Full Circle: Readin,’ ‘Ritin,’ ‘Rithmetic

Published 8:37 am Friday, March 31, 2017

September, 1944, my brother’s first day of school. Neil is the last of a prolific line of McLaughlin offspring who for the last four years have one-by-one consecutively occupied a seat in Miss Charlotte Mostrom’s kindergarten classroom.

Neil is aglow with anticipation. At last he is about to become a hscholar. His clothes are starched, shoes polished, golden curls corralled into a manageable “do,” and a grin stretches across his chubby cheeks that rivals a Pepsodent commercial.

There is a knock on the backdoor. Donnie Austin, another kindergarten newbie, has arrived to walk to Sumner School with Neil. Best buddies since toddlerhood, they are about to embark on this professorial road together. Mom fusses over them, tweaking their shirts and pants, as she walks them through the house to the front door. There they wave goodbye with their fat-lead pencils and wide-ruled Big Chief tablets under their arms. Wiping away a tear, she watches the boys confidently stride out of sight.

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That’s when she realizes it. From this day on, things will never be the same.

A sentinel moment if ever there was one, Mom discerns that for the first time in a decade her home is completely empty. Not a single child awaits her, demanding what youngsters demand; duties so oft repeated she can perform them like a mechanized robot. Just then something stirs. It’s Rex, the family dog. He is also rattled by the quiet, moving about restlessly each time twirling three revolutions in place before he plops down again to contemplate the unexpected tranquility. How, he wonders, is a dog supposed to get his rest in all this solitude?

Meanwhile an unsettled Mom stumbles over to an under-used chair and in an unexpected move, collapses into it. To her amazement she realizes she is sitting in her living room in the morning, something she has never before done. She had no idea the room looked so charming … so empty … in the glow of a fresh new day. As a fog of uncertainty slowly lifts, the truth of the moment hits her like a clunk on the head. Still, in this eerie isolation, she is at a total loss as to what to do next.

And that is the precise minute Mom grasps that this could be the start of something big. She arises from her chair smiling, even breaking into song over her abrupt emancipation. Glancing at the kitchen clock, she sees there are exactly four hours before the boys’ return. A virtual lifetime of leisure. When was the last time she experienced such a sudden lull in her day? Oh, yes, that’s right … it was between feedings in St. Olaf Hospital after she had given birth to the last of her four children—Neil!–all born in less than four years.

At last Mom’s progeny were all enfolded within the capable walls of Sumner School, a marvelous institution having recently undergone a renovation of the kindergarten classroom where the redesigned space exactly fit the proportional size of five-year-olds. The desks, shelves, coat racks, even the classroom toilet and sink were all Lilliputian sized. Sitting there on the tiled floor, the toilet looked so small Mom could have easily mistaken it for one of her white Pyrex mixing bowls.

Even the door handles were lowered to the height of a kindergartner’s reach. Albeit wonderful for the children, it was an issue for Miss Mostrom, a woman taller than average. Although her barely fleshed-out body resembled a bamboo tree bending and swaying in the wind, the truth was that leaning over to open and close the door put an uncomfortable strain on her extra long frame.

I happened to be in her class the year before when the new room opened. With her backbone in a world of hurt, Miss Mostrum selected me … ME! … to be her sole-official-authorized-sanctioned door opener and closer. The thrill of holding this exalted position was intoxicating; the responsibility of it staggering and almost too much to bear for a five-year old because it meant I had to be constantly alert to her every undulating movement. For who wanted to fail at the age of five when this most momentous of duties was required — the opening and closing of the door at the exact moment it was needed? I took my duties with the utmost of gravity.

In 1893, the enrollment of the entire Austin School System was 1,366 students. On staff were 33 teachers averaging a yearly paycheck of between $360 and $575. Two years later, Sumner School opened. The first principal was Dorothy Kimball. An equally important job, though not as meritorious, was that of custodian. Mrs. French, a super duper multi-tasker took care of the furnace, cleaned the floors, cut the grass and shoveled the snow.

