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Rev. C. Hanko – Chapter 5: School Days

Editor’s Note: Rev. Hanko began school when Christian education was in its infancy. Nevertheless, the education he received was a superior one, equipping him for his life’s work as a pastor.

On a Saturday afternoon in the latter part of January, 1912. My sister Sena washed me and got me ready for a shopping spree. This involved going to the Wiersma’s store on Logan Street to buy the necessary equipment for starting school. Barrels containing kerosene, molasses, boxes of cookies, cases of candy, a balance scale with various weights, and every other object that might attract a neighborhood customer stood around. We bought a slate, slate pencils and a pencil box. Proudly, I walked home with my new possessions eager for Monday and the start of a new adventure.

On Monday morning I ventured off to Sigsbee Street between Diamond and Eureka where the old, brown, wooden, four-room schoolhouse stood serving the lower grades. It had double seats for two children to occupy, a blackboard, a crude wooden floor, and a straight-laced teacher, who wore her hair in a bun and dresses touching the floor. At Diamond and Baxter stood a white brick building that housed the upper grades.

In those early years the teachers had no more than an eighth grade education. It was some time later that a high school education was required to teach, and still later that a college degree was demanded.

I went off every Monday morning with a nickel a week, which was carefully checked on the tuition sheet. Since I was the fifth one of the family going to school, my tuition was cheaper than the other students.

Since I started in February, instead of the usual September enrollment, I was placed in the first grade. This made me virtually the youngest in the class, and required that I plug along a bit harder to keep up.

The school board expected that the small children had not learned English at home, so the first semester was in Dutch. I hardly needed that because I had an older brother and sisters who spoke English. Our lessons were written on the blackboard and copied on the slates. Whenever a lesson was complete a pan of water was passed around the room for everyone to wash his or her slate. You can imagine what a confusion that created, when some twenty or thirty children were blowing and puffing and swinging their slates in the aisle to hasten the drying process.

We did pass on quite soon from slates to pencil and paper. The teacher taught reading by showing us a large picture with identifying words printed underneath. The class stood in front of the room and pronounced the words. Spelling words were written on the blackboard and we were required to write them a number of times. A test would determine how well we had done.

At recess time a pail of water with a dipper was set on the porch to quench our thirst. The janitor stood by with his knife to sharpen the pencils that needed attention. His left thumb was black from holding the lead of the pencil against it.

I can well recall that when we arrived in the fourth grade the first word of our spelling lesson was “geranium.” That floored me. I decided that if that were the first word I would never make the grade. But somehow I did.

One day, one of the boys and I were playing by the back fence of the school grounds. Sigsbee Street was up a hill from Logan Street; the chicken coop in the back yard of Logan Street was below the school grounds. First we watched the chickens. Then the notion arose to throw stones at the chickens. This was a pleasant past time. Not that we were always successful in hitting a chicken or a rooster, but when we did the bird would become quite perturbed. We were so occupied in our sport that we did not notice a big fellow from that house climbing up the wall until he was almost to the top. I raced off and instead of mingling with the other kids, I hid behind the school door where I was soon discovered and brought to the teacher. I do not recall what punishment I received, but it was likely a number of slaps on the hand with the ever present ruler.

While I was still in the primary grades, the school moved from Sigsbee to Baxter Street. A new section of red brick was added to the school, so that all the grades were now in one school. We all “helped” to move, some carrying waste baskets with supplies, others carrying other paraphernalia, until we had arrived at our “new school.” The father of Tom and Sid Newhof bought the old building and made it into a barn in the back of their lot. In front, Tom built a house for himself.

In 1920 I graduated from the eighth grade in Baxter school. In those days a writing diploma was given to those who by the time of their graduation had finished in an acceptable manner all the lessons in the Palmer Method book. I was near the top of my class.

But that did not mean much the next semester when I went to Grand Rapids Christian High School at the corner of Madison Avenue and Franklin Street. Earlier, the old Calvin Seminary building occupied that corner. Since a new building had been erected at Franklin and Giddings, large enough to include the college for instruction in the fine arts, this old building at Madison Ave. was no longer in use and became the home for the Christian high school.

As it happened there were three hundred students enrolled in the high school that first semester, far more than had been anticipated. The result was a tremendous shortage of teachers and seats in the classroom. When the class met young teenagers were lined up along the walls. Besides, there was no teacher prepared for teaching Algebra and Latin even though these courses were offered.

Substitute teachers were brought in from time to time, but very few students got hold of the basics of algebra and Latin. Nearly the whole class, except for those whose parents had been able to help them through, took the course over again. By the second semester everything was far better organized, except that the assembly room was used for a study room, and had so many students gathered there, that the disturbance was not conducive to quiet study.

In many ways these were happy years. The high school was more than a mile from our home, but we usually enjoyed the walk since it was not uncommon to meet other students on the way. We made many new acquaintances, so that the days and weeks slipped swiftly by.