Elementary School in the 80s

When I went to elementary school, teachers could still smoke in the teachers lounge. That rule, in fact, changed while I was in first or second grade.

The lounge was in a room off the cafeteria. We students could either buy hot lunch in the cafeteria or bring our own. If we brought our own lunch, we had places to keep it in the classroom, along with our coats and bags. There weren’t any fridges, so lunchboxes and thermoses were our friends, though some people brought bag lunches. Lunchboxes showed off popular cartoons or TV shows. My first lunchbox was a metal He-Man one. I later got a plastic one that had a plastic clasp instead of two metal ones. I don’t remember what was on that one.

Hot lunch cost one dollar. At some point, it increased to $1.10, though that might’ve been in middle school. Near the end of the lunch period, the cafeteria ladies would sell ice cream in the middle of the cafeteria and students could line up to purchase it. I think they initially cost 50 cents to buy. I believe this price also increased once before I left. 99.9% of the time, I’d get an ice cream sandwich. I got it so often the lunch lady would just ask me, “Ice cream sandwich?” when I got to the front of the line.

There were two lunch periods. The first lunch period was first through third grades (kindergarten was split into morning and afternoon classes and so didn’t have a lunch period). The second was fourth through fifth grades. There was a microphone that the teachers could use for announcements. The first through third graders had recess while the fourth and fifth graders were eating. After they went in for recess, the fourth and fifth graders went out for theirs. When I went to Japan, I was happy to discover that recess continues through ninth grade. In my school, it ended after fifth grade.

If we were being too loud, one of the teachers would get on the microphone and tell us to be quiet. Except Mr. Lessig. He was a fifth grade teacher. He’d just walk into the room and the kids would shut up (he only did this in the fourth and fifth grade lunch period. No need to scare the little kids). When I was in third or fourth grade, they installed a stoplight in the cafeteria. If volume levels got too high, it would change from green to yellow. Way too loud, and it’d jump to red. If it stayed on red more than a few seconds, an alarm would sound, and recess would be canceled. That only happened once or twice while I was at school. Even so, Mr. Lessig was a better deterrent than the stoplight. Ironically, he was actually a really sweet man who passed away while I was in high school.

Kindergarten didn’t have recess. Instead, we had play time. There was free time in the other grades, too, where you could grab a book and read if you finished all your work ahead of time. We had indoor recess if the weather was bad, so each of the rooms had games you could play. I remember there was a game called “Hi Ho Cherry-O” that I misread as “Hi Ho Cheeri-O.”

For outdoor recess, we had a playscape built for us between my second and third grade years. They’ve since torn it down due to worries about pressure-treated wood and splinters and put up a plastic piece of crap in its place. Adults always know how to make childhood less fun. It had a tire swing that kids would spin other kids on so much that for large chunks of time, it would be off-limits. They spun one kid so much that he threw up.

Recess attendants (who were teacher aides) would blow two short bursts on a whistle if they caught someone misbehaving during recess and give them a warning. Bullying still happened, though. A long blast on all the whistles meant we needed to line up to go back inside. When we lined up in the classroom to go anywhere (lunch included), we did it alphabetically by last name. For recess, we’d do the same, lining up by room. Or maybe we all just lined up together. It’s hard to remember what archaic activities we had to do back then, especially when they became second-nature.

I have many more memories of elementary school: of gym class and plays, of the book fair they’d have every year (I still have all of those books) and the Scholastic Book Club (I also have all those books somewhere), of the animated movies they’d show after school on what must’ve been 16mm with the sound turned way up (terrifying when watching boys change into donkeys for Pinocchio), of the short films they’d show in class, which was more likely 8mm (including a b&w version of A Christmas Carol and some Halloween shorts by Disney). In second grade, Miss Fisher drilled it into us not to clap after the movie was over. Luckily, I’ve since unlearned that practice, particularly for film festivals.

Author: Greg Salvatore

Writer. Voice Actor. Humanist. Feminist.

One thought on “Elementary School in the 80s”

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