Posted by: deadmousediaries | October 12, 2012

News from the Path Valley Hotel: Episode #57 – A Dandy Find in the Paper Chase

In my newspaper column this week, I did a little reminiscing about the best school lunches. You know. The ones that you bring from home and that contain great leftovers like cold meatloaf sandwiches or homemade chocolate cake. That whole diatribe was actually inspired by another discovery from among the family paperwork I’ve been finding tucked away since the PVH reopened.

The latest document to be unearthed was a certificate my dad earned in 1938 for perfect school attendance. It had to have been from 9th grade, before he turned 16. The reason I know that is because age 16 is when he was old enough to hunt and trap alone. I learned from all the family storytelling, there was a day after he turned 16  that he was sent home from school because he smelled bad. I’m not talking about teenage-goatboy-personal-hygiene bad.  I’m referring to odiferous-eminations-that-nearly-shut-down -the-whole-school bad. But back to school lunches for a moment.

My paternal grandmother somehow managed to get eight kids up, fed, and off to school during the Great Depression.

As I was writing my other little reflection, I tried to imagine what my other grandmother, my dad’s mom, must have dealt with to get eight kids up and off to school every morning in the 1920s and 30s.  By the time they got to high school, they did ride a school bus but no matter whether they walked or rode, they first had to navigate a very long dirt lane to get to the paved road to meet the bus which I have to think involved a fair amount of whining and complaining on most winter days. Each kid would have carried a lunch that their mother probably had to bake, grow or harvest so there was something to put into that paper sack during the Great Depression years when most of them had started school.

That realization made my dad’s perfect attendance achievement all the more remarkable when I thought about it because one of his contributions to the family as he was growing up was to provide wild game for the table and to earn a few extra dollars by trapping. Every day before school, he would run his trap line. On the good days, he’d have a pelt to prepare for tanning when he got home that might be worth $4. On the bad days, he’d have nothing. We have an expression here for any event in which you come up empty-handed and we call that  “getting skunked.”

On the day he was sent home from school, he had indeed been skunked –but in the worst way.  Instead of finding a red fox or other marketable varmint on his morning run, he encountered a skunk who apparently was pretty pissed off by the time my dad got there. (Dad always took time in this story to tell me it was a #3 skunk he had found that morning, a defining statement about the width of the white stripe down the critter’s back.) The skunk was already locked, loaded and ready to spray –and he did.

I’m sure my dad changed whatever clothes that he could when he got home but he did not have the luxury of owning two pairs of boots. In the days of tiny school rooms and wood stove heat, it didn’t take long before he attracted a lot of the wrong kind of attention. The principal was called to intervene and he decreed Trapper  Jim  would have to leave. Home was 12 miles away and of course there was no school shuttle service for stinky kids and there was no one at home to come get him. He set off walking and was eventually picked up by the mailman (who must have had some serious nasal congestion to have allowed it.) But here we are nearly 75 years later with another great story to tell!

The back of dad’s attendance award had a message I found fascinating and it has a lot to say about the changing perception of the value of education. Here’s what it included:

    “To the holder of this certificate:- You are to be congratulated upon securing this Certificate of Perfect Attendance. It indicates two things-First. That you are really desirous of securing an education so that you may be able to enjoy the best things in life and become an educated and dependable citizen of our great Commonwealth, as well as be able to support yourself comfortably when you reach your majority.

   “Second, That you have been blest with good health and presumably, with parents who realize what an education will mean to you later in life.

   “What a fine accomplishment it will be if you can maintain this record for each succeeding year until you have completed the four-year high school course! You will note that there is room for three more seals on this certificate. Preserve the certificate with care, and if you are perfect in attendance next year, another seal will be sent to you until all the spaces are filled. How many seals will you be able to secure? Now is your golden opportunity to secure your educational birthright.”

With all the debate over the cost and quality of school lunches and the new suburban controversy over busing for students within a mile of the school, maybe there’s something to be said for the good ole days. I guess another generation enjoyed good health and perfect attendance in part due to packed lunches and an exercise program that included walking to school – up hill, both ways, in the snow as some fondly remember it.

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