(A Hop, Skip, and a Jump Through 12 Grades)
I attended Woodstock for eleven out of twelve years. So did many of my graduating class.
Within minutes of entering my first class on my first day in the first grade Miss Schroeder knew exactly what she was up against. Mrs. Schroeder was a Mennonite, but did not do her hair in a bun with a lace covering like most of the other Mennonite women we knew. She had wire-rimmed spectacles that grossly enlarged her eyeballs when you looked into them straight on, close up. I know because she had me looking at her from six inches away many times. Her methods were very straightforward and I mean to tell you, very effective. The two I remember most clearly were to scotch tape my mouth shut, and the other was to make me stand at the blackboard with my nose in a circle she had drawn. Other common and kinder methodologies included standing in the corner, going to see the principal and shoving my desk way back, back, back to the farther recesses of the classroom where I would be by myself.
That I learned to read is a wonder. But I did learn to sit still and keep quite. Relatively speaking.
In second grade things went a bit better. Miss Menzies was equally tough. She was somewhat more tenderhearted than what I had experienced so far, but I am certain my reputation preceded me because she often liked to teach standing directly behind me. It is pretty hard not to pay attention under these conditions.
In second grade we took our first Iowa Basic Skills test. These are the ones where you take a timed test using your pencil to fill in a circle (multiple choice) and the results determine how well you are doing and how well you are doing in relation to the rest of the kids in the US. Woodstock already had an excellent reputation for preparing her graduates for the rigors of higher education. In fact, it was a given, simply expected, that we would all go to college (and we did, and in fact I can’t recall a single person in any graduating class in my era that did not). Woodstock took the education of her charges seriously.
Mrs. Rikki Harper was a parent of one of the kids in my class, David Harper. They lived in Allahabad where his dad (an MK who grew up in India and had also gone to Woodstock) taught at a seminary. Mrs. Harper would come up from the plains periodically to do testing. She was a jovial, roly-poly person and she would stand up and tell us kids what it was we were going to do, giving us clear instructions. When she said, “go” we would read the questions and fill in the circle of the right answer. When she said, “stop” we were to lay our pencils down.
A few days after being initiated into this dastardly form of discrimination to determine the best and the brightest from the rest of us, Mrs. Harper sent a chit home to my folks. She would like to meet with them. All my mom could think was that I had found some way to misbehave. They met with her and received the flabbergasting news that this son of theirs (your humble servant) was a genius. He had scored off the chart. IQ of over 150. This was certainly news to them. They were both somewhat pleased to hear this but bewildered that I had never shown any indication at all of any of this at any time previously in my brief life. Mrs. Harper indicated that she would be doing some further testing.
That is how I ended up with a personally supervised second test. I took it just the same way I took the first one. Read the question. Guessed. Read the question. Guessed. Guess what? The law of averages catches up with you. Turned out I was just average, a great relief to my folks as they thought they had somehow missed signs of my genius.
Being a chut (a little kid) was OK; it was our lot in life at that point and it was our aspiration to get to know the big kids. The game was to ignore (as much as possible) the kids in lower grades and do your very best to get noticed and acknowledged and (if you were really lucky) to actually make friends with an upperclassman.
In the third grade I was angrily and physically removed by my ear from a Hindi class for asking the teacher what a, ah…a particular (and vulgar) Hindi word meant. I knew what it meant. I just wanted to see if she knew what it meant. Evidently she did.
During my fourth grade the Dalai Lama made his appearance in Mussoorie as a refugee. There were, by then, several thousand Tibetan refugees already living in the area. He initially stayed at Birla House, a mansion owned by one of the Indian Industrialists over in Happy Valley. And one day the Dalai Lama came to Woodstock. That day, knowing he was to come, I pled with dad to allow me to take his small Rollei camera loaded with B&W film. With mild misgivings he said OK, gave me a few rudimentary pointers on the camera and off I went. He would be satisfied to see his camera back and in one piece.
