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For some reason the other day, I was reminded of the old school desks at Washington Elementary School.

As a student advanced through the grades, the desks increased in size. In the beginning they were the desks with no lids – we had to reach inside, often pulling out the guts of our desk’s contents to retrieve one item which was almost always wedged in the back. To one with a semi-OCD personality, this was quite frustrating because everything had its place and must be restored to order.

By second grade we had advanced to the big leagues when we sat in desks with lids that raised. I was in heaven because I could maintain order and neatness. My morning books were on the left and my after-lunch books were on the right. And if that wasn’t enough, some actually had a pencil ledge inside and on top of the desk!

Mine did not.

And always, there was the ever present school/pencil box. My first few years they were actually cigar boxes. My great-grandfather, Garrett Clary, provided the cigar box which Mother painted and decorated with my name. Around my third grade year, they actually began selling school boxes in one of the local stores. I kind of missed having the personalized cigar box, as Mother always made mine look incredible.

Then there were those wonderful days of indoor recess!

The bidding and plotting began early in the day when it was apparent we would be staying indoors during recess. I remember one particular day in third grade when I began bartering with Becky Cress. Becky sat in a desk that was much newer, the top of the desk un-scarred from years of use, and a much coveted pencil rack inside, and on top.

Looking over my desk, Becky was not certain she wanted to trade desks. After all, my desk had been used at the Valley Forge encampment, and was rusty at the bottom. She feared her white tennis shoes would get smeared with rust. Girls! I did one heck of a sales job pointing out how much taller my desk was and she could see over Tammy Croy who was slightly taller, and the piece de resistance – there was an ink well in mine which would easily hold her cough syrup bottle. Becky aptly pointed out that she would not need her cough syrup much longer.


So I raised the stakes… my unused Snoopy eraser that was coveted by so many classmates. He who possessed the Snoopy eraser would receive much respect – until another classmate out “erasered” me.


Within seconds, our desks were pulled to the back of Mrs. Hennegan’s third grade class room, and the switching began. I spent the next two recesses organizing, and reorganizing my new desk.

A few weeks later, I noticed Jody Dauenhauer was the new owner of the Snoopy eraser. This did not matter. I had an organized, big desk.

Our fourth grade year my classmates and I moved upstairs with the big kids – the fifth and sixth graders – as we graduated to Mrs. Lane’s class. One day, while delivering papers from Mrs. Lane to Mr. Fihe (I think he was still there), the principal, and sixth grade teacher, I noticed Elisa Abner had pictures taped to the underside of her desk’s lid. How cool was that? None of my fellow fourth graders had anything like this.

That night, I scoured my bedroom for postcards from Jefferson’s home, Monticello, which I had visited that summer with my grandparents, shortly before President Nixon’s resignation. The next morning, I left a few minutes early, and was in the front of the crowd waiting for the doors to open. I rushed up the stairs, being told by Mrs. Fernung to please walk – until I rounded the double-winged stairs. There at the top was Mrs. Brugger who ordered me to walk back down and “try it again, Mr. Jolliff.” Schoolmates moved around me as I retraced my steps more civilly.

Once secure in my new desk, with Mrs. Lane’s tape dispenser, I began the collage as friends gathered round my desk. Some hurried to their desks to retrieve anything they could find to add to their own desks. A few weeks later when school pictures were traded, we all found a new way to collect, and count, the number of friends we had by taping the pictures to our desk lid. I, however, decided friends should not be inside my desk and began taping them to the metal rim of my desk. Others followed suit.

Mrs. Helpling was the school’s secretary, and before the arrival of Mrs. Knoop, and the principal before her (his name is forgotten to me), the library and school’s office were in the narrow, rectangular room between the then-sixth and fourth grade classrooms, overlooking North A Street and the playground.

Mrs. Helpling knew my love for US History and President Lincoln, and she called me to her office. There she had a stack of magazines she was pulling from the library which contained photos of Abraham Lincoln and other items of history. “I knew you would want these so I won’t throw them out.”


More photos for my desk, and walls of my bedroom.

The desks themselves, are one thing. The many academic lessons, and life lessons I learned while sitting in those desks throughout various classrooms of Washington Elementary School are still with me today. The 1894 structure of Washington Elementary School was the last of its kind… yet, the knowledge and experiences taken with so many of us were also the last of their kind.

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January 2011
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