Some things stick with you for life, and for me, those include things that happened in kindergarten.
In the fall of 1969, at the age of about 5 and a half, I was part of the inaugural and pilot kindergarten class at Surgoinsville Elementary School in Hawkins County. (Those who know me well must have suspected I was part of some experiment early in life. Now they know.)
We were the only kindergarten class at the school, and since there were more of us whose parents signed us up to attend, we got entry by having names drawn out of a hat. It wasn’t mandatory back then and was akin to limited public pre-school classes today, but it was free.
The group included a set of twins, Larry and Gary Byington, and both got into the program.
I remember many things from my first year of formal education, but two of the most vivid are the times we tried to build a rocket and then a church.
Remember, in July of 1969 Neil Armstrong became the first astronaut to set foot on the moon, something I watched from my living room on a black-and-white Philco television while holding my own rocket made of a paper towel roll.
So it wasn’t that much of a jump for our group, including Jimmy Vaughn, Greg Conant and Jimmie Jones, Perry Dykes, a cousin, and the Byingtons as I remember, to decide to build a rocket from some wood that had been part of a sand box that was disassembled and conveniently adjoining our outdoor play area.
Our enthusiasm was doused a bit when we discovered the difficulty of building a wooden rocket with no nails and no hammers to drive the nails if we had them.
However, we had a back-up plan. We’d build a church. Since Jimmy’s grandfather had been a preacher, Jimmy would be the preacher at our church.
We had no concept of the concept of separation of church and state.
Suffice it to say that when our teacher, Jean Price or Mrs. Price to us, noticed our construction project, she instructed us to take it down before recess was over. Since we had no nails or hammers, our construction technique was to lay the flat boards atop one another, so we only got down the floor and maybe a two-inch tall wall or two before demolition began.
However, we didn’t get in much trouble as I remember.
Another memory is the time a bunch of us boys found discarded beans out behind the school — dry beans that probably were out of date, left over or otherwise unsuitable for eating — and put them in our pockets, planning to plant them when we got home.
Mrs. Price lined us up in the hall and had us empty our pockets of our ill-gotten legumes. (How often do you read that phrase?)
Then there were the boys chasing the girls and the girls chasing back, all in good fun, as well as getting to go to the cafeteria to bring back the ice cream treats when it was your birthday week.
Greg Conant was the leader of the boys. Karen Reeves was the leader of the girls, which also included Anita Burchfield, Carmen Mabe, Patti Pierce and Tammy McPeek, as I recall.
Our class also took a field trip that year to Kingpsort. We had a picnic and played at J. Fred Johnson Park near Dobyns-Bennett High School, including sliding on a huge slide that somehow got smaller over the years, touring the city fire hall on Stone Drive and visiting the Miller’s Department Store on Broad Street where we — drum roll please — rode the escalator.
The funny thing is that I remember all this history after all these years, after high school, college and work. I keep in touch with many of these former classmates, at least off and on, mostly through Facebook or occasional high school reunions.
An exception is Greg Conant, who died.
I also sometimes see Mrs. Price, including running into her on my trips and trials as a reporter. During my second grade year, she helped hire my mother to work as a kindergarten aide, a position which morphed into an assistant secretary and then secretary position since mom was a Tennessee Eastman secretary before I came along and she temporarily hung up her typewriter.
Mom and my dad are gone now. And so is Carroll Raines, Mr. Raines was the principal at that school from the mid 1950s into the late 1980s..
I always wondered what he thought about our rocket/church project, but I’ve come to the conclusion he probably didn’t know about it. Still, we were definitely ahead of our time with “hands on” learning today known as science, technology, engineering and math or STEM.
And we had the cross-curriculum thing down pat with the culture of a church build, too.
As 5-year-old students, if we had only had nails and hammers, secret legume pockets or a better building locations, maybe things would have turned out differently.
But I don’t think I’d want to go back and change my kindergarten year, something I, and I suspect most of us, really can’t say about many other parts of our history. However, I can’t help but wonder what current SES principal Susan Trent would have thought of our shenanigans. Maybe it's best my youngest son, now in third grade there, and his classmates didn't re-enact what my class did.
One other thing: I don't have any photos of the rocket, church or bean incidents, but my mother snapped a photo of our kindergarten class in October of 1969 decked out in our Halloween costumes. It is dated March of 1970 because she didn’t use the rest of the roll and get it developed until then. So Happy Halloween from the Surgoinsville Elementary class of 1969-70.
Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times-News and can be reached at [email protected]