We don’t stop for nobody: Some memories of childhood

Our kids started school again this week. One of the teachers wants the kids to bring their morning snack in a container labelled “snack.” It’s annoying to have one more thing to remember, but I see the sense in it. A kid who turns up with a miscellaneous bag of food for the day is likely to snarf down the whole thing at snack time, and then have nothing left when it’s actually lunch time. 

I was trying to remember how we handled snack time when I was seven. I don’t think we actually had one. Kids had the option to buy milk for ten cents, or chocolate milk for fifteen. This was delivered by a milk monitor, who was chosen by the teacher as an honor. Once she chose me, and I had no idea what to do, so I stood out in the dim hallway and cried. This was my go-to strategy throughout my school career and beyond.

Schools are gentler on children now, in some ways, and harder on them in others.  In general, I don’t trust people who think everything new is bad, any more than I trust people who think anything old is bad. I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to ponder anything heavy right now, anything about society or culture or civilization. But I have been thinking about how different some little things used to be. I was in first grade around 1980, for reference. 

When I was little, snow days were reserved for real blizzards, when the roads were mayhem and the snow piled up past our waists. They definitely never cancelled school for just plain low temperatures, as they do now; and they never cancelled it until the morning. We woke up early after staying up late, staring out the window and hoping. My mother would tune the radio to a station on the foreign end of the dial: M106, the local rock and roll station. The DJ would reel of lists of school closures every six minutes or so, in between sets of songs. My poor mother, cursing and muttering as she suffered through “Like a Virgin.”

There were school buses, but only if you lived a significant distance away. My sister, in fourth grade, used to walk me, in first grade, to school over a mile away. There was a crossing guard who looked exactly like the Queen of Hearts, glaring at the cars to stop, then glaring at us kids to go. 

If it was cold, my terrible mother would make us wear full-body snowsuits from Maresn’s Army Navy Department Store. We certainly never had indoor recess on account of cold weather, like my kids do now. I do remember students standing in a huddled circle on the playground, taking turns at being the one who got to stand inside in the relative warmth for a few minutes. It was all very Siberian. 

We sledded down the big hill all winter, where the sun hit the slope and polished it to glaring ice. When it warmed up, of course we played tag and hide and seek, jump rope, hopscotch, four square, red rover, cat’s cradle, and some dimly-remembered stair-hopping game called “Witchy-Poo,” and my kids play many of these same games. I remember hanging upside down on the jungle gym languorously wailing, “We Are the World.”

Playgrounds really were paved, and every playground had a real see-saw that swung up and down freely with a musical groan. Sometimes some malicious girl on the low end would suddenly leap off her seat, leaving you to plummet to the ground, jarring your tailbone and clashing your jaws together. Now most playgrounds are padded, and the parts that move have a limited, baffled range of motion. Sometimes the railings are so high, you can’t even tell you’re off the ground even when you’ve climbed to the top; so kids are safe but they also don’t figure out what’s safe and what will get their heads bashed in. 

I clearly remember the heady thrill of linking arms with a friend or two and roaming belligerently around the playground chanting, “WE-DON’T-STOP-FOR-NO-BOD-Y. WE-DON’T-STOP-FOR-NO-BOD-Y.” If anyone got in our way, we would, as advertised, not stop. There was also the chant that went, “We are drunk! We are drunk! A bottle of beer, a BOOT in the rear; we are drunk!” and at “BOOT!” you would kick your leg up, can-can style. It would be hard to overstate how much fun it was. Way more fun than actually being drunk, as I later found.

We had heard that in West Street School, the mysterious school on other side of town, the strange children there called their teachers by their first names. This was scandalous and unsettling.  Teachers were always Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. In fifth grade, we had our first teacher who was a Ms., which inspired much eye-rolling. She had a perm, too, if you can imagine, and glasses with some kind of tricky scallop built into the frames. Probably from Massachusetts. 

When kids were bad, they had to fold their arms on the desk and put their heads down. The really mean teachers would yell, “I wanna see noses touching the desk!” This was intensely mortifying. You didn’t know if everyone else was doing something cool or something boring or maybe just staring at your stupid, exposed, beet-red neck. It only happened to me once or twice, usually when the whole class was being punished en masse. But a few times a year, the real reprobates would be put “in castle,” and the custodian would be summoned to erect a cardboard box around the bad kid, to segregate and humiliate him; and that’s how he would stay all day. I suppose it was a refrigerator box, but it might as well have been an iron maiden. Brutal.  

Their was one kid named Keith who got in trouble a lot. Like all the rest of the class, I was mean to him, all the time. When I made his valentine in third grade, I put a pig sticker on it. When the music teacher paired us up to folk dance, I grabbed my hand away as fast as I could and wiped it on my pants. I saw him many years later when I was taking some test, an SAT make-up or something. He softly offered me a Chiclet, and I said no, and acted like I didn’t know him. I have always felt bad about that — even worse than I feel for everything else I did. Man, I am sorry. 

