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How on Earth Did We Manage?

Today marks the beginning of South Carolina’s “tax-free weekend.” It’s not actually totally tax free. Only certain products–and a surprising array at that–are tax free. They’re supposed to be the products considered necessary for kids to get a good start on school, but many of them leave me scratching my head over how they even remotely relate to education.

And school seems to be starting earlier every year. It seems to me that school only last week got out for summer vacation. But my wife, who teaches second grade, assures me that it’s already that time again, and our calendar reflects it, filling up quickly with all sorts of school-related activities: computer training sessions, regular in-service week, parent-teacher “meet and greets,” etc.

But back to the tax-free weekend. As I stroll through Walmart, I’m amazed at the plethora of things that kids “need” in order to be educated today. Both sides of several aisles are devoted to such materials. And the broad, major aisles that provide access to those narrower aisles are jammed to the point of impassibility, especially if you’re trying to navigate with one of those huge carts that Walmart provides. (They never have enough of the little carts that resemble baskets on wheels.)


All of this makes me ask myself how on earth we old-timers ever managed to learn anything at all. We had a few yellow No. 2 Ticonderoga pencils and a couple of end-of-the-pencil erasers in a little pencil pouch inside a three-ring binder filled with lined (preferably college-ruled, especially in high school) Blue Horse paper, and that was it! If we had anything more–perhaps a tiny pencil sharpener or a little bottle of Elmer’s Glue-All–we felt that we were in high cotton. Of course, there was no such thing as laptops or tablets (unless you count the one-subject Blue Horse tablets that some people had). Instead, we had Dick-and-Jane reading books, arithmetic books (we didn’t call it math until junior high), a spelling workbook, and a few other assorted textbooks.


I’m also amazed when I walk into my wife’s and her colleagues’ classrooms at how “busy” they look–and feel. There are posters and bulletin boards and things that hang from the ceiling and numerous (I once counted at least seven) “centers” cluttering the environment. I don’t know where to look first. Back in the day, I recall that our classroom had the Zaner-Bloser alphabet displayed along the top of the blackboard (and yes, it was black, not the later “modern” green), a few small bulletin boards, and shelves of textbooks, but that was about it. Oh, and Mrs. Zachary had a black-and-white clock shaped like a cat on the wall. It’s eyes moved one way and the tail, hanging down below, went the opposite way to mark the passage of time. And the cat smiled like the Cheshire cat in Alice and Wonderland.

The only “center” that we had was one that intrigued me. But the only way a student could use it was to get into some sort of trouble. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I do remember purposely getting into trouble a few times when that “center” attracted me more than my temptation-resisting powers could deal with. The “center” consisted of a little farm set arranged on the top of a bookshelf at the back of the room. It had a barn, fences outlining imaginary pastures, a tractor, a manure spreader, and assorted farm animals. Growing up as I did on my grandfather’s dairy farm, I naturally was attracted by the toy-sized farm in that center. So I poked the kid in front of me or talked or repeatedly dropped my book or pencil on the floor or did anything else I could to annoy Mrs. Zachary, forcing her to sentence me to time laboring on that farm.

We poor kids were so underprivileged back then, it’s a wonder we ever learned anything sans the benefits of the wonders of education today. I thank the Lord for such lack of privileges every time I’m at Little Caesar’s and the presiding clerk looks at my $5.40 exact change with puzzlement over how to deal with it or at McD’s when the gal behind the counter struggles to decide how to make change for the $20 I handed her for a $12.35 order. I never cease to be amazed at the display of a nonexistent work ethic exhibited by many young people. Such kids might have been “educated” in more technologically advanced classrooms than I was and have access to more of the material things that are supposed to make their education so much better, but they have failed to learn some of the truly important things in life. And I hate to think of all the temptations and problems that today’s kids face that my generation never dreamed of. Students’ chewing gun and talking in class seem to have been my teachers’ biggest problems.


Tax free or heavily taxed, I still think my classroom experiences were the best. I wouldn’t want to go back, though. Except maybe to play with that little farm set!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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