Back to school memories

Published 6:16 am Tuesday, September 4, 2018

This time of year, I can’t help but remember my childhood school days.

Mom made sure we looked our best on our first day and even gave us small bouquets of flowers to give to our teachers. My memories of my 12 first days spent in the Symmes Valley School District are complicated. Those were some of my most delightful, yet vulnerable, days of childhood.

Preparations for the new school year began weeks before. We’d go into Ironton to peruse the options for supplies. Kresge’s (the dime store) was our supply shop, but for clothing, we  went to Artwill’s.

Email newsletter signup

Mom was an amazing seamstress and made most of our clothes. In our teens, we would save our babysitting money and earnings from summer jobs gained through CAO to go to Artwill’s. We would choose five pairs of jeans and pretty tops for $10 per outfit and pay on our lay-away faithfully until just before school started.

What a scandal it was when I went to a new boutique in Ironton and purchased a pair of navy, brushed cotton, wide bell bottoms for $15! I still remember the conflict in my heart — should I give up 1 ½ outfits from Artwill’s for one pair of pants? It was an indulgence that made me feel rich. My sisters still say, “Remember your $15 jeans?”

For first through eighth grades, we went to Waterloo Elementary School, built in 1930, the same building our mom attended. We shared some of the same teachers she had as well.

Fifth grade teacher Dolphus Arrington and sixth grade teacher Ralph Boggess taught several generations of the same families.

Teachers were respected, sometimes feared, and discipline was consistent. By today’s standards discipline could be considered harsh, but I don’t remember any student using vulgar language, being destructive to property or purposely disruptive. The lunch ladies always smiled and talked to us as we went through the line. One lunch lady even had me stop and eat a pickle to make sure my swollen glands were not the mumps.

Recess was the best! Mr. Arrington had a passion for sports. He prepared us for the spring district track meet. He taught us how to high jump, broad jump and run races. In the winter we played in the gym that also served as the auditorium. Sometimes the teachers had us stand in lines and do calisthenics. I remember an old record they played that matched songs with exercises: “Tip toe up, tip toe down, start your engine and turn around…”

The very best excitement was when our janitor, Orlyn Roberts, an original Waterloo Wonders basketball player from the 1934-35 team, would stand at one end of the gym and shoot perfect baskets at the opposite side. We’d cheer and beg for more, until he’d smile and say, “I’ve got to get back to my work,” pick up his broom, and move on.

Because we were a rural community, most of the adults were familiar to our family in some way. Our bus driver for many years was Rex Herrell. He was a quiet man and close friend of my granny and grandpa. In fact, Granny was a self-taught mid-wife and delivered at least one of Mr. Herrell’s children. My mom told us stories of Mr. Herrell taking her along with his children to see, for the first time, the electric city lights of Ironton in the 1940s.

Grades first through twelfth rode the school bus together. Older students either ignored younger ones or helped take care of them. The ride was long and, on hot afternoons, I couldn’t stay awake. I remember a high school girl allowing me to sleep with my head on her lap, promising to wake me when we got to my stop.

I didn’t fear the ‘big kids’ like many do today. If a student got out of line (changing seats while the bus was moving or got too loud), Mr. Herrell would look in the mirror above his head, say one word, and the problem was solved. The last day before Christmas vacation, Mr. Herrell and the other bus drivers gave each student a paper bag, filled with candy and a huge orange, as a treat, a generosity that was treasured.

Life was hard during my childhood and I don’t want to trade the life I have today to go back.

However, there are many aspects of that small, rural life that I greatly miss. Those of you who still get to experience this, don’t take it for granted. Nurture your community relationships. Talk to your neighbors. If you have a difference with someone, talk to them respectfully, face-to-face. It takes intentional effort, but I still believe we can make the good old days the days of today.


Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at