"The Wisconsin Years," from
My First Eighty Years (and then some!)
Lyle Arthur Seefeld
Copyright Ralph L. Seefeld and Carol
Howman. This book may not be reproduced or copied
in any manner without the written consent of Ralph L. Seefeld
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Chapter 7: Early School Days (1910-1919)
When I started going to school I was five years old (1910) and the school building was twenty-two. It was the first school built in Tomahawk, and when I went there was devoted solely to kindergarten. It is, I think, the only one of the old school buildings still standing, now housing the offices of the Tomahawk School District. When I went there, kindergarten was divided into two classes, morning and afternoon. The kids were divided into two age groups and the younger ones, including myself, went to afternoon kindergarten the first half of the school year and then "graduated" to morning kindergarten for the second half.
My memories of kindergarten are rather vague. I do remember a long, low table at which we colored and cut out paper shapes. And I remember a large wooden "clock", large enough for one of us kids to sit inside and manipulate the hands so we could all learn to "tell time." Oh, yes, I vaguely remember when our class picture was taken. I have a copy of this photo, which plainly shows that I was dressed quite differently from the other boys, a fact of which I was always quite conscious.
The next year, of course, I went to first grade, which meant that I had to walk a lot farther to school. First through fourth grades were taught in a building Mother always called "the old high school", formally called the Whittier School. It was built right across the east end of Wisconsin Avenue, which was "Main Street" in our town. I have only one vague memory of a first grade class, in which I'm sitting in the middle of the room and on the blackboard teacher had written a huge letter "a." Downright boring, for I had learned to read before I started school!
I do remember my first-grade teacher, though. She was a rather short, gray-haired lady with a pleasant face and voice we called Mrs. Headstream. Everyone liked her! She must have taught there a long time, because later when I was about twelve, our dentist, Dr. McFarlane, told me she had been his first-grade teacher!
Two incidents which took place outside the classroom at this time are etched permanently in my memory. One morning as I was leaving for school, Mother told me she would be visiting Mrs. Luther that day, and that, instead of having lunch at home, I would have it at Luther's, who lived about a block from the school. But when noon came, I walked home as usual, only to find the door locked! Then I remembered! So I hurried back the way I had come, had my lunch with Mother and Mrs. Luther, and got back to school in time. One terribly cold foggy winter morning everything was covered with about a quarter inch of beautiful hoarfrost. At recess time a few of us boys were admiring this phenomenon, when one of them couldn't resist trying to taste it. (It wasn't me!) So he put his tongue on a frost covered drain pipe, and couldn't get it off! He struggled for quite a while, and managed to get free, with a bleeding tongue. I think he had to go home to have it taken care of. I'll bet he never did that again! (How do you bandage a tongue?)
I don't remember anything about school in the second grade except my teacher, who was Margaret Noonan. She was a tall, angular, broad-faced lady, with a much sterner demeanor than Mrs. Headstream. I think I had Miss Russell for both third and fourth grades. She was small, blonde, and always smiling and pleasant. I don't have any memories of third grade, but I do recall some incidents in the fourth. In the fourth grade there was a boy called "Peggy" Collins. (I hope that was a nick-name!). I remember him because in penmanship class he would sit there at his desk and just draw zig-zag lines. He probably grew up to become a doctor! One day, in reading class, I was called on to read aloud a page or two from a book we were studying. After I had finished, Miss Russell called the class to attention and said: "Now, that's what I call reading." I liked her! Then one day the school principal visited our room. After he had talked to Miss Russell for a while, they both came to my desk and said I was doing so well they thought I ought to move ahead to the fifth grade. The thought horrified me! After all, I didn't know any of the kids in fifth grade, and besides, fifth grade was taught in the High School building, totally unfamiliar territory. I objected so much they let me stay in fourth, and I'm glad they did. I think school was much easier for me because I was slightly ahead of my class than it would have been if I was behind and struggling to keep up.
Of course I can't forget the "spell-downs." The class was divided into two "sides" which were lined up against opposite walls. The first pupil in one row was given a word to spell out loud. If he spelled it correctly, he remained standing, and the next word was given to the first pupil on the other side. However, if he spelled it incorrectly, he had to sit down, eliminated from the competition, and the word passed on to the next pupil. One by one, as the words became harder to spell, pupils misspelled them and left the standing lines, until only one was left. I won these competitions so often it became embarrassing, but not enough to make me intentionally misspell a word. My conscience wouldn't let me do that!
The next year, of course, I started the fifth grade, which was taught in a room on the second floor of the High School building. The room at the southeast corner, to be exact. My teacher was Miss Bliefernicht, who was hardly big enough to carry that name around. When I press my memory's fifth grade button, only two things emerge. One time I had a bad cold, and was urged to stay home from school. But I wouldn't hear of it, and went anyway, reeking of Mentholatum, with goose grease on my chest, covered by a wool shirt, a cloth wrapped around my neck, sinuses so blocked I could hardly hear, and my throat so sore I could hardly speak! I liked school and didn't want to miss any!
One day a man came to our fifth grade room and lectured the class on vision and the eye. I don't remember his talk, but will always remember the demonstration he conducted afterward, on complementary colors and the persistence of vision. He darkened the room, and projected a false color image of the United States flag on the wall. The stripes were green and white, and the stars were white on a yellow field. We were instructed to stare fixedly at this image, and after we had done so for a minute or two he turned the projector off. And up there on the wall there seemed to still be an image of the flag, this time in its true colors. Mystifying!
The page in my memory devoted to the sixth grade seems to be completely empty, so I'll switch right to seventh and eighth grades. I had the same teacher, Miss Gaffney, for both grades and I'm not sure in which grade this incident took place. For homework one day we were given a series of complicated arithmetic problems. After our papers were turned in and graded, my answer to one problem was marked WRONG. This was unusual, but then everyone in the class seemed to have it wrong too, so I didn't feel quite so badly, and proceeded to work it again. But, no matter how many times I tried, I always got the same "wrong" answer. So I told Miss Gaffney, and she sat down at her desk and worked the problem herself. To her surprise (and everyone else's) she got the same answer I had. The answer in the back of her book was wrong! I wonder how many school kids around the country had their correct answers marked wrong?
Most of the things I remember about this time (1917/18) concerned matters outside the classroom. Millions of people were ill with "Spanish influenza," and I and all the other kids went to school with cloth masks over our faces to keep from breathing the "germs." They didn't know about viruses yet! In October, 1918, a disastrous forest fire at Cloquet, Minnesota killed four hundred people, and the smoke from this fire filled the air over Tomahawk. I could smell it with every breath, and the sky was brown. The sun rose, moved overhead and set, looking like a big bronze ball. Everyone wished for rain, and this is when I first heard the "old saying" that "all signs fail in dry weather!"
On Monday, November 11, 1918, World War I ended, and I think we were excused from school that day. And in the fall of 1918, a construction crew was building a new concrete and steel Fourth Street bridge across the Wisconsin river, to replace the old, wooden, rattly one I remember so well. Several days, Miss Gaffney was quite perturbed because quite a few of us kids were late for school, having watched the bridge crew too long! I don't remember much more about the eighth grade, except that it occupied the ground floor room at the southwest corner of the high school building. And, of course, at the end of the school year in the spring of 1919 we were ready to start high school in the fall.