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Getting Schooled

Sep 11, 2023 02:43PM ● By Peri Kinder

Last month, I watched the neighborhood kids trudge back to school. Hunched under the weight of heavy backpacks, the little Quasimodos marched into the school year carrying a 300-page summer homework packet, an associate’s degree they earned at math camp, 750 colored pencils, scissors, an emotional support stuffed animal, cleaning products, a mass spectrometer, a non-BPA bento box and some allergen-free crackers.

When I attended elementary school in the 1900s, we didn’t use backpacks. They hadn’t been invented. It was too cumbersome to drag our handcart to school, so we carried our math, history, language, science, reading and social studies books home in our arms every night. 

Most kids didn’t fail because they didn’t understand the homework, they failed because they were too weak to carry 50 pounds of textbooks. 

Parents and educators set the bar for us at “extremely low” and we were lucky to hit that. One of my biggest challenges came in fourth grade when I started the school year wearing homemade avocado-green culottes. And it got worse. My Bionic Woman lunchbox had an unreliable latch, so I spent lunchtime worrying my PB&J would fall onto the floor and everyone would laugh.

Not sure if I learned anything that year. 

The motto at the elementary school near my home is “Academically smart, character strong.” I don’t think my school had a motto, unless it was “Sit down and shut up.” It wasn’t that our teachers didn’t care, they just thought “quiet reading time” or “rest your heads on your desks” was the best way to spend the majority of our day. 

But that first day of school was always exciting. New school supplies had to be arranged carefully in my desk, including a brand new cardboard pencil box with a built-in pencil sharpener that was never sharp enough to create a point. It just mangled the top of my pencils, leaving a broken lead I kept pushing back into place. 

And, of course, there had to be space for my colorful hoppy taw, for hopscotch, and a bag of cat’s-eyes so I could shoot marbles at recess. Not real cat’s eyes. I’m not that old. 

My grandson is in sixth grade, taking classes like flight science, robotics and computer engineering. When I was in sixth grade, we wrapped eggs in styrofoam and threw them off the school roof. #Science

Luckily for today’s hard-working students, they get vacation days all the time. They’re off for Burning Man and Mardi Gras and Oktoberfest and (ironically) International Literacy Day. In the 1970s, we had Christmas Day off and a half-day for Thanksgiving. We didn’t even miss school for being sick. We just took our pneumonia-filled lungs to class and hoped we didn’t die during recess.

I’m not saying elementary school was better in the 20th century. It wasn’t. Not at all. If we could eat with a spoon in kindergarten, we would be at the top of the class. Kids who knew the difference between a letter and a number were named class president. Our role models were Bugs Bunny and the Muppets, so we were trained early in sarcasm. 

Kids are so much smarter now than we ever were. I’m amazed at what my grandkids learn. I have a 7-year-old granddaughter learning Spanish and a 6-year-old granddaughter building LEGO robots. When I was their age, my biggest challenge was learning cat’s cradle. I guess the content in those heavy backpacks is paying off.