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I was six when I went to grammar school in Montgomery. I’d had the great fortune to miss kindergarten. One day, in the first grade, Mrs. Barclay, a sweet, blond, elderly woman of about thirty-eight, was playing the piano. The children were in back of her, singing, and she turned around and said, “Who is that singing like an angel?” I looked around for an angel and saw that all the children were pointing at me. That’s the last time I have been confused with an angel.
After first grade comes second grade. Here I had another elderly teacher, Miss P., not nearly as sweet as Mrs. Barclay. In fact I think she was a witch. At that time, when we came to school, each class lined up in front of the school. There was to be an award for promptness among the different classes. One day I got there a few minutes late and Miss P. was not delighted. I had injured our chances, and she told me that, at recess the next day, she was going to have me “bumped.” I didn’t know what “bumped” meant but the way she said it made me think I wouldn’t care for it.
Miss P. was mistaken about the next day because the next day I wasn’t in school. I had a sore throat which my mother couldn’t exactly put her finger on. Anyhow it persisted the following day. By the third day my mother thought my sore throat might do just as well in school, so I dragged myself back to second grade. Sure enough, Miss P. hadn’t forgotten, and at recess she took me back to a fence and had four large boys—two holding my hands and two holding my feet—swing me back and forth and bump me against the fence. Well, it wasn’t as bad as I had thought it might be, but, gosh, the anguish I went through before the bumping.
One day, before recess, I acquired, or obtained improperly—it’s hard when you’re talking about yourself to say stole—a ham sandwich from the lunch shelf. My parents didn’t give me school lunches because they fed me pretty well and I was on the plump side. Anyhow, I did this deed, and the little girl who was the owner of the sandwich apprehended me in the backyard and brought Miss P. into the matter. I whipped out a lie, and said my parents had guests over for bridge the night before and had served baked ham. It was logical that I would have a ham sandwich. It was a close call, but perhaps Miss P., having had the pleasure of bumping me, thought, well, let him get away with this one. Now if you want to say that I was only seven and it was all right for me to steal and that I didn’t know any better, you’re wrong. I did know better. And this was an early lesson in the value of constructive lying. I’d gotten off to a good start.
When my father’s business took a turn for the better he sent me to a private school called Barnes University School. I don’t know what University had to do with it. I guess it just sounded good. It had a little over a hundred boys in it. We had to buy military uniforms which we wore on special occasions, not every day, thank goodness. It was a nice school. I remember a few things about it—playing touch football in a big back yard, and wrestling at recess.
Professor Barnes was a music buff, although I doubt if there was such a word in those days. He had a choir of eighteen boys. They sang for a half an hour every day. He also had a special, special choir of four boys, and I was in it. One day Professor Barnes said, “Dreyfus, could you sing like that by yourself?” I said, “Sure.” So he asked everybody to hold it, and the piano started up. I couldn’t open my mouth. Pure 100 percent stage fright. It’s nice to remember that he had picked me as a soloist from the special, special choir. Right next to me was Frank Tennille. Frank became an outstanding pop singer.
One other memory from Barnes University School sticks in my mind. Many years later I read Mark Twain’s “What Is Man?” In it he talks of the “flash of wit” and how it really is a flash. You don’t have time to think. It was such a flash that got me into trouble at Barnes. I was eight years old at the time. We were in Mr. Henderson’s class, a kind man who wanted to do something nice for one of us—give us a little gift. Mr. Henderson asked Tommy Curtis to choose-up, to see who would get the present. In those days the custom was to say “eenie, meenie, minie, mo, catch a gentleman by the toe.” It’s gone out of style. Tommy started out in a way none of us had ever heard. He said, “eenie, meenie, dixie, deanie.” And I said, “catch a doggie by his weenie,” before he could finish. There was an uproar. Mr. Henderson admonished me on the spot and arranged a private meeting with Professor Barnes. After some stern comments from Professor Barnes I was let go, but I think I saw crinkles around his eyes. I repeat this story because it’s worth thinking about. Here’s a little eight-year-old boy, minding his own business, and something like that pops out of his mouth. It sort of confirms Mark Twain’s point.
I went from Barnes University School, which was nice, to Starke University School, which was, to say the least, rigorous. Starke’s made a big deal about military issues. We had to wear uniforms daily, with a stiff two-inch collar. Some genius figured out if you have a stiff two-inch collar, you’ll hold your head up right. I’d like to have gotten hold of his head. We went through all the motions of a military school, including drilling with heavy guns. And we had guard duty, as a punishment. You’d get it in clumps of three hours, with a rifle that felt like a ton, and you’d have to walk back and forth for three hours. We drilled every day. I have a mixed-up sense of direction; when I pivoted on the wrong foot, Mr. Cochran who was drilling us would say, “Stick Dreyfus.” Ouch, three hours guard duty.
Professor Starke was a bugger for the truth and had a little contraption called a hickory switch which he used on us when we were caught lying. I still remember the formal expression, “Hold out your hand, sir,” and then the hickory. Another pleasantry was called columns. One column was a word written fifteen times. Ten columns (150 words) was not too tough if the word was cat or dog. But if it was interdenominationalisticism or paraminobenzoldiethyminoethynol, it was suffering. I remember getting ten columns of interdenominationalisticism on a technicality. I used to kick my friend Hart Lyon in Mr. Meyers’ class. One day Mr. Meyers said, “Dreyfus, if you kick Hart once more in class, I am going to give you ten columns of interdenominationalisticism.” I heeded. But when Hart went out of the room, once he was over the doorstep, I kicked him and Mr. Meyers said, “Okay, Dreyfus, ten columns.” “But,” I said, “Mr. Meyers, Hart wasn’t in class.” I thought I had him on a technicality. But it didn’t work.