The budget for constructing Sumner was $10,000. The foundation of Wasioja stone cost $1,595.75 and the interior oaken mill work was $1,200. Upon completion the school was touted as “first class in every respect.” Despite the carpenters’ excellent work, however, the doors were too tall, a correction made at the builder’s expense. When the final bills were tallied, $35 of the allocated $10,000 remained.

The building required 180,000 bricks, but not all of them were considered equal. Therefore the very best bricks were selected to enhance the east and south sides of the school. The finished structure measured 73’ x 51’ with a 16’ hallway running partially down the north side. There were two classrooms on each floor.

The piece de resistance, however, was the staircase leading to the second floor. With an eye to the future, this “thing of beauty” was designed to carry twice as many students as were presently enrolled. Additionally a telephone was installed bringing every Austin school within “talking distance.”

Each classroom was surrounded with natural slate blackboards and each room had one empty bookcase in which to shelve free textbooks for the day when they might become a reality. Even though the roof was touted to be the strongest covering of any structure in Austin, quite possibly the most innovative implementation was that of the floors. They were raised from the joists allowing a space for foul air to pass out through a large brick flue located in the center of the building, Air Wick fresheners not yet invented.

The threat of fire demanded a state-of-the-art system. Thus a reel of hose was installed in the basement which could pump a stream of city water to any point in the lower level. Directly above this hose a small hole was drilled in the ceiling through which the same handheld hose could be inserted up into the first floor providing protection for that entire floor. On the second floor a hall fountain was installed over a sink. Positioned beside it was a second hose which serviced the entire upper level and the main entrance. It could also be pushed up into the garret at the top of the building.

The school opened with 147 students, each classroom able to accommodate forty students. Every desk carried a number corresponding to a hook in the cloakroom. The exception to this rule was Classroom No. 3 where special coat hooks were affixed outside the classroom entrance. Within was a select group of boys who were trained as student firemen. In the event of a conflagration, the boys could quickly grab their coats and pass through the school to their assigned positions without being impeded by the remaining student body which more slowly paraded through their cloak rooms and on outdoors. Following instructions, the junior firemen performed their tasks at a controlled walk thus quelling any panic among the students. Once at their posts, the boys set to work until the city fire squad arrived.

All of Austin must have breathed a sigh of relief knowing their children were safe with this … dare I say it? … “fireproof” plan in place. Still I’m not convinced. Seems it was a tad risky to me. Hmmm, youngsters with handheld hoses? But then, children were more responsible in those days … like the chosen ones who opened and closed doors!

As a deep mystery surrounds Stonehenge and the construction of the Egyptian pyramids, so, too, does Sumner School have its own buried secret. Who was Sumner? Not a single soul knows. Could it be that in her rush to clean the floors, cut the grass and/or shovel the snow while emptying the wastebaskets into the furnace, Mrs. French one day mistakenly burned up the school charter? Oh, Mrs. French, say it isn’t so.

We are now at Day Two of kindergarten. Mom has just ushered Neil and Donnie out the front door. Once again she pinches herself over her unshackled morning, experiencing a deep satisfaction at having finally arrived at this momentous mothering milestone.

Thirty minutes later Mom goes out the front door to check on the mail. There, to her astonishment, she finds the boys sitting on the front steps. “Neil,” she cries in alarm, “what are you doing? You’re supposed to be in kindergarten.”

Looking back over his shoulder, five-year-old Neil calmly replies, “We’re not going back. We’ve decided to quit school!” (True story.)

(On a very sad note, Austin recently learned of the sudden passing of Beverly Smith, a tiny powerhouse of a woman who spent her entire pedological career as a Sumner teacher. It is not possible to count the number of lives she touched nor the hearts that will never forget her, mine included. Thank you, Ms. Bev.)