Getting Schooled: How back to School Days have Changed


Getting Schooled: How Back-to-School Days Have Changed Over the Years

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You know it’s time for school to start each fall by the circulars and ads that fill a mailbox. Personal computers, smartphones and electronic tablets, along with brand-name athletic shoes, expensive sports equipment and home study supplies fill the pages.

This morning, as the yellow school bus passed my home, I’m reminded of the difference in school practices over the course of only a few decades. For example, one thing that has changed is what former generations considered essential for a 6-year-old. I recall my early school years at Malesus, a small community south of Jackson in West Tennessee. Looking with anticipation to seeing friends from the previous year, we were excited to be back in school. The two-story, red-brick building built in the early 1900s held grades one through 12. After endless summer days of sleeping late and eventually the nothing-to-do syndrome, parents welcomed the return to normal.

It’s often said that the journey is more important than the destination. Likewise, getting ready for school was exciting. About a week before the first day, we shopped for new school shoes and supplies. Choices were Red Goose brown and white saddle oxfords or penny loafers – where you actually inserted a shiny penny in the top slot. And on occasion, they allowed us to be fitted for canvas sneakers…to use in gym class only. Certainly, as these contained no arch support or padded insoles, they couldn’t be worn very long – or frequently. In addition to the new shoes, we received several gingham dresses – handmade, of course – prior to the opening of school. During the 1950s, little girls wore dresses, no slacks or pants. Occasionally, if a girl had a brother, they might inherit their sibling’s outgrown jeans and wear them for outside play. Shopping for boys was much easier – two flannel shirts and two pairs of jeans. After school each day, boys changed to play clothes to keep the knees intact. Anticipating upward growth, parents often purchased clothes in a larger size than needed so they would last longer.

School supplies consisted of an Army green canvas book bag, worn on the back and held in place by two wide straps. For lower elementary students, you needed a Blue Horse wide-line tablet. Only grades three and up had narrow lines for cursive writing. First-graders were required to have “fat” pencils, which made learning to hold them easier. After advancing to cursive writing, students required a couple of yellow No. 2 pencils. Everyone needed a double-row box of Crayola crayons, which included the primary and secondary colors. Nothing like today’s Crayola boxes, which include shades such as vivid tangerine, macaroni and cheese, inchworm and pink flamingo. Elmer’s School Paste and scissors – always dull so the child wouldn’t cut their finger – completed the supply list.

The excitement of school starting was short lived, as within a few days the Madison County Health Department sent out a nurse to administer smallpox vaccines. News traveled fast. Someone from the high school had seen a health department car in the parking lot, they told their younger sister, and soon everyone knew the woman in the white uniform would be arriving in their room. She was here! And she carried a bag with the dreaded needles and vaccines. The vaccine only scratched the skin, but in a couple of weeks, a dime-size scab developed. We were told not to pick the scab and just let it come off naturally. Very few followed that rule, ending up with large scars.

I recall the selection process for first-grade reading groups. After observing our maturity and social development for a few days, our teacher placed us in one of three sections: Red Birds, Blue Birds or Yellow Birds. It didn’t take long to realize your status, or that of your peers.

Metal lunch boxes were a must-have, as many children packed a lunch from home. I’ll never forget the day I opened my box and found a note from my mother, in the words of Dr. Seuss, which read, “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.”

It’s been many years since those early days, but I still get excited when that yellow school bus appears on August mornings. That’s just one more thing that has changed – we didn’t start school until after Labor Day.

About the Author: Carolyn Tomlin of Jackson writes for numerous magazines and teaches a workshop called Writing for the Magazine Market. You can reach her by email at