Do you ever wonder how you came to enjoy peanut butter on hard-boiled eggs? Or why you like bicycling or wearing red? I do. Following that train of thought, I’ve found glimmers of how ordinary experiences have molded who I am today.
… I looked back and saw myself walking to school… It’s the 1950s, and I live in a small town. Every day I walk to my elementary school in the morning, to-and-from school at lunch time, and home again in the afternoon. It’s perhaps a mile each way. Until I am in third grade, and every “First Day of School,” my sister and I are accompanied by our mother.
We walk beneath mature oaks and chestnuts that arch over the narrow streets stitched together by wooden houses with large porches and carefully tended lawns. Cars pass at a leisurely pace bearing men to their factory jobs or offices. Pick-up trucks rattled past carrying produce for the farmers’ market or supplies for local construction sites.
The boys are in blue jeans and corduroy jackets. We girls wear skirts and dresses to school; we are not allowed to wear pants. In the winter, to keep warm some of us slip on flannel-lined corduroy pants under our skirts and over our goloshes. During the day, those pants hang in my locker until I don them for my walk home. We don’t use backpacks; I carry in the crook of my arm, my notebooks and homework and a spiffy pencil case (carefully selected each September.) When I get older – probably sixth grade or so, I also carry a very cool purse of pink plastic which contains a cotton hanky (handkerchief to my mom) and a mirror. (I’m not allowed to wear make-up until ninth grade.)
I realize now that our walks to school were part of our social upbringing. Each day we see the same people – the housewives sweeping their porches, the elderly men walking their dogs, the same red sedan with the four men heading for the auto plant. In addition, as the months pass, our walk becomes a bit of a parade. We live at the outer reaches of our school’s catchment, so as we walk the blocks to school, my sister and I are joined by other boys and girls heading to school too. Some girls are dragging their younger siblings along, some boys are tuning up for their daily tease-fest. Moms wave at us from their porches; dads honk as they head off to their own work. By the time we arrive at the school yard, we are perhaps seven or eight children of varying ages – giggling and whispering. We are a small clan of neighbors and friends.
Walking that mile four times a day – morning and afternoon, and at lunchtime round-trip, gave us time to play in a very unstructured way. Our bodies were exercised; we learned to chat and interact in a more-or-less civilized manner; we looked after one another, and quarreled with one another, and made-up after our quarrels.
I came to love walking. I still do. While my morning and afternoon walks were social events, our lunch-time walks were quiet; not many children walked home for lunch. So my group walks were balanced against my more introspective noon strolls. (Talking to my little-sister hardly seemed worth the effort most days.)
During those midday turns, I watched the ever-changing adornment of the trees. I listened to the birds – robins and song sparrows, blue jays and crows. I noted the growth, bloom and decay of the petunias, geraniums and mums in the flower beds along my way. I thought. The tragedies of the hatchling fallen from its nest, the squirrel too slow to escape the dog’s jaws, the ambulance at the house of the old couple in the next block – I observed and absorbed the ebb and flow of daily life. I looked forward to the break from the intensity of my school day, though I loved school and continued to entwine my life with “school” for another 40 years.
Of course, my memory of walking to school is idealized. I am sure my sister can remind me of times I complained about having to come home for lunch or having to walk in the rain or wear my least-favorite mittens to school. But, in my memory, those walks are the stuff of joy and balance in my life. Now that I am semi-retired, I walk three miles every morning, as did my father before me (only he walked far more than three miles a day.) My love of birding, my joy in the simple tasks of gardening, and my delight in friendships – both casual and deep; all these gifts come to me, in part, from those years of walking to school.
I still remember one song we sang each morning as we stood behind our desks:
♪♫ Tramp, tramp, tramp, go the feet of many children
From the mountains, rivers and shores, ♪ ♪
Who with smiling faces take their school room places
With their friends and neighbors once more… ♪♫♫ ♫
What a great way to start the day – a walk and a song!