Friday, September 11, 2009

A New School Year

September always brings back school beginnings.


Sharon Chiasson

I feel like there is more, something yet to discover. Not here and now, but deep in my memory where I can feel a melting of walls. Where I can visualize detail. Like today, a country schoolroom, I’m in Grade One and it’s the fall of l950.

The room was large to me. The desks were arranged by the five grades in the room. Some were double, some had inkwells and lids to lift up and some were shiny and new. I sat with my friend Doreen. She walked about a mile to come to school, even in the coldest winter. She walked in a group of eight others who were cousins and who lived in small houses clustered near one another. My parents called it squirrel town. She and I shared everything, marbles, decorations, snails, and mayflowers. She could sing all the western songs but she would not sing in front of the class.

The pot bellied stove in the center of the room would be warm when we arrived. The stovepipe reached up then staggered across the ceiling to the brick chimney. It looked shaky, held up by nails and wire. Arthur came early, started the fire and spread dust bain then swept the floor. We could still see the shiny green crystals in the cracks. Arthur was a Home Child. He was raised by the MacKenzie’s and seems to have been one of the more fortunate

The chalkboard is on two walls with a ledge for the brushes, pieces of chalk and a collection of fine white dust. There is a sound every time the teacher begins to write a word.

In the corner was the sink and water pump. The pump makes a clinking sound when the handle is raised and lowered. Arthur primes it every morning and we have water until heavy frost settles in. Mr. Trask comes once a year to take a sample to make sure it is safe to drink.

We started the day singing Oh Canada then God Save The Queen and then saying The Lords Prayer. The words debts and trespasses are slurred because of the religious mix. The ending fades because the Catholics finish first. We then plunked noisily into our seats.

Mrs. Roper moved from grade to grade then back again. She knew our siblings and our parents— also if we lost a pet or if there was an unusual situation at home. She frequently taught with a child on her lap. The primary children often fell asleep after lunch. She would tell us to be quiet so they could nap. If the road was not ploughed out, we knew she was there because her high heeled boot prints were easy to see in the snow, where she had walked the remainder of way after her taxi could go no further.

We read The Little White House with the family and their dog Flip. We had to memorize poems and participate in spelling bees. I never did learn to spell, but I don’t remember not being able to read. Some had a lot of trouble reading and would have to stay back a year.

Between September and May we would have a variety of visitors. The Health Nurse who checked our eyes and teeth and applied a patch test for a TB check. Anyone testing positive went to Sydney for a chest x-ray. Heather’s test was always positive and she got to go. Once the nurse had to be called back because a new family, the Jenkins, brought lice to school. We were all treated with vinegar and endless fine tooth comb sessions until the plague was gone.

The 4-H lady, Miss Gillis, came and told us about the food groups and encouraged us to join one of the 4-H clubs.. We could compete at the Exhibition. I belonged to the Calf club and had Patsy to look after and record her growth in a book and learn how to present her in the ring for the judges. Girls went to Florence’s for sewing lessons on Friday afternoons. We could exhibit our sewing projects also. While the girls were gone, some of the boys did leather work and some just went home early.

The school Inspector, Mr. Sullivan, came unannounced. He worried the teacher. He walked up and down the isles and asked us questions that were supposed to show the teacher was doing her job. He told me my scribbler was messy. He had a deep loud voice and he never smiled.

Mr. Lolly came with films. We had to stand in the dark cloakroom to watch. We saw one on fire safety and another about seal hunting. We stared wide-eyed as they showed how to club the baby seals with the special tool made not to harm the coat.

Once a month the bookmobile came for the school and the community. I borrowed The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins and I read it over and over. Much later I learned about Dr. Seuss. Some Mothers would walk to the school to return books, then borrow another months supply of reading.

A Royal Canadian Mountie came in full dress. He was tall and perfect. I don’t remember what he talked about. A photographer came and took individual pictures. The president of the Trustees came to talk to us and wanted to know what we thought, but we didn’t know what to say.

We had song time once a week using our special songbooks. We sang about a cat named Gramalcom and a peppy song called Down In the Pickaninny School House and another called How Come They Call Me Snowball. We would never teach or sing those songs today, but in that time and place, no one talked about the people those songs were about. Beverly liked to perform and she sang I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover while some of the boys made faces at one another.

The Christmas concert was the high point of the year. Everyone was a performer. We had a huge tree covered with our decorations. Santa arrived ringing a bell and spreading magic.

Through the long winter school was rarely cancelled. We were allowed to keep our jackets on and move our desks closer to the stove when the freezing wind blew hard. On those days recess was loud confusion in doors. The boys complained of the cold when they had to bring another hod of coal in from the coalhouse. We all hated having to go to the outhouse on those days. Weather permitting, we brought our skates to school to go to the bog or, if there had been rain, to the pond that would form in Ahle’s hayfield. Sledding was everywhere and snowball fights could be fun or revenge. My cousin, Roddy, was strong. He would grab one of us on the way home from school and wash our face in the snow just to step back and laugh afterward.

What a relief to see the furrows of earth appearing in Patterson’s potato field. Ever so slowly spring seeped in. With snow sometimes still in shaded areas, we could find May flowers, their scent so perfect and strong. We collected snails from the old grass and tried to keep them in boxes. That never worked, they escaped in their slow sticky way. Then came lilacs and apple blossoms and baseball. We loved to watch Henry bat out risers at recess. The ball disappeared in the sky and the outfielders sometimes fell while backing up trying to make the catch.

Our school picnic was the 24th of May. We walked to Fife’s brook and spent the day competing and racing through the trees and being carefree

If I look closely, I can see the faces of that moment in time. We look sure and hopeful. It was our world, we knew of nothing else; each of us as valuable as the other, with our own paths yet to unfold. What we didn’t know would make all the difference.

Sharon Chiasson



  1. Sharon, the details in this piece create your first grade classroom in an intimate and revealing manner. I love the pace of the essay and the revelations discovered and revealed.

  2. Sharon, it was a real pleasure reading your memoir. What a tremendous gift to your family - and all of us. Having returned recently from Nova Scotia, I felt I was somehow more connected to the place you speak of - the simplicity, honesty, pureness. You really connected with the reality of the little six year old girl, and then her thoughtful reflection as an adult. I think this is my most favorite, of all of your wonderful pieces.


  3. Sharon, this is terrific. As I read through it I saw the little two-room schoolhouse I attended in the country (now suburbs) around my town in Michigan. Your prose is wonderful, took me right back! Talk about those outdoor privies -- I can still wait hours and hours before I have to go. I believe my bladder got stretched trying to make it through the school day and back home on a bouncy bus over gravel roads before answering the call of nature. Write more.


  4. Oh Sharon,

    Thank-you so much for transporting me to a foreign place and time with such vividness and love! My eyes were riveted to the screen as I read!

    I so look forward to reading more from you - to the next magic carpet ride or escape through a magic cupboard or however it works!