One day Bolling Starke, Professor Starke’s son, was asking the students some questions. I don’t remember what they were about, but he gave me a compliment. He said, “Dreyfus, you’re not so dumb.” I was amazed because I thought I was, or I wouldn’t have remembered it to this day. Professor Starke was an unusual character. By the way, I never knew what his first name was, we always called him Fessor Starke. One day he told us how he’d made a mistake on his income tax and shortchanged the United States government by eighty cents. But he thought it unfair to send them a check for eighty cents and put them to all that trouble. So he came up with an idea he was proud of. He bought eighty cents worth of postage stamps, and burned them. He told this to the class as an example of integrity at its peak.
There was another time when Professor Starke, in a grandiloquent mood, decided he was going to award three hours guard duty, free, to the person who solved what he called a riddle. He said there was a little boy and a few girls at a picnic. The girls were chatting along. The little boy was shy but felt he should contribute. Finally, he said, “Have you ever worked an enema?” Professor Starke said the boy had misspoken and said, “If you can guess what he meant to say, I’ll give you three hours of guard duty, free.” Please don’t strain your brain. The boy had meant to say, “Have you ever worked an enigma?” All the older boys took a shot at this, but nothing was right. As time was running out my friend Hart Lyon, feeling you shouldn’t blow an opportunity like this without a try, held up his hand. Professor Starke said, “What did the little boy mean, Hart, when he said, ‘Have you ever worked an enema?’”Hart said, “He meant to say, ‘Has an enema ever worked you?’” I never heard such a spontaneous roar. Even the Fessor almost smiled.
I should mention part of the education at Starke’s which was good, a course called Mental Arithmetic. It consisted of problems that we had to solve orally, standing up in class. I can still remember some of them. Here’s one. A man paid $35 for a bookcase. Three-sevenths of the cost of the bookcase was four-fifths of what he paid for a bureau, and three-fourths of the cost of the bureau was five-fourths of what he paid for a table. What did he pay for the bureau and for the table? You stood up in class and said, “One-seventh of $35 is $5, and three times $5 are $15. Fifteen dollars is four fifths of what he paid for the bureau. One-fifth of what he paid for the bureau is a quarter of $15.00 or 15/4ths of a dollar and....” I won’t go further, you can’t buy furniture that cheap nowadays. Fessor Starke jumped on us if we said two times four is eight. Two times four are eight. I’ll never forget that one times something carries an “is,” and two or more carries an “are.”
Now that I think about it, that was the best course I had in school. It got me to know fractions pretty well. To tell the truth, I wouldn’t give you a nickel for percentages. I can understand them if I have to, but I hate those 0.1 things.
I may have given the impression that during my grammar school days it was all work and no play. Not so, or I would be a duller boy. There was plenty of play—on weekends and those long wonderful days called summer vacation. The first “play” I recall was when I was six years old. On weekends I would wake up at six, bounce out of bed, put on my overalls, and head for the bathroom. When duties were completed, I would glance at my toothbrush—I didn’t have time to use it—and rush out to the backyard to play with my dog Scott. Usually my pal Rose Morris was there, and some of the other children, but that wasn’t necessary. The juices of play were in me.
One morning I was in a hurry to get to the other side of the fence. I could have walked thirty yards and gone around it. Instead, I scrambled over the fence, and caught the top of my right foot on a protruding nail. The gash made a white mark on the top of my foot that lasted thirty years. It also settled a running argument with my mother, as to whether I should wear shoes.
About two blocks from my house there was a big lot. In the summer many children, fifty or sixty or more, came there every day. We ranged in age from six to fourteen and assorted ourselves accordingly. The older boys played softball, and at the end of the summer switched to touch football. The rest of us played anything—tag, hide-and-seek, mumbly-peg, and kitty-o-cat. For the uneducated—when four or more boys and a baseball and bat were present, someone would yell “first bat kitty-o-cat,” and the others had a moral obligation to play. There was a pitcher, a batter, a catcher, and at least one fielder. The batter had to get to first base and back to home plate. Not too difficult due to the scarcity of fielders.
Those summer days were pure joy. I thought back to them about fifteen years ago when I was in Central Park, trying to write A Remarkable Medicine Has Been Overlooked. Each day around noon about a hundred children were let out of school. They came running into the park, yelling, jumping, skipping, and chasing each other. There was no semblance of a game. I said to myself, they have the juices of youth in them. Then I looked fifty yards away and saw the elderly sitting on the benches, quietly staring ahead, and thought, they have the juices of old age. This could be studied. There might be chemicals in the young that could be safely given to the aged, with benefit.
After I had gone to Starke University School for two years, my parents sent me to Sidney Lanier High, a public school. Maybe my father thought I’d learned how to tell the truth. More likely, my mother was tired of guard duty and the hickory stick. I was grateful for the change, but I must say that Starke’s made a lasting impression.
Next Section: High School
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