It was a pretty interesting occasion. The Dalai Lama was feted. He was shown around. He had tea. And at one point he sat for pictures. That is when I, the youngest photographer there, came up, knelt down on one knee and proceeded to forget everything I was told on how to operate the dang camera. I fumbled. I kept looking through the viewfinder and attempted to find the trigger. Not finding it I would look to see where it was and try again. It would not depress. Finally I eased back and asked someone else how the thing operated. We went back, hunkered down in front (along with others, of course) and they helped me focus, adjust, and placed my finger on the trigger and click, click, click. And when the developed roll came back from Tukrals I was stunned with what a great job I had done. I was stunned and dad was shocked.
So far there had been Mrs. Chapman (Kindergarten) Mrs. Schroeder, and Miss Menzies. Then there was Miss Etts, Miss Wessles (she was Aunty Irma Jean outside of class since she was from our mission), Miss Stoner, Miss Wait and I can give you each teacher I had, right through high school.
Believe it or not, one of my favorite classes through elementary school was handwriting. Many people have told me I ought to have been a doctor, based on my handwriting. I am a very tactile person and this was one class in which the tactile met with several other senses—the scritch scritch sound, the look of glistening blue ink on white paper and the smell of the ink (sweet, musky). These handwriting classes involved lined paper, a pen that looked like a chopstick with a nib, an ink bottle and blotting paper. The trick was to dip your pen in the ink, sluice it out of the ink bottle, removing any excess, and write several words without tearing a hole in the paper and without getting ink anywhere else but the paper. Then you would take the blotting paper and mop up any excess ink on the paper. And repeat. For some reason I will never understand, copious quantities of blue Quink ink would appear on the inside of my right thumb, the bottom of my index finger and the entire side of my middle finger. This particular brand, Quink, by the way, was my favorite ink because it had a distinctive smell. The color I liked most was blue (the other colors available were red, black, and green).
Once we had mastered this ancient nibbed ink pen we graduated to a fountain pen. This was a little less messy, but it still demanded blotting paper and the wonderful ink smell was still there. But even these pens were susceptible to spillage, leakage and putting holes in paper (although it must be said that it was not always the fault of the pen, the quality of our paper left a lot to be desired). They were far superior to the ballpoints that were just then becoming available that were hard to get started, did not apply ink evenly and also got ink all over our fingers.
Seventh grade was in Dallas, Texas, on furlough. This year proved to be one of the worst years of my life. I was away from the home I knew. I made no new friends. I got bullied at school until I finally slugged a guy in the stomach and knocked his breath out. And, like many missionary families, we traveled from church to church where dad spoke, showed slides and schmoozed with people. If they caught the vision and liked us (both must be present to win) it meant they might send money to the mission for us. Thankfully, dad never made us “perform”, nothing like, “And now my boys are going to sing a song in Hindi.” This is, I would guess, because he had heard us sing.
Back to Woodstock for eighth grade. The most memorable event that year was learning to drive the mission jeep. We learned to hotwire it on Friday nights (while all the TEAM missionaries were having their prayer meeting) and drive it around the chukkar (i.e. the road around the top of the hill) a couple of times . They prayed. We strayed. It was also the year that I had my first crush on a girl, Inez McKenzie, whose dad was a doctor and worked with mom at the hospital.
In the ninth grade I took typing from Mrs. Unrau. Most of the teachers at Woodstock were missionaries who spent their career as teachers there—20-30 years was not uncommon. But starting in the mid-sixties we began to get short-term teachers who came for two years or so. The Unraus were short-termers, some of the first we had seen.
Our typing class was one floor below Parker Hall on the wing above the library, one of the few rooms that had ample natural light. The typewriters were hefty old Royals and Underwoods that you could hardly lift, designed, I suppose, for the abuse they were about to receive.
Mrs. Unrau was also a Mennonite with rather high expectations and a strict, schoolmarm disposition. She had distinctive cat’s-eye glasses, which she perched on her rather aquiline nose so she could look through them, or, with a slight tilt of the head, over them. When she was looking over them at you it meant she was pretty darn close—in fact, too close for comfort. Everything about her said, “No funny business with me, understood?” We sure did.
