Later generations called it The Fire Station cause that’s what sits there today. Midway back generations called it The Pink Palace. My generation call it Fourth Grade. It was an interesting building with I don’t know how many different rooms, each with its own outside entrance and – wait for it – bathroom. I’m not kidding: each room had a bathroom with doors opening to the inside of the classroom. The building’s exterior was covered with brown tar paper made to look like brown bricks. It didn’t fool anybody. Things were so bad that on Picture Day, we went inside the main building and borrowed Mrs. Duke’s room to have our pictures taken.
There was an upright piano in the back of my fourth grade classroom because Mrs. Lunceford thought music important . . . plus, she just plain liked to play it. She’d slam that teacher’s edition history book shut in the middle of a string of dates about some war or other and march from her desk in the front of the room to the piano in the back of the room, straightening the belt on her cotton shirtwaist dress as she went. She’d give that piano seat a smart twirl with her right hand, sit herself down, and commence to playing. She didn’t need sheet music in front of her, she’d just hear a song in her head and start playing. She was a full-bodied piano player, Mrs. Lunceford was, whose feet kept time on the dirty wooden floorboards and whose head swayed and bobbed to the music as her hands played. We’d sing along, and when it was time to go back to the history lesson, she’d hum all the way back to her desk.
A couple of the piano keys started sticking, so Mrs. Lunceford hired a blind German fella to come in and tune her piano. He came during class, of course, and we learned all about tuning forks and resonance and how blind people do things and even a few German words to boot. Turns out that a couple of mice had crawled up in the piano and lost their way out. Deprived of food and water, they eventually died, their tails keeping the hammers of certain notes from touching their assigned piano wire. You know, Mrs. Lunceford didn’t even shiver as the German fella produced the mice from the back of the piano and took them outside, but I sure did, even when she talked to us about survival of the fittest and food chains and all.
My grandmother taught me piano lessons, just as she taught every one of her 14 grandchildren. Well, that’s not quite true. My Cousin Stacy lived way up yonder in New Jersey, and I’m pretty sure his mother had a death wish for him cause she signed him up for trombone lessons, of all things, and made him wear linen shorts with knee socks and the
funniest cutest little hat you ever saw. People around here never saw anything like it – not even in the Sears and Roebuck catalogue – until Stacy came for a visit.
Well, when I hit fourth grade, I thought it time to branch out, and I begged my mother to let me take lessons from Mrs. Price who had everything going for her: she was a newcomer, the mother of two teenage boys, and had a swimming party at the end of every year for her piano students. But Mother was having none of that and signed me up instead for lessons with Mrs. Crump who lived within walking distance of my fourth grade classroom. Because I was a good reader, every Tuesday morning during reading lessons, I was excused to take my piano books and walk down to Mrs. Crump’s house for my 30-minute lesson. Every week while I played my homework, Mrs. Crump gave herself a manicure.
One day in February while I was at my piano lesson, Mrs. Lunceford gave her blessing to the idea Allen Smith and Kent Jackson hatched and let them walk to town, go in Alford’s, and spend the 57-cents they’d saved up between them on a box of chocolate-covered cherries – a birthday present/Valentine combo gift for me on the occasion of my turning a decade old. Mrs. Lunceford believed in love, you see, even in the most unlikeliness of love. Once, when using a spelling word in a sentence, she told us that she had always wanted to marry a man with a head full of wavy brown hair but instead, she’d fallen in love with Mr. Lunceford whose bald head looked like a peeled onion.
When I got back from Mrs. Crump’s house, Mrs. Lunceford told me to put my books up then come stand in the front of the room. My head raced as I wondered what on earth I had done to deserve this. Nobody in our class ever misbehaved – unless you count that time Kimbo Neal used his magnifying glass and the sun to set fire to the 33-gallon trash barrel outside our front door, and Mrs. Lunceford counted that not as misbehaving but as a science experiment and gave him extra credit. – so I didn’t know if I’d done something awful or awesome. I couldn’t think of anything that qualified as either.
As Mrs. Lunceford played Let Me Call You Sweetheart, one of her favorite love songs she told us later, Allen and Kent each took a side of that box of chocolate covered cherries and began their walk up the aisle to present it to me. Now when Robert Reeves turned around in his seat to watch the proceedings, he wound up with his legs sticking out in the aisle. Neither Kent or Allen saw the legs, and down they went, spraying the entire room with chocolate covered cherries. Kids were coming way up out of their seats to catch a piece of candy, and I was happy to share cause I never have liked chocolate covered cherries.
It seems that when Mrs. Lunceford was a child, there was no such thing as store-bought toothpaste, or if there was, her mama and daddy didn’t have enough money enough to buy it, so Mrs. Lunceford brushed her teeth with a mixture of equal parts of soda and salt. As her eyes misted over at the memory, we actually saw the lightbulb go off. The next day, everybody was to bring their toothbrush, and she’d bring the soda and salt. Sure enough, the next day each one of us filed into the bathroom one at a time after lunch to brush our teeth using the soda and salt mixture she brought from home.
The roof was bad to leak in that fourth grade classroom, so with the first rain, Mrs. Lunceford told each one of us bring a pot from home the next day. We kept the pots under out desks, and when it rained, we’d quietly pull it out and put it somewhere to catch the trespassing raindrops. When it quit raining, Mrs. Lunceford had us water her flowers with the water we collected.
In the springtime when it was time for members of the Baptist Girls’ Auxiliary to wow The Reviewing Board and make our way up the ladder toward Queen, Mrs. Lunceford paired each of us Baptists up with a Methodist and sent us out to stand between the sticks in the ground that had been boxwoods in better days. “Methodists,” she said as we stood in line ready to exit the building, “I want y’all to hold the books for your assigned Baptist and call out the questions for them to answer. And listen real close when they recite the scripture verses ’cause I don’t think it would hurt y’all at all to memorize a little bit of the Bible yourself.” (In case you can’t tell, Mrs. Lunceford was, herself, a Bible-toting Baptist.)
As the bell rings heralding the start of another school year, I can’t help but scratch my head and wonder if today’s parents would stand for their child to attend school in such a dilapidated, pitiful-looking ole’ building, but I can tell you one thing: you can’t judge an education by its classroom any more than you can judge a book by its cover.
I wish I still had those blue-and-white-cat-eye-glasses-with-the-silver-sparkles. Oh my goodness can you even imagine the stories I’d write through those glasses? Speaking of stories, I’m conjuring one every day for 100 days, and if you’re at all interested, you can make sure it lands on your digital doorstep every morning by mashing the button in the orange bar at the top of the screen and following the directions that ensue.