Then and now

Watching the children scurry around getting ready for school again, I can’t help but remember my own first entrance into that huge, gleaming-white, Merrimon Avenue monolith known as Claxton School some 74 years ago.

I had lived in the neighborhood for two years, and now I was finally ready to join my older pals as a real schoolboy at Claxton.

Ironically, just a few days before I started, we’d moved out of our apartment on Hillside near the school to a real house on Westall Avenue. This made for a longer commute but didn’t diminish my excitement about going to school.

Claxton had a big playground, which also served the neighborhood, with swings, climbing bars and seesaws. There was no mulch, just sand and concrete. If I fell and skinned myself, I tried hard not to cry but to just suck it up and carry on, because unless one could negotiate for Mercurochrome or peroxide, the the iodine would hurt worse than the abrasion.

We each had a little desk with an inkwell and a built-in shelf where we kept our new school supplies and sometimes hid our contraband.

We had a pack of six or eight crayons in such standard colors as red, yellow and green. Only in my later years did I learn that some female conspiracy had created hues such as taupe, beige and fuchsia, which to this day I don’t recognize.

We had a No. 2 lead pencil with an eraser, and a notebook with lined pages.

Before I began attending Claxton, one of the older children took me to a Halloween play in the school auditorium. It featured scary witches who seemed to come out from under the stage. I didn’t go near it till about the fourth grade for fear those witches might still be lurking somewhere.

Discipline was sure, swift and simple. Misdemeanors such as talking in class, chewing gum or shooting spitballs might require the student to write “I will not (fill in the blank)” 500 times. A repeat offense might merit after-school detention and blackboard-cleaning duty.

A felony (such as fighting or sassing the teacher) would prompt a dreaded trip to the principal’s office, where one could expect to receive the first of two spankings for the day (a note would be sent home, and there was little doubt where that would lead).

Music class featured such exotic instruments as bells, tambourines, sticks you banged together and triangles. I was a savant with that triangle; as the kids would say today, “I could rock that bad boy.”

One of the teachers offered to lead a little band class twice a week at 7 a.m., outside of regular school hours. My parents thought I should learn to play the only musical instrument we had in the house: my uncle’s old cornet.

Since there was no bus that early, I would trudge off in the cold and dark to start my musical career. I don’t recall ever learning to play that thing, and of course I couldn’t practice tooting this horn at home without disturbing the whole neighborhood.

A few years later I was forced to take piano lessons, because they just knew I had musical talent. After all, my sister Ann was a piano virtuoso who became a concert pianist and off-Broadway performer.

After a few disastrous lessons, however, it was obvious that I should have stuck with the triangle.

Another vivid memory concerns the outdoor metal fire escape. We used to take a bandana, tie four strings and a toy soldier to it, climb the three flights of steps, and launch this homemade parachute so we could watch our soldier float gently to the ground.

On May Day we’d hang long, varicolored crepe-paper streamers from the flagpole. Several kids would hold the streamers and dance round and round the pole till it was colorfully wrapped, after which refreshments were served.

One May Day, a late snowstorm caught us by surprise, and while we didn’t get to act out the usual ceremony I do remember how the melting snow soaked the streamers and the wind painted a colorful image on the snow around the pole.

I loved the lunchroom. The food was delicious, and I was always glad when my parents sent me off with a quarter for lunch instead of a peanut-butter sandwich.

The lunchroom ladies were so kind and dedicated, always ready with a hug and smile and maybe an extra piece of pie when they noticed you were having a bad day.

We started geography in fourth grade. Our first lesson was about the “cradle of civilization”: the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and how they emptied into the Shatt al Arab and eventually the Persian Gulf, serving the cities of Baghdad and Basra along the way. These places seemed so far away and strange — who would ever have imagined how much they would eventually impact our lives?

In my house, we were lucky enough to get two pairs of shoes per year, and the trip to the shoe store for new Thom McAns or Buster Browns was a major event. Your new shoes were reserved for special occasions, and the ones they displaced were shifted to everyday wear. On the first day of school, though, you brought your former everyday pair with you, because so many kids would show up with no shoes at all. Even for a child, this was a sobering learning experience.

Claxton gave me a great foundation in education, discipline and social responsibility. Thank you, Claxton: I understand you’re still an outstanding school, and I wish you continued success.

— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. He can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com.

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