The words and melody began timidly enough with just a few brave souls chiming in, then, rose slowly by increments as more and more children boarded the school bus. By the time the yellow caravan concluded its four-mile journey
at the foot of the old schoolhouse’s steep steps, the tune had reached a crescendo ricocheting off the surrounding hilltops and stretching to the far reaches of the hamlet called Tuscarora.
In September 1964, the Pennsylvania town of Tamaqua, quite comfortably nestled in the mountains of the anthracite coal region, was home to around 10,000 residents, approximately 180 of who were entering the sixth grade. Instead of one large elementary school, K-6 education in the district was sliced by invisible boundaries into sections of the town with each neighborhood hosting its own school building. Even now, some of names of those buildings come back to me with ease: Arlington, Ditchburn, Pine Street and finally, my alma mater, North Ward. Children, as young as 5 or 6, walked safely, if not hurriedly, to and from class every day with other children who were placed by fate in their mutual geographical vicinity. I was one of those kids. I attended North Ward School on Broad and Swatara Streets from first through fifth grade. For five years, I walked to school with my neighborhood friends Nancy, Carol, Debby, Tana and Penny. I should have continued this familiar trek for at least another year before beginning junior high. However, in 1962, the academic powers that were at the time, formed a new school district. My parents called it the “jointure”; to me it meant one thing. Instead of remaining at North Ward for another year, I would now be bused with all the other residents born in 1953 to a six-room, 2 floor school building in the nearby village of Tuscarora. An entire school filled to the brim with the class of 1971. Six small classrooms that seemed as large as the whole world.
As I stood in line for the bus that first September morning, desperately clutching my lunch bag which I know contained a chicken salad sandwich and a thermos of soup (I know this because I had a chicken salad sandwich and soup every day for the entire school year), I had no idea of the wonders and freedoms that lie ahead. When I look back at that year, I cannot suppress a grin. Everything was new and imaginable to me. It was a year of firsts from the moment I sat down on that first ever bus ride and began to learn the lyrics of the song that has forged a permanent neural connection to my eleventh year. An anthem of sorts.
The Tuscarora School was a very ordinary building, three classrooms up, three down, desks in rows, a bathroom on each floor, resting on the side of a hill. That’s if you can call any building bursting full of the energetic spawn of the Greatest Generation on the threshold of hormonal change, ordinary. It was anything but. When I entered that school on that first day, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven; a heaven where all the angels had a little ADHD and were the same age as me. The feeling was palpable. It was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy explains to Toto that they are not in Kansas anymore, black and white suddenly becoming color.
I had an actual man for a teacher. Side lining my current, avid feminist views, at the time, this was simply radical. Mr. Reynolds, soft spoken and strict in a gentle way, was the kind of teacher that made one want to strive harder. He was definitely stingy with the A’s and that mattered to me a lot at the time. He never yelled. Coming from a family of Italian, German and Welsh immigrants, I was used to and could easily ignore the yelling thing. Mr. R’s techniques were more insidious and refined and, in particular instances, much more effective. Realizing very quickly my frequent tendency to turn around and talk to my new friend Darlene in the seat behind me, Mr. R quite unobtrusively inserted a tall piece of cardboard between my desk and that of my unfortunate new acquaintance. Seated at the front of the row, I could see the board easily; the same good fortune did not befall poor Darlene and those sitting in the queue of desks behind her. Without a word being uttered by Mr. R (my classmates unfortunately had plenty to say on the matter), in the span of less than a week, I was purged of my need to rotate and share the never ceasing random thoughts that bounced around my adolescent brain.
Sixth grade was also the first time I experienced different teachers teaching different subjects in different ways. In addition to homeroom, Mr. Reynolds taught science and math, Miss Hanlon taught history and Mrs. Davis taught English. As befitted our new stature as young adults, we were even allowed to physically escape the bounds of our classroom walls and walk to a different classroom several times a day. I know! Big stuff! It’s hard to imagine a procession of silenced 6th graders marching in scrunched single file to their next class being viewed as a moment of exhilarating freedom, but to me it was. Which leads me to another first.
Boys. Boy, did I start noticing them that year? Prior to Tuscarora, I did know that they existed and had even dialoged with several of them on required occasions. This was different. I was experiencing the opposite sex on a whole new level. It’s actually quite impressive what a motivated 11 year old girl can observe and process in just a few minutes of passing time, twice a day. There is no doubt that my first serious crushes were birthed and nurtured in those hallowed hallways. I’m the type of person that likes to cover all my bases thoroughly and I was no different then. After considerable research and steadfast visual investigation throughout the fall, I decided that I actually had not one, but four distinctive crushes: David because he was the smartest, Rusty because he was the funniest, Ronnie because he had the best body and Glenn because he was the absolute cutest. It was hard not to stare. Unfortunately no real romance ever developed from this esteemed group of potential manhood, unless you count me working up the courage to utter a well rehearsed hi to Glenn in passing. Now, that I think of it, there was that one episode of Rusty waiting outside to ask me to a dance as I hid mortified by the Kotex dispenser in the girls’ bathroom. I’m not sure that counts as a relationship. Never mind. Just the anticipation and daydreaming that year were well worth it. To this day, I smile when I think of these plus 60 year olds who will live forever in their preadolescent glory in my mind and heart.
It was also during that year at Tuscarora, aka Tusky Tech, that I encountered the complex notion that not everyone in life was going to like me. Due to a highly honed social intelligence, I realized this one day when encountering a classmate in the hallway, who casually stated something along these lines “ I don’t know why you are smiling Rhonda Jones, I know at least five people that hate your guts!”. In this age of cyberbullies and violence in schools, I know this minor affront seems naïve, almost laughable. At the time, to me, it was a punch to the gut. The initial assault was followed by a series of events, such as, a phone call wishing me bad luck on the eve of a spelling bee competition and culminating in the formation of a science club whose only admission requirement was that one not be me. I know. Harsh stuff. Although it left me crying and confounded at the time, I value it now as the first real time I was forced to look at myself from another’s vantage point. That and I learned that all is fair in love and 6th grade.
While time has eroded recollection, I will never forget the magic and the specialness of that year. It’s hard to express and all sounds so hokey. The memories burst out of me…. giggling on pieces of cardboard while hurling down the snowy hill by the school, wearing my first training bra and deliberately letting the strap fall down on my arm to be seen by others (although my breasts got bigger, they never learned to do anything that special, so, I’m not sure that purchase was money well spent), finding out from the laughter of classmates that the word “recipe” does not rhyme with the word “gripe”, listening to David Shafer and the Atomics singing “ I Can’t get No Satisfaction” written as I recall by some other notable group…. that indescribable feeling of being alive, awkward and fresh to the world, not knowing what the day would bring. The sense of absolute possibility.
I drove that four-mile stretch from Tamaqua to Tuscarora today. It was raining lightly. The dampened hues of autumn made it magical once more. I knew the building was no longer there, but I still felt drawn to that place. It bid me back. All that is left now are the stone stairs lovely in their abandonment. It’s clear from the land that remains that the building was so much smaller than remembered. That is, I guess. to be expected. I didn’t mind as much as I thought I would. The walls are gone, but the feelings like the battered steps are still alive and well. For just a year, we were and that is more than enough.
Now we’re together nearly every single day
Singin’ do-wah-diddy-diddy down diddy-do
We’re so happy and that’s how we’re gonna stay
Singin’ do-wah-diddy-diddy down diddy-do