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Back to school (60s style)

August 28, 2011
By John Sheda
I grew up in abject deprivation. When heading back to school way back in the 1950s and 60s, my mom did the majority of my school shopping. Two pair of new pants, one corduroy and one blue jeans; three new button down shirts, new underwear (white was the only color), several pairs of new socks and a brand new pair of “red-ball jets.” That’s tennis shoes for those that don’t remember. Upon entering high school in 1964, I got my first pair of “penny-loafer” shoes. Prior to that, my good shoes were always shiny black shoes that you tied. So you see——abject deprivation.

 I never owned a back pack. Never! Do you know what kind of life I lived back then? Gulp! I carried my own books to and from school. Can you believe it? Mom got me a three-pack of those yellow #2 pencils, one wide-ruled notebook and then Dad stepped in. Ya, up to this time, Dad was uninvolved in the whole “back-to-school” thing, until that first morning. Fifteen minutes before leaving on the three block walk to school, (yes, I had to walk those three blocks every day), came “THE LECTURE.”

 It wasn’t a long lecture. It was short and, well not that sweet. It was a simple reminder that I should behave in school. Maybe a little bit more than a reminder. In very clear and simple language, Dad explained to me the “facts of life.” And the facts of punishment, death and all kinds of nasty stuff if I got in trouble at school. I know I’ve explained the “double-jeopardy” rule before but Dad explained very succinctly that IF I got in trouble at school, I would absolutely, positively and without a doubt, be in trouble when I got home. There would be no blaming the teacher, the principal or anything else for that matter. And you know what, there were a few times I forgot Dad’s lecture. But he didn’t and the results of his lecture were exactly as he said they were gonna be.

 My teachers for the most part were Nuns. Holy people. Saints. I was told that all nuns were married to Jesus. In the second grade I fell in love with one of them, Sister Roberta. Now let me tell you, competition with Jesus is not easy. She was gorgeous. Well at least I think she was. All you could see was her face as everything else was covered in black. But she was my first love. Then there was Sister Gabrielis, my teacher in fourth grade. She was the grandmotherly type but still yielded a powerful presence. In the sixth grade, I met Sister Virginia. She must have been 6’ 6” and when she mentioned your name, the walls and windows in our school house rattled. She was the only person who I know was given by God, eyes behind her head. The other nuns I had, instinctively knew what was going on when they weren’t looking but Sister Virgina could actually see you misbehaving when her back was turned. But the one I most feared, was the one my brothers talked about.....Sister Christine!!! A tiny little creature of God but....well, let’s put it this way.....if my two older brothers were afraid of her, who was little ol’ me to argue. I never had Sister Christine as she left for another school before I got to those grades but I met her years later when she was visiting my mother who was in the hospital, where she volunteered. How could everyone be so wrong about her. She was the sweetest and most adorable lady in the world. She prayed for my mom and then shared some stories to me about my two brothers and sister. I told her that they had all told me some stories about her too. She laughed but then said they were all probably true!!!

 One of our classes in school was Choir. Not sure if it was a class or not but everyone had to be in the Choir. It was ok, except for the singing part, because we got to be in the choir loft during Sunday church. And this was fun. Looking down on everyone. Seeing who was sleeping and who wasn’t. But the most fun was when several of us boys, (one being the lookout) would make “spit wads” and drop them down on those below. Then we quickly would lean back and none would be the wiser. Talk about good, clean fun!!!! But one time, I was the “lookout,” and we were having so much fun that I lost track of Sister Virginia, (remember, she was the 6’ 6’ nun), and as we were tossing spit wads over the choir loft, she snuck up behind us, grabbed our ears and marched us down the twenty or so steps,  with each step making that loud, creaking sound. Everyone turned and looked. She took us right to our parents. Mom looked at me with a look only moms can give. And Dad looked at me, again with only a look dads can give. They were much different looks. Mom’s look was one of “Son, why would you do this to me?” look. Dad’s look was......”Son, your best days are behind you” look. This was one of the first times I prayed. I mean.....really prayed. I mean, really, really prayed. And prayer works......’cuz I lived through the ordeal. Divine intervention is all I can say. 

 That’s going back to school in the 50s and 60s. And that’s definitely “The Way I Saw It.” How were your days? Let me know at or call me at 319-334-4117. Love to hear from you. 

Next week, it’s Fall Festival time in Chelsea. You don’t wanna miss this one. St. Joseph’s Fall Festival in 1958. What a great time!!!!

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