I don’t really know what typical discipline is like now. I guess it varies widely from school to school. They are allowed to use “fidgets” in school, to keep their hands busy while their minds are concentrating; and there is an assortment of futuristic chairs to suit every possible sitting style. In the hallway of my kids’ school, there is a list of activities they can do — crab walk, hop on one foot — to get the wiggles out if they can’t behave in class. Sometimes I discipline kids that way myself. Sometimes I am more old school. 

We had a teacher with a mania for tidiness in fourth grade. He was a tall, broad-shouldered Irishman with thick glasses and a bristling red mustache. He would inspect our desks, striding up and down the rows of the room like General Patton, and if one desk were found to be especially sloppy, he would hoist it up in his mighty arms and dump it out onto the floor and then stride away, leaving the sniveling child to crawl around in the wreckage and put his belongings back together. Strangely, I remember him mostly as a kind man, in between his sudden furies. He never dumped my desk, I guess. 

Anyway, that school had polished hardwood floors and enormously high and gracious windows, so now it is condominiums.

It is strange that, when my kids show up with some new evidence they’re being treated with care and concern, and being protected from something harsh in the world, I’m impatient and annoyed. I don’t actually want them to be cold and hungry. I don’t want them to break their elbows and be crushed in spirit. I want them to be understood.

Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids have as much fun as we had when we chanted, ” WE-DON’T-STOP-FOR-NO-BOD-Y.” 


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6 thoughts on “We don’t stop for nobody: Some memories of childhood”

  1. Elementary school very later part of the 80s and early 90s.

    I grew up in Arizona. Went to Catholic school K-8, two different school due to my dad being transferred from Phoenix to Yuma (after 3rd grade). The heat didn’t change (still triple digits most of the year), just more agriculture.

    The playground equipment (K-3) was metal and wood and concrete. And no pavement. Just dirt and grass and rocks. Metal in triple digit weather. No indoor recess (we didn’t have winter like other people plus no place to go). On the Kindergarten playground, we even had a “tree house” that was two stories and wood. I loved that thing. The regular playground was a really huge field and didn’t have a fence and you could easily be out of sight of whatever teacher had playground duty. We had the wood play structure that we called “The Pirate Ship”. No idea why but it certainly could be imagined as a ship.

    Had all lay teachers, no sisters though there were several living in the house that overlooked the playground. Once, one of the sisters showed me and one of my sisters their pet rabbit that lived in their inside garden. Those sisters were nice. My 1st grade teacher Mrs. Meyer also had a rabbit and kept it in the classroom. She also taught us about dinosaurs. And always wore this blue apron with two big pockets on the front. My 2nd grade teacher Mrs. Hennessey gave me extra lunch recess time once. 2nd grade was also when I asked Tommy if he had kissed Wendy (can’t remember if he responded ) and I got my one and only bloody nose that I was absolutely proud of (Sophia accidentally hit me up the nose playing one of those hand games which I’m not going to be able to really explain so I won’t). Mrs. Mitchell, 3rd grade, taught us about hot air balloons and count to ten in Japanese (her husband was in the military and had been stationed there). I played with boys that year because all the girl classmates though boys had cooties and I thought boys were more fun to play with.

    Every Friday was cheese pizza day. We had hot lunches sent in from another school district and every Friday was cheese pizza. May not have been the greatest but it was pizza. We could have hot lunch or bring from home.

    We moved to Yuma the summer before 4th grade due to my dad being transferred. That playground had metal slides. And again, triple degree heat. Yes, kids still went down them. All the playground equipment was metal, except the swing seats which wree rubber. Lunch (from home, no cafeteria) was eaten outside on the covered ramada which had picnic tables in rows for each grade, two really long tables per row. I ate alone in the middle while boys and girls sat together at separate ends. I didn’t have friends from 4th grade onward. Unless it rained, we ate lunch on the ramada and had recess outside. And it doesn’t rain very often in Yuma. 2-3 inches a year.

    I hated the uniforms at this school because it was yellow and green plaid. It was hideous. Add in the dress uniforms (itchy yellow sweater vest and ribbon tie for the girls which we had to wear regardless of the weather) and I absolutely hate school uniforms. I was grateful when I got to high school and didn’t have to wear uniforms ever again.

    I had pretty decent teachers. My biggest problem was classmates.

