Sunday, June 9, 2013

School Desks

As I was sitting down to write this morning, I didn’t have a topic in mind. Sometimes when that happens, I do an internet search for images for a particular time period. I think that is a fun way just to stir up memories from the past. So today I chose the 50s and 60s and wouldn’t you know it, the first thing I saw was a picture of a student’s desk from a classroom. Wow, did that ever get the creative juices flowing.

The very first school desk I had wasn’t even a desk. It was a table that I shared with several other kids in my kindergarten class. The kindergarten was across the school yard from St. Matthews Elementary School in a mason block building that later became the cafeteria. I can barely remember the confusion and hustle and bustle of that first day settling in with the other kids in my class some of which I knew and some who were total strangers. I wound up attending kindergarten only a half year because in January, my brother and I caught scarlet fever which turned into tonsillitis. By the time I recovered from my tonsillectomy there were only a couple of weeks left in the school year and since kindergarten was not a pre-requisite, we spent that time quietly at home.

I remember my first grade desk well. It was the typical single piece construction with the chair attached to the table by a steel floor beam so that you could move both at the same time. Because the beam was on the floor, you could get into the desk from either side. But I always entered the desk from the left side, because cowboys always mounted their horses from the left side. I figured if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me. The desk part was really a box about 21 inches across by 21 inches high and about 3 inches deep. Just deep enough to hold my cigar box full of pencils and crayons. These desks were hand-me downs so they came complete with initials and a heart carved into the lift-able desk top. I remember being able to leave my “stuff” in the desk overnight without worrying that someone would mess with it or steal it. It’s a shame kids don’t have the same assurances these days.

Sometime during my elementary school days, the old desks were replaced with new modern single piece desks where the desks were built on a pedestal that extended upwards from the right front leg of the seat. The full sized desk had a wrap around piece that attached to the seat back around the right side. The storage area under the desktop had given way to a box under the seat open on both sides so you could put your books and supplies there for the class. I must admit that like those of so many boys, my school desk occasionally became the bridge of “The Polaris” as I would journey across the galaxy with Tom Corbett, Astro, Roger Manning and the other members of the Solar Guard under the command of Captain Steve Strong and Commander Arkwright. Fortunately, those adventures stayed in my inner mind, so no one else knew that my desk was really a starship. During elementary school the students stayed in their seats and the teachers rotated from classroom to classroom during the school day. So “your” desk was really “yours” and not anyone else’s. Once a month, over the weekend, the janitorial staff would mop and polish the classroom floors. They would never get the desks back into the correct place. This caused a loss of at least a half hour while each student located their desk and put it into the proper location. More than once arguments broke out when someone tried to upgrade by claiming that of another that was been a little cleaner or newer.

High school solved that problem. Now we had lockers for the first time that became our home base. Between classes we would recover the books and supplies needed for the next class and then find the desk that was assigned to us for that class. Most teachers assigned their classes alphabetically starting with the first desk of the row next to the inner wall. That always put me near the back of the class on the outside wall near the windows. Desk construction was pretty stable back then so they were similar to the desks that we had in elementary school. Since we had to get into the desk from the left, there was always a space between the last row and the wall. This was a pretty good thing because the school used steam heating and the radiator was under the window. That last row of seats was always pretty toasty during the cold winter days. But in the spring and early fall, we sweltered in the heat.

About the time I started college, desk construction underwent another metamorphosis. Desk tops shrank significantly to a 12 by 12 writing platform that could be folded down to allow space for a sitting audience. Many classrooms contained rows of these contraptions welded together to allow the classroom to double as an auditorium. There were also left handed versions of these desks to accommodate us creative left handed folks. There was no assigned seating so we could choose to sit next to our best buddy or the cute girl we had our eyes on. Now, when I go onto campus to speak to a class, I can hardly recognize it as a classroom at all. It seems more like a mini theater complete with smart blackboards capable of connecting to the internet or becoming a projection screen for a PowerPoint presentation or viewing a U-Tube video. The desks in these classrooms resemble the bridge of the Polaris more than any desk from my youth ever could, even in my very fertile imagination. Oh MY!

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