Growing Up in Idaho - School Days and Show-and-Tell

Growing up in Salmon, Idaho, my schooling started early. That’s how it was for every kid I knew. Education comes in many forms and most of it happens outside of a classroom. One point of education that every kid got regarded manners and respecting your elders. In the sixties and seventies, those decades with which I’m referring, respect was mandatory. It wasn’t uncommon for some grown-up to come along and kick your butt if he saw you getting out of line. That’s just how it was and every kid learned to live with that.

Also, most kids I knew had a lot of freedom. We learned a lot about life and survival from our adventures roaming the foothills and mountains of Central Idaho. It was all fairly basic.

When I was six years old, one Saturday morning, mom and dad kicked my brother and me out of the house and told us to go hike somewhere. It didn’t matter where. And mom had lunches packed, which meant she expected us to be gone all day. So, we hiked up to an old abandoned mine and played there till late afternoon. A kid can have loads of fun playing on old, rusty mine equipment if he uses his imagination. But even better than that, we fantasized about finding bags of gold hidden somewhere within those deep, dark holes in the mine. We had fun jumping across and playing around those holes. I imagined something out of a hobbit book and couldn’t help throwing a few rocks in and trying to hear them hit bottom. “Vertical shafts” wasn’t part of our vocabular, so we didn’t fear them.

When we got home that evening, supper was ready and Mikey and I talked about our journey to the mine. That’s when our lessons on the dangers of living in Idaho were handed-out. Dad warned us about those old mine shafts. He got his information first hand. When he was a little kid, growing up in all the mining towns around Idaho, it was his job to be lowered down into those shafts on a rope, “just to see what was down there.” Fortunately for him, his older brother and sisters always pulled him back out!

He said, “You boys dink around and fall down one of those shafts, you’ll be dead and gone forever.” 

That’s all we needed to hear. I vowed to be more careful next time we were out playing. But nobody told us we had to stop playing around those old abandoned mines. Dad probably instinctively knew that forbidding us from playing around them would do no good. We’d do it anyway. But next time, we would try to be more careful and avoid falling down a shaft and getting killed.

It was kind of like shooting guns. When we were growing up