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Growing up in Louisa – Whoops!!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

 In creating this column, I am forced to pry into the stubborn, hidden memory-base of times long gone by. It is reasonable that some events pop up before others, but because some of those aren’t the usual ‘bitter-sweet’ things that we cherish and want to talk about, I am subject to discard them as unpleasant and unworthy of mention. As a resource, I’ve found that a lot of memories are tied to the five senses we learned about in grade school. For those who slept through that class, I mean taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell. Today’s subject, which I have dismissed several times over the years as painful for some, is tied to both the sense of smell, and a non-sense feeling of ‘fair play,’ if indeed there is fairness to be found in this life. I will call this article, “Nature Calling, or wet garments on the stove.”

Back in the day before kindergarten became part of K12 educational programs, we kids were shuffled off to the first grade without other such experiences. The wild bunches of first graders came from widely differing backgrounds when they showed up in our little school at the foot of town hill. All had been subject to their parent’s instructions, or a lack thereof. How they were to merge and amalgamate into a student-body was yet to be seen. How the school itself would play a part since it was a consolidated two-story building with separate grades, would also be determined over time. Some kids were better trained in matters such as socialization, and personal hygiene, to be sure. This was to become an issue we shared either as the cause of problems, or as a victim of someone’s folly.

As a class, we would have to deal with a lack of socialization skills, manners, or self-control as situations occurred. Please understand, dear reader, that bathroom practices differed from family to family, and greatly depended upon those experiences in the home. Kids who came from larger families, or often went to Sunday school, or church services, had been trained earlier. These fit quickly into the new environment and gave comfort to all. It was the remaining untrained kids that would face what must have been highly traumatic experiences. They would learn the hard way to stay quiet and behave in a socially acceptable manner; else, there would be negative outcomes.

To simply come out and say it, some little muffins were not yet fully ‘house-broken.’ Sadly, when accidents happen they are painful and create embarrassing memories. Some readers may recall an uncomfortable moment when things couldn’t be helped. Victim and friends, all suffered together and had to find ways to deal with the embarrassment and discomfort. Relax readers for names or specific events were lost to time, thank goodness, but the events themselves were, in a way, a teaching experience for student, classmates, and the teacher, alike. After all, old teachers with experience would expect such things to happen, but newer teachers may have to learn how to deal with such things.

I know the first grade was a totally new experience for us. It was the first time we were in large groups of peers, but even slight differences among classmates became obvious. It would be these differences that would be picked up and used against the unfortunate by bullies, but sympathizing friends would often rally to protect the poor soul.

The fresh grade-schoolers were already upset at being forced to leave home and family. They just didn’t want to be there. It was a strange environment and seen as threatening or was particularly friendly. Reactions varied from slightly antisocial behaviors such as hiding their faces, or a sniffle, tears, or drastically ‘acting out’ with rebellion. In such an environment, it was evitable someone would lose control of natural body functions and pee in their pants. No doubt, that would be traumatic for everyone concerned.

While the student may have received the sympathies of fellow students and their teacher, many did not fare so well. The major risk was to be called out and made fun of during recess, by bullies. I witnessed more gallant kids, and watchful teachers stepping forward to defend the victimized child. In class, or at recess, it was all too common in those early days for someone to have an accident and puddle right there in front of everyone. Emotions washed over us. While we may not have been personally involved, we still fully felt a kinship with the poor kid. We remembered a time in the past when maybe we couldn’t fight mother nature, either. No matter the cause, such as being untrained, sick, or just stressed out, it was a very private thing that had unwittingly become public.

 At school, the accident meant they might have to wear soaked clothing for the rest of the day. Lucky kids may have had parents nearby to call so fresh clothing could be delivered. Those who had been discreet and not released volumes of yellow liquid, could remain still at their desks and hide the blunder from others. Most were beyond hope. The dark stain in their lap would be spotted and give clues to others of the event. Yes, over time the wetness would dry, but there would still be that telltale smell. On the other hand, if the kid had released far too much of the fluid, there would be no hope of hiding the event. Pee would run from their seat onto the floor and create a horrific puddle that even the teacher would quickly spot. We all knew she would become uncomfortable and trust that she would take immediate action. She would handle the situation.

Some teachers were calm, gracefully reassuring the victim-perpetrator that such things couldn’t be helped. Cleanup was handled with a quick mop while the child was sent to the restroom to finish with nature’s call and to clean up. That time may also have allowed an opportunity to gain control of their emotions. They only had to fear the faces of the others when finally, it was time to return to class. I also remember that there were other educators that would become angry and grab the student by the arm, lifting them out of their chair while loudly berating them for the inopportune act. Maybe that teacher had problems of their own so one more would ‘break the camel’s back.’

Cleaning up was done by the teacher or a janitor was called. The crying child feared being sent to the principal’s office, or having their parents called. I remember a few times when dripping clothes were removed and the child would have to wear a wrap that was kept in a closet for such events. Wet garments were folded over a chair next to the big hot stove. Even if the clothes were rinsed out and the child comforted, the rest of us would suffer with that smell.

