The summer of 1954 was ending, and it was time for me to begin my sixth year at Point Arena Elementary and become a Seventh Grader. Our Principal, Mr. James E. Russell, also taught the combined 7th and 8th grade class. Since starting school in the 2nd in Point Arena in 1949, I had always been in classes that combined two grades.
On our first day back in school, the starting bell rang and we trooped into the mystical classroom of the 7th and 8th Graders – mystical because the 7th and 8th Graders were the top dogs at Point Arena Elementary, and lorded it over the lower classes until graduated to Point Arena High School as lowly Freshmen. Little did we know that the mystique was about to crumble.
As we entered the classroom, we soon noticed that there was not enough room for everyone. In fact, about half of us were left standing when all the desks were taken. Mr. Russell entered the classroom, looked around, and said: “OK, get a desk and follow me.” So began our curious trek from the classroom at the front of the school to the all-purpose room at the rear.
As we dragged the desks down the hallway, we speculated how our new classroom would be arranged. Some of us thought the desks should be suspended from the ceiling, with catwalks between the desks, to keep the floor space open for other activities. Mr. Russell thought that was a good idea. He would have a release system with levers on his desk, and if a student was misbehaving, Mr. Russell would pull the lever for that student’s desk and send the offender crashing to the floor.
To our disappointment, we soon had our desks arranged in seven rows of six or seven desks in each row facing the wall at the north end of the all-purpose room. Mr. Russell centered his desk at the front, flanked by two portable blackboards. Behind us was an open area between our desks and the stage. Two ping pong tables soon became fixtures in the eastern portion of the open space, and an upright piano was placed to the right of the stage on the other side.
This is the all-purpose room today. Imagine the room bare, then imagine two portable blackboards below and flanking the basketball hoop. In front of that, center, was Mr. Russell's desk (in the basketball "key" then, today they would say in the "paint"), and lined up in columns facing that end of the room were six or seven rows of portable desks.
With about sixty students in our combined class, we began a two-year adventure that I now consider one of the most enjoyable and pivotal periods of my life.
Mr. Russell was more than equal to the task of teaching us under difficult circumstances. Personally, I think that this man of great energy and talents enjoyed the challenge, and that he thrived on the adversity. The first year in the all-purpose room he had almost fifty students; the next year there were over sixty of us. We were a diverse group before Diversity became a religion, and an excuse for the failure of poor teachers. Many students were from the South, the sons and daughters of the Grapes of Wrath migrants who now filled so many of the jobs in the saw mills. About ten percent of our students were Native Americans and most of them lived on the local reservations.
During a typical school day, my classmates and I might be quietly working on an English or math assignment at our desks, while Mr. Russell would be going over a completed assignment with the other class. At the same time, the 3rd and 4th Graders might be on the stage behind us doing a dress rehearsal of their Christmas play, or the music teacher, Lois Scaramella, might have our (all female) Glee Club rendering Danny Boy or Climb Every Mountain. To this very day, my mind’s ear can still hear their breathy, high sweet voices -- great singing? Maybe not, but the memories are priceless. As the years pass, I also reflect that maybe, at that time, I didn’t know how much I would be enjoying the music now, as it still swells and echoes in my mind – Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…and a tear is running down my cheek.
My reverie is broken by the bell announcing recess. Was ever time better spent than at recess? We rushed from the room with deafening shouts: “I’m up!” “Still only one away!” “It’s my turn to pitch!” “Mike, forget the girls, we need a right fielder!”
We learned so much at recess. Friendships started and grew. We learned to play hard, and to play by the rules. My buddy Sam taught me that you could be cunning, and still play by the rules. He was always coming up with some scheme to win all our marbles, without having to be a good marbles player himself. He usually succeeded. Sam left nothing to chance. He researched the dictionary for killer words to use in Hangman, words like “Iraq” (no u after the q), zygote, or xylophone.
At recess, the girls had better things to do than silly baseball, or silly basketball, or silly soccer. To this day, I still don’t know what they did at recess, but they did do something, and they enjoyed it, and I wish I knew what it was. Maybe it would have been fun -- probably not.
Being with the girls was fun. I really liked girls – so pretty, so sweet, their thought processes total mysteries. I saw little evidence that we really were of the same species. My hormones were raging. Weren’t theirs too? They seemed to want to aid and abet my raging hormones – up to a point, that is; a point that, try as I might, I never passed. Not even with the girls who were “easy.” If the truth were to be known, I think my tale of those sexually frustrating times is the typical one; I think we were all The Great Pretenders. Even Johnny Mathis crooning Chances Are didn’t improve our chances.
So Cheri, Clarice, Joan, Treva, Jen, Jaylene, Dana, Kathne, Sandi, Tex, Karen, Lana, Luanne, Billy Jean, Junella -- relax. No kiss and tell. I don't mind the no tell part, but the no kiss part? We could have made beautiful memories together, but we didn't, darn it.