  2. I entered first grade in 1969 at parochial school. I still remember most of the names and can picture the faces of most of the kids I went to school with because we were together from 1st to 8th grade and then most of us went to the local Catholic high school. You remember people you spent most of your waking hours with for 12 years. And most of us were parishioners and the parents knew each other well. I had mostly kind teachers – only two cranky ones. There was a Polish IHM sister whom I was especially fond of and who was an excellent teacher. She wore a modified habit, but was orthodox. I remember her doing a happy dance at the front of the classroom when JPII was elected pope. The janitor was a cranky coot – always getting upset about deflated balls, clogged drinking fountains, and toilet paper. I don’t remember much drama/trauma/bullying in the playground as the teachers and volunteer parents took turns monitoring the playground. Since it was a parochial school there weren’t funds for fancy playground equipment. Recess time was segregated by age and sex. The younger kids played near the classrooms and the older kids got the large parking lot and field near the church hall. I stunk at tetherball and dodgeball because I was not aggressive. There was no gym or cafeteria. If it the weather was bad, we ate in our classrooms and the poor teacher had to deal with us. Once a week the Catholic Daughters of America served hot lunch for a few quarters. You got boxed milk every day if you had your punch card your parents paid for. Sometimes there was ice cream for sale. I got bloody noses frequently, so I spent quite a bit of time lying on the cot in the secretary’s office. I loved lying in there listening to the affairs of the adult world. The principal’s office was a mysterious place that only the principal and parents were allowed into. (We only had female principals during my time.) I only knew one kid who came from a divorced family. I went to her house for a birthday party and I thought it was so weird that she lived alone with just her mom and her sister. And in a condo! I taught at a parochial school in the late 8Os and found that things hadn’t changed much – except that there were more kids from divorced families, more diversity, and more non-Catholics enrolled.

  3. Oh I loved loved reading this. Thank you. I love talking about “the old days”- my kids roll their eyes.

    I remember the metal spring trampolines without the security nets around them, and the static shock you would get from jumping on the course nylon mat for hours. The best!

    Walking to the corner store ALONE to buy lollies- my grandad used to send my 8 year old brother and cousin to buy him cigarettes- no worries! Because the shop owner knew my grandad- God rest his Soul.

    School was another time. Miss Tucker my year 1 teacher was young and pretty and I wanted to be like her. Abit like Miss Honey from Matilda.

    But I sympathise with your regret at treating another kid badly. We had a girl in primary school who had cerebral palsey who was very strong-willed and I remember we weren’t very nice to her because she was different. We didn’t do anything directly nasty, we just didn’t make her feel included. I wish I was 10 again I would have made her feel more welcome.

    I remember first year of highschool we were real monsters. We had a Latin teacher (first year learning Latin) called Mrs Ludwig who had a cross between a high-pitched and hoarse voice. We learnt nothing that first year. We ran rings around her- we found it thrilling when one kid would distract her by asking her Latin questions whilst the kid behind her would draw on the back of her light jacket. Then when we would laugh she would get angry. If my kid did this today I’d be mortified!

    We even had a maths teacher in highschool who threw chalk at us if we talked in class and would tell us in her thickest Indian/British accent “If you talk I will beat you child”. We loved her, mainly because she would go off on a tangent during most algebra lessons about her days living in Bahrain or stories about her family. She had an arm- wrist to elbow- full of bangles she collected over the years.

    You made me laugh at the the part your mum would curse over the top of “Like a Virgin”. I recall my mum cursing in Arabic- translated into English, they would make you blush, (compared to our pedestrian English profanities).

  4. Oh, gosh, the memories. When my husband and I were dating, I took him to my old elementary school playground. All the jungle gyms and swings had been taken off of the asphalt, which remained, a giant black tarmac with a faded map of the United States painted on it. They replaced the jello-mold-shaped monkey bars and swings with a wooden playground on the grass, the kind of climbing frame with rope ladders and a janky bridge. The maypole was gone–the thing with a big circle all the kids grabbed on to and we made it go round and round as we dangled, and if Mr. Bruin, the gym teacher, was on playground duty you were going to hear the story of the kid who fell off because he tried to be fancy and hold on with one hand–“and he bashed his brains out RIGHT ON THIS CONCRETE HERE!” Mr Bruin also had fine stories of the kid who couldn’t hold on to the little wooden scooter (the ones they passed out for indoor recess) and BASHED HIS BRAINS RIGHT OUT ONTO THE GYM FLOOR!

    I remember Mr. Bell, who taught spelling (and seemingly nothing else), and if you got a good test score he’d motion you up to his desk and give you a little box of candy–like the Boston Baked Beans, or Lemonheads. He also smelled of what I think may have been gin, and his hands shook sometimes. Because he was one of the few male teachers he was often recruited to dispense the paddlings that were deemed the proper punishments for the worst kids. They got paddled in a glass-sided room between two classrooms, so all the other kids could see the paddling.

    Those paddlings may have been partly responsible for the gin, come to think of it.

  5. Ah, yes. Elementary years in the Eighties. I only had two and a half before being homeschooled — but your reminiscing brought to mind several scenes I hadn’t recalled in years.

    You and your classmates did well managing three titles for teachers. In first grade, we had Mrs Byrd, Mrs Oatley, Mrs Wally, and a fourth teacher whose face and last name now escape me. But I distinctly remember our entire class staring at her in blank bewilderment week after week after week as she fruitlessly instructed us to call her “Miss”. We found it deeply mysterious and confusing.

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