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The last day of school

Food for Thought

In the 1940s, when I was in elementary school, we looked forward to that final day of classes with more than a small bit of trepidation. The reason for this anxiety was the question of whether or not we had passed. Would we be going on to the next grade level, or would we be forced to face the shame of having failed and being required to repeat this entire school year? We would know the answer to that fearful question by the end of this short, final day of school, but for now there were other matters to take care of.
For starters, we were required to clean out our desks. This was a housekeeping chore we were made to repeat several times during the school year, though sometimes our efforts had been half-hearted and the results less than satisfactory. Crayons, notebooks, tablets, drawings, and perfect math and spelling papers worthy of saving would be shoved hastily back in once the worst of the clutter had been deposited in the wastebasket. This day, however, we would be vacating our desks for good and everything it contained had to be either discarded or carted home. The contents of my desk usually ended up in three piles; one of things I definitely wanted to save, another of pure trash, and a third (the biggest pile) of things that I would take home where that important decision would be made after more careful thought. The wastebasket was passed up and down all the aisles as we got rid of things we deemed unworthy of the effort required to take them home.
Next came the distribution of drawings, test papers, those original themes we had written weeks or months ago, and other items that our teacher had retained for posting on the bulletin board, further evaluation, to show to our parents on parents’ night, or for some other reason which we neither understood not cared about. More of these went into the wastebasket than went home, too.
Our teachers seemed to always have piles of leftover work sheets and test papers that had been mimeographed in excess of the number required. I often wondered why they didn’t save them for the class next year, but was glad to get my hands on as many as I could. There was something about that purple ink that made them official and it was fun to pretend I was still in class and do the math sums and answer the questions that now had become easy since I’d learned all that months ago. I could give myself a big red star at the top of the page, knowing I’d gotten them all right.
Then there would be a little party of sorts, highlighted by the teacher making a rather sweet, sentimental speech about how much she had enjoyed having us in her class and how she would miss us next year. Sometimes, she would try to arouse our enthusiasm for the following year by mentioning one or two of the new challenges we would face. Most of us simply wouldn’t think about next year, for that was a long way in the future and we had the whole glorious, carefree summer ahead of us. At other times, the threat of having to tackle long division, the Palmer method of penmanship, or the geography of North America was more sobering than exciting.
There might be cookies or cupcakes that somebody’s mother had brought (if we had room mothers in those days, nobody told me; I know my own mother never served in that capacity). Maybe we’d play some of the games we’d played during indoor recesses necessitated by bad weather, such as racing up and down the aisles with a blackboard eraser balanced on our head, or Simon Says. One year, we had a short film about (I think) Yellowstone Park. Entertaining in spite of educational, perhaps it had been in a lesson plan sometime during the year and had been omitted for some reason. Sometimes we sang songs or took turns telling what we were going to be doing over the summer.
The very last thing before we were dismissed was the distribution of our final report cards for the year. Everyone was nervous, not necessarily to peek at our grades, but to get a look at the back cover of that report card where our teacher and the school principal had both signed their names under a printed statement that said: This is to certify that (student’s name) has been promoted to (grade level.) I’d breathe a giant sigh of relief and smile confidently when my best friend whispered, “Did you pass?” It never occurred to me that my parents would have known well beforehand if I had not, and would have certainly prepared me for such news. Then, carting my pile of workbooks, crayons, tablets, art work, pencils, and spelling papers with gold stars, I’d head for home where my sisters and I would spend the first several days of our summer vacation...playing school.