My elementary school was organized by east-west rooms on either side of a long central hallway divided in two by the entrance lobby and multipurpose room—which served as gymnasium and cafeteria. The vast open space was where we went for performance theater (Let George Do It!), spelling bees, and P.E. class.
I could write a book on the multipurpose room alone. The scooter board races, the trampoline, the school lunches. Coaches Lippold and Greenfield. And the music room was tucked away there, too. Mrs. Johnson who let us sing pop hits of the day. And Miss Vondracik, whose heart was always in the right place.
Across the hall, adjacent to the multipurpose room, the library and administrative offices were home to Mrs. Barlow, the sweet lady who sold us lunch tickets, and Principal Koops, second only to Mrs. Hetzel for putting the fear in me—and becoming one of my most treasured friends.
Moving on to fourth grade meant crossing this great divide separating little kids from big kids. Kindergarten, first, second, and third grades were on the south end of the hall. Fourth, fifth, and sixth were at the north end.
In Bloomfield, the older you got, the farther north you went.
Fourth grade memories are dominated by Miss Bradley in four-east, another young woman in her first years of teaching and her wonderful Pioneer Day event. It was the year we studied Nebraska history, when—for one day only—we dressed as pioneers. We ate like pioneers (corn and lima bean succotash). We talked like pioneers. We sang songs about pioneers.
Yet again, I was on the east side of the hall, which meant I had to cross to the west side for math class with Mrs. Koops. Yep—the principal taught math in the mornings, turning four-west over to Mrs. Poppe for the remainder of the day. Before I stopped caring about math, I was pretty good at it, and under the Koops tutelage, I excelled. (This math proficiency would change in high school, for a variety of reasons—a voracious appetite for paperback reading, my dad who was a math major in college, my goofy vision of myself as a rock-star artist-writer who didn’t need math…my dad—but I repeat myself.)
Fifth grade turned my world upside down by assigning me to a home room in the west with another young teacher, Mrs. Neuharth. Unlike the lower grades, fifth and sixth graders crossed the hall for classes not once, but a couple times a day—not just perpendicular to the hall, but diagonally. Where I had always needed to familiarize myself with two teachers, now we had to get acquainted with four.
I took science with Miss Bergin (and I’ve likely spelled her name wrong) in six-west and social studies on six-east with Mrs. McCallum.
For math, I crossed over to five-east with Miss Keiter.
A reserved, religious lady who lived alone and drove an antique car to work (in memory it was something like a white ‘62 Ford Fairlane), Miss K was tough as a bronc-rider in the classroom, laying down the rules of multiplication and division faster than I could keep up in my King Kong notebook. She was adamant that someday soon, America would change the way we measured things, so we had to watch this odd PBS-TV program about the metric system. And she drilled us hard on centimeters, grams, and kilometers.
I also remember her being one of the few elementary school teachers who mentioned Jesus in the classroom—which didn’t seem at all out-of-the ordinary at the time. Naturally, when one of the guys brought a Playboy magazine to school and we were passing the centerfold around, it would be Miss Keiter who confiscated the goods. Expecting her to show embarrassment or act flustered in some way, her cool reserve and dry wit was awe-inspiring. Of that month’s Playmate, she later told me, “That poor dear could stand to put on a few pounds.”
Back across the hall, Mrs. Neuharth taught me to write. She encouraged creativity within grammatical structures, but wasn’t opposed to us exploring beyond our boundaries. I gave a book report for 2001: A Space Odyssey in fifth grade, actually acting out the discovery of the monolith on the moon with one of my classmates. Just for laughs, Mrs. N let us add an alien monster to the script.
Another surreal memory from fourth and fifth grade – our music teacher, Mrs. Johnson, had us singing ‘70s hits from little pamphlet-style songbooks, Genesis and Exodus. True story—I can remember how all the guys used to gleefully yell whenever we sang the first line of Paul Simon’s Kodachrome, i.e.—“When I think back on all the CRAP I learned in high school…”
That’s a weird memory.
Stranger still: a room full of ten and eleven year olds singing, “Suicide is painless/it brings on many changes/and I can take or leave it if I please”—the theme to M.A.S.H.—at the top of our lungs.
I ended my grade-school career in six-west with Miss Krietman, a beautiful young woman with gorgeous blonde hair. It was an odd year. Not only did we know it was our swan-song in the building (the next year we’d be moving down the hill, and a little farther north, to the high school), but our class—the core students we’d graduate with—was becoming complete. We welcomed one of our old friends from second grade, Barb, back into the fold. A new girl named Diane, whose dad was a new administrator, moved in and soon moved out. Another new girl named Lisa joined us to become a life-long friend.
If music was important during fourth and fifth grade, it became all the more so in sixth grade. Miss Krietman let us bring records from home to listen to (Greg, Mark, and I brought KISS records, earning us authentic KISS touring posters from Miss K’s home college auditorium where they played). Lisa performed a gymnastics routine to a Styx record, and outside of the classroom, I discovered a band called Pink Floyd.
The stage was set for high school and everything that would come after.
For every memory I wrote here, I skipped over dozens more. Mrs. McCallum smashing squirt guns with the steel-window frames. Miss Bradley being far from amused as I acted out a heart-attack Fred Sanford-style in the middle of English class. Christmas programs. Halloween parties. Riding the school bus with a thousand Boecker siblings. Playground fights and adventures.
Times were different then.
We were different then, as a country and as a culture.
For better, for worse, it was what it was.
We hang onto the memories, letting them guide us, as ever, into our best possible future.