When I was in grade school, the academic year ended in the middle of June and resumed the day after Labor Day. By the time the middle of August rolled around, my buddies and I were bored — and ready to return to school. We had done everything — baseball, swimming, reading and just hanging out — and we could no longer think of anything else to do that would be fun.
My mother was not about to send me back to school in scuffed shoes and soiled pants and shirts, so off she and I went to Lake Street a week before school was to begin.
There were no shopping malls in those days, so we limited ourselves to the one local store that my mother held in high esteem. The store I refer to was Wieboldt’s on the southwest corner of Lake and Harlem in River Forest.
The first stop was the shoe department.
It was imperative that my shoes fit properly, and this was ensured by having my shod feet checked for size via the foot X-ray machine.
When the test proved favorable, I was gifted with two pair of oxfords — one black and one brown — both of the shoestring type. The next items to be purchased were pants, shirts, underwear and white socks.
The pants were chinos and the shirts were six-button, plain cotton. I was now fit to go to school.
On the day school began, the teachers gave each student a list of supplies that had to be brought to class the next day. No excuses were accepted for failing to bring the supplies to school.
Since the first day of school ended at noon, my mother and I walked south on Oak Park Avenue in the early afternoon to Reyff’s, which was on the west side of Oak Park Avenue between Lake and North Boulevard.
Reyff’s was a combination dime store and toy store, so while my mother was picking out school supplies, I would try to elude her and slip into the toy area. My attempts failed each year.
Students were required to have a notebook for each class, which meant five notebooks, a half-dozen pencils, a filled ink bottle, and a fountain pen.
The fountain pens were a mess because if a person didn’t buy an expensive one ($4), the pen would drip ink on one’s hands and papers. Years later when I saw a picture of the Rorschach test, the picture reminded me of some of my assignments.
At last I was fully equipped to do battle with math, English, literature, science and history.
The academic action took place in a building divided into three separate parts, with the kindergarten first and second grades in the east wing, the third and fourth grades in the west wing, and grades five through eight in the middle section.
The wooden floors were swept daily with oiled sawdust, and the bathrooms were cleaned daily with a powerful-smelling chemical that almost knocked one over onto the floor.
Every year during elementary school, when my family sat for supper on the evening of the first day of school, family members would ask me how I liked my teachers, were there any new students, and was I prepared to do my best.
I had three answers — yes, yes, yes — and these positive answers ended the interrogation.
John Stanger is a lifelong resident of Oak Park, a 1957 graduate of OPRF High School, married with three grown children and five grandchildren, and a retired English professor (Elmhurst College). Living two miles from where he grew up, he hasn’t gotten far in 78 years.