Teachers often lined us up in classes alphabetically and “Van Rooy” tended to end up at the back of the classroom, which was fine by me and which is where I started out in Typing. Within weeks, however, Mrs. Unrau moved me in the front row. There is no need to speculate why.
One day as we were clacking away on an assignment she announced she was stepping out for a few minutes. As soon as she was sufficiently down the hall we felt we could relax briefly. So we did. Someone heaved a crumpled piece of paper aimlessly upwards and behind him. Someone threw it back. Someone added another paper snowball to the first. Soon there were ten paper snowballs being tossed around. Soon spit-wads started sailing. And next, out came the bum-wads. A bum-wad was a strip of paper, two inches wide, perhaps six inches long that was rolled up tight. It was then bent in half into the shape of a V. It could then be launched with a simple rubber band held between thumb and forefinger. They can sting when strategically aimed at the bum (from whence they derived their name).
As often happens, a good-natured melee of this sort soon exhausts itself and slowly dies down. For some more slowly than for others. Less and less paper snowballs. More kids back to whacking the keys. But a few of us were still at it when I noticed a stillness, a coldness, something in the air like ions before a thunderstorm. I slowly turned around and there was Mrs. Unrau leaning against the door, arms folded, face pinched.
There was simply nothing to do but stop, turn around, sit down, and innocently begin typing again. Tell me, just what would you have done?
I had hit about three keys when, starting with my name, Mrs. Unrau in a strained but surprisingly restrained voice, called out four names, all boys. We stood up. We were ordered to follow her. It was clear where we were headed—to Mr. Lott’s office, the high school headmaster. And there was no question where she wanted this to end up for us—gripping a chair, bent over while Mr. Lott applied the board of education. Although personally committed to non-violence as a Mennonite, it was clear Mrs. Unrau was not altogether unhappy Mr. Lott wasn’t.
This little paddle (not so little really) had twelve one inch holes drilled in it in perfect symmetry. It was hung on the wall above the door as you came into his office. We were marched in and stood, heads hung, as Mrs. Unrau in rising pitch told Mr. Lott the precise details of our breach of classroom decorum. Mr. Lott ascertained that the facts presented by her were correct (there was no denying it and there were, yea verily, so many witnesses).
She left. “Well boys,” Mr. Lott said, “I think you know what we do here in cases like this, right? I want you to wait in the office outside and I will call you in one by one and I want you grab onto this chair here, and assume the position.”
One by one we entered his office knowing it was six strokes because we had been counting when the first guy went in. Not one of us uttered so much as a whimper, but that did not mean it did not sting. It did. I am not sure of the exact physics of it, but either those holes in that paddle allowed the paddle to be wielded more swiftly with less wind resistance, or the holes themselves were a contributing factor to the pain.
As it turned out, this was the first and last paddling I ever received at school, a suitable entry for “Believe It Or Not.” And I must have learned something in typing class because I can still type 75 words a minute, thanks to Mrs. Unrau.
And thank you Mr. Starr, Miss. Nelson, Mr. Hilliard, Mrs. Hilliard, Mrs. Kapadia, Mr. Hayes, Miss Cowan, Mr. Lehman, Mr. Roland, Mr. Steward, Mr. Skillman, Mr. and Mrs. Browne, Mr. Waltner, Mr. Shenk, Mrs. Cronk, Mr. Swain, Mrs. Burgoyne and Mr. Fleming! O.K., and you too, Mrs. Unrau. And thank you Aunty Caroline, Mrs. Schroeder, Miss Stoner, Miss Ets, Miss Menzies, Aunty Irma Jean, and Miss Wait. You gave me a well-rounded education at Woodstock. At least you tried to. And I did make it into college (and, yes, through it and beyond). But what I remember most is your dedication and commitment. And believe me, it took dedication and commitment when I was in your class.
To each of you I owe a lasting debt of gratitude.