Many of our classmates would try to divert attention so not to further embarrass their friend. The poor kid had become the center of attention in the worst of possible ways. I gained a lot of respect for my classmates who were merciful when they might have been cruel. I even saw some pat the kid on the back, reassuring the victim that all was well. It was a lesson I couldn’t forget. I knew that we all make mistakes and we were obligated to look out for our own kind. I’m sure it was comforting knowing that true friends would help us through those difficult times. As in all things, a word of encouragement can mean the world to the one under the microscope.     

This experience was one of the first lessons we learned in the first grade. Training was given to everyone to hold up their hands, wave if necessary, but get the teachers permission to go to the restroom. If approval was timely you would be safe; else, you could be tracked by the puddles leading away. I remember once or twice that the teacher would not allow a student to leave, perhaps not understanding the urgency. We all paid for those times. Some of us felt it should have been the teacher who was invited into the principal’s office. That lesson is so universally known in this country that it is common on the first day of college, perhaps in the first lecture hall, a shy freshman will raise their hand asking to be excused. The professor would shake his head and explain that as an adult they could get up and leave at any time without permission.

As best I remember, those accidental events stopped in higher grades. We apparently matured and the accidents ceased. Of course, there are always times that one might have to hurry, to seek temporary relief. In high school, I remember those cold toilet seats in that unheated bathroom outback of the brick schoolhouse. That was an experience, to be sure.

History tells me that the new addition to our old grade school building was added a few years before my arrival to the scene. It included some new, indoor restrooms. While that had happened during the ‘Civilian Conservation Corps’ public relief days that followed the depression, it was nonetheless before my birth. Several buildings around town were built during this same period including the new high school building with the gymnasium, a new post office, and a new jail behind the court house. There may be readers who remember more buildings that were built during those days.

When I went to the first grade the old ‘two or three-seater’ outhouse was still on the property, but only for the shortest of time. We had directions not to use them because the teachers told us that they were soon to be torn down. Indeed, they were removed, likely within that same year. During a couple of recesses, I had wandered to the other side of the school, opened the door and looked inside. The idea of having a seat over a hole cut into the wooden bench was a bit foreign to my thinking. I was used to indoor plumbing even if I had seen and used outdoor facilities when visiting homes that were not yet plumbed. Our time was one of transition, so many homes either were just being fitted with bathrooms, or had not yet found the funds to make it happen. I found using outhouses a bit uncomfortable and smelly. I even had nightmares that snakes lived down in the hole and might reach up and bite me when I sat down. Of course, I was relieved when I survived without a snakebite. I’ve shared this bit of gross history with a few other classmates, but none so far, remembers the old outhouse at school. No matter, it is gone, and it should be.     

Today, teachers are often taught to avoid hurting a child’s self-esteem. I doubt those lessons were taught in my day. I’m sure it is rough to not be able to take corrective action for bad behavior, or even show anger over senseless actions. In the case discussed in this article, we are not talking about voluntary actions, or students being defiant. Nature’s call is just that. So, I see a difference here, and see that the teacher’s responsibility to react should be limited. Bad behavior on the other hand should not be handled as if it can’t be helped. While teachers need not be disciplinarians like the old school-masters who smacked kids knuckles with a ruler, or took kids out for a whopping, I think teachers still should be allowed to maintain decorum and discipline in the classroom. Making them into child psychologists is overkill, and designed more to avoid litigation than to keep order. Forever fearing to take appropriate actions because of the potential of law-suits is missing the goal of providing a good education to all. The school board should stand ready to defend teachers trying to do their job.

Back in the day our teachers were sympathetic to children’s problems, but they weren’t our buddies. They were in charge. They did not affirm wrong actions. Of course, there were some teachers that had the respect of their students, but there were also a few who allowed the students to take control. Substitute teachers were infamous for losing control and allowing anarchy in the classroom. All teachers deserve our respect.

Watching over bunches of kids who have the nature to look for and find trouble, it has to be difficult and frustrating. Just teaching them the three ‘R’s,’ or to hold up their hands when they need a bathroom break, must make it a difficult and sometimes, thankless job. Ugly, even nasty memories aside, we should thank a teacher next time you see one. Oh, and if that kid I discussed was you, forget it. You’ve overcome all that and have won many more battles by now. You might even have had the experience of changing a diaper, or two. On the other hand, as I get older, I like to know when a bathroom is nearby. We laugh over the joke about, “Do you wear boxer shorts or briefs?” Our answer is of course, “Depends.”

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Comments  

0 #1 Bernard 2017-10-20 14:01
Good article Mike, Yep that was one stage of growing up. I guess I was lucky, never did have that problem. Yes I've seen it a lot while going through the various stages of "Growing Up"
However I've seen kids cry because they had an accident.Thanks for the memories, keep them coming.... I have to go pee.
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