. They pulled shut with a drawstring. She even showed us how to braid the strings. She positioned us around the walls of the room, tied the knot on the ends of three pieces of string and thumb tacked them to the framework of the blackboards. Then it was left over middle, right over middle, till we got to the end of the strings. She tied them off for us and we sewed them into the bags. I seem to recall that we had to “check” our marbles during class time.
I could remember a couple of names of my fellow students from that time, but not many. I called the Des Moines School District to see if they had class lists. They told me they had some but I would need to get permission from every person on the list for them to release the list to me. How was I ever going to be able to do that when I wanted the list to help me remember who they were in the first place? They didn’t have any problem telling me about the teachers, however. As I ran through the list I recounted at the beginning of this story, I was told that this one was dead and that one was dead. I didn’t figure I would even be able to find Miss Tenney because she was pretty, and probably married over the years. I didn’t have a clue what her first name was. They told me they had a Ms Tenney and they gave me her first name, Florence, her address, and her phone number. I called her immediately. As luck would have it, it was a school holiday and I found her at home. I asked if she had any class lists. She had all but two of her classes over her entire career. She had mine. She sent me a copy and a recent photo of herself. I was sad that she did not remember me but it had been almost 50 years in the past. When I got her letter I opened it and eagerly scanned through the list. I recognized a few names but not as many as I hoped. I slept on it and the next morning I could remember many more. When I wrote my letter back to her, I included a picture of myself from 1955, when I was in her room, and a sentence or two about everyone I remembered, from a second grader’s perspective. [After I put up this blog entry I did a little web research and found Miss Tenney again. I called her and asked her if she would like to read this account. She did, so I sent her the link to this. She had a couple of corrections. I guess she got married the year before she was my teacher, so her name was really Mrs Tenney. 55 years of having this wrong. No wonder she was easier to find than I thought she would be.]
At that time most students in the lower grades stayed in their home rooms all day. By third grade they had started to have some specialized classes; art, music, gym, that sort of thing. But because of the overcrowding we started passing classes in second grade, a year early.
When I went to third grade I just switched to the right side of the annex. Mrs. Kappelman was my teacher. We did a unit on transportation or commerce or something. During that unit I became familiar with the song “Donkey Riding.” A donkey is a crane used dockside to unload ships. Mrs. Kappelman explained all this to us and much of the other obscure imagery in the song. Also as part of the unit we created a mural of what we were studying. She tapped out Frederick Wagner and me to draw some of the trickier bits. Years later when I wrote to Miss Tenney I discovered that Fred’s last name was really Weidner.
In third grade I was in a hurry to get to school one day. I must’ve been late so I just pulled on the trousers I had worn the day before. Sometime after I arrived at school I felt a bunching in my pants and realized to my horror that the underwear I had taken off the previous evening when I was putting on my pajamas had found their way into my pant leg. You know what happened next. When I wasn’t looking they sneaked out and positioned themselves right in the middle of the floor. The teacher, Mrs. Kappelman, spied them and went right over and picked them up. Holding them up to the air she said, “Who’s are these?” Right! Like anyone would answer. “They look kind of small,” and named the two or three smallest boys in the class, me among them. “Are these yours?” “No!!!” The loss of a pair of skivvies was far more preferable than a lifetime of ridicule and mortification.
Riley had a small auditorium. One Christmas we were giving a Yuletide Pageant. For some reason I was chosen to play the sleepy boy through whose head the sugarplums danced. Mostly I just laid in the bed pretending to be asleep. I had to wear pajamas which only makes sense if you think about it. But for some reason the thought of being seen in my jammies embarrassed me. Almost like being seen in my underwear. I guess the pageant must have had a Nutcracker theme but I don’t remember anything else about it.
We also used the auditorium for timed tests. During arithmetic they would march us down there and hand out a mimiograph sheet of all the math problems for that class. At first it was addition and subtraction, but in later years we also had multiplication and division tests. Mostly there were 81 problems; 1×1, 1×2, 1×3, up to 9×9. They seemed to ignore the zero ones. They were really cagey though. They would present them in random order so you really had to learn them and couldnâ€™t just memorize a pattern. I didnâ€™t do too bad, finishing second or third sometimes.
At recess we used to have an organized activity. Often times it was a Pom Pom Pull Away. All the kids were at one end of the playing field and the guy that was “it” was in the middle. When he yelled “pom pom pull away” we all ran to the other end. The “it” guy tagged as many people as he could during the mad dash. That left a bunch of kids in the middle and fewer at the finish line. Then we had to run again but it was easier to get caught because there were more â€œitsâ€. This went on till everyone had been caught, then the game was over. The first person tagged was â€œitâ€ for the next round. In another variation, the last one tagged was “it” but that doesn’t seem right does it. If you were going to be stigmitized by being “it”, why would you want to be the last one caught?
The last grade I attended at Riley was fourth. Mr. Cooper was my teacher and I liked him a whole lot. He was the first male teacher I had. I heard a rumor that he was going to shift to Moore Elementary School when I did but that never happened.
Riley was abandoned in the 1970’s and its students reassigned to 2 other nearby schools. I was long gone by then of course. When I got the scans of my schools from the Des Moines Public Schools Library Services Department in 2010, I learned that Riley stood vacant for a while, then was home of the Des Moines Ballet after that. It caught fire and burned down around that time. I wanted to look at the old school when I was older and even took Karen by to see it, but it was no longer there. The location is now a city park named in honor of the school. The playing field which seemed as big as a football field turned out to be no bigger than a city lot.