Hump Day: A beautiful stink: memories of the first day of school

Hump DayHump Day
By Brian Cormier
Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013
Moncton Times
Editorial section

Ah, the start of a new school year. Those were the good old days. Stiff new clothes and sneakers that were a size too big in case we grew into them. Brand new scribblers that would soon be filled with homework. The nervousness of wondering who your teacher would be and if your friends would be in the same class as you.

Smells are a powerful memory jogger. One of my favourites was the aroma wafting out of a new box of 64 crayons (yes, the one with the built-in sharpener). I still sneak a whiff if I see a box in the store and I don’t think anyone is watching. Pure heaven. And those big black markers that stank up the entire classroom? I should have gone to rehab for those. The stronger the marker, the better.

And there was the smell of the ink from those mimeograph machine copies. (Mimeograph? Boy, I’m old!) The mimeograph was the precursor to the photocopier. You made a master copy on a stencil by pressing down hard. This was then placed in the machine and copies were made by turning the crank. The ink was purple — and it stank. But to me, it was a beautiful stink. As soon as the teacher would hand out our fresh copies (for tests, etc.), I would shove my nose in the paper and sniff. Wonderful.

I went to Aberdeen School on Botsford Street in the early 1970s. It was a bustling, busy French school that was filled to the rafters from the basement to the top floor. Little kids in Grade 1 mingled with the big kids from Grade 9. We all took recess together. Kids with such large age differences don’t play together on the same school grounds at the same time these days, but back then, we were just thrown in and that was that. Survival of the fittest.

Oh, and boys had to play on one end of the playground and girls on the other. It was a segregated environment. The boys played on the side nearest to Botsford and the girls on the side closest to what was then School Street. (Today, they just call that entire stretch Alma Street instead of having a city street change names after crossing St. George Street. Too confusing, I guess.)

The oak trees were huge and I remember the large piles of yellow leaves on the ground in the fall. For some reason, I don’t see many oak trees around much anymore. We’d spend each recess playing marbles, tag or various games with balls supplied by the school. A few times per week, the large ball would end up getting away from us and roll across Botsford Street followed almost instantaneously by the large “pop” of it exploding under the wheel of a passing car.

I think the game we played with the ball most often was “king square” if memory serves correct. I checked it out online and it’s also called “four square” and “king’s corner.” I’m pretty sure we called it ‘king square,” though. We must have played that for hours – until the inevitable destroyed soccer ball lying in the middle of the street like a pancake.

These days, it seems the kids all know who their teacher is before school starts. Back then, we were all lined up outside on the first day of school by grade and then our names were called out. We would then pro­ceed to the stand in a line in front of the teacher we’d have for the year. There was always much moaning and groaning if you didn’t get in the same class as your friends.

To put it mildly, there was no bigger tragedy in elementary school than to get the teacher you didn’t want and have your best friends get the teacher you were hoping for. It was combination of jealousy and fear. Everyone survived, though.

Apparently, on my first day of school, I was so excited to see my mother when she came to pick me up that I bolted across the street without even looking. Squealing brakes. Tire marks on the pavement. Mother nearly having a heart attack. I knew better than to do that. Perhaps I was delirious from sniffing quasi-toxic black markers for most of the day.

From time to time, I’d open up my thermos at lunch only to find that the liner had broken, leaving me with milk full of shards of broken glass. Thankfully, new thermoses don’t have those issues due to advanced technology. I swear, those liners were about as fragile as delicate glass Christmas ornaments. If you bumped your lunchbox ever so lightly by mistake, you ended up with undrinkable milk.

I also avoided licking the lids of my pudding cups clean at lunch because apparently it was poisonous to do so. Today, I laugh at that myth, but back then it was practically considered to be a suicide attempt if you licked the last remnants of banana pudding off the lid.

Although the playground rules were more relaxed in junior high (the precursor to today’s “middle school”) we still had many silly rules on where to congregate. Certain stairways were off limits, for some reason. I never understood why. I always brought my lunch, but there was a cafeteria at Vanier School (now closed and used for hospital offices). Kids would run like the wind to get first in line. Apparently, certain popular items would run out. I think I saw the inside of the cafeteria once in three years. There was no way my parents were paying for a cafeteria meal.

Enjoy the return to classes! If your kid comes home with black nostrils this week, you may want to switch to unscented markers. Trust me — it’s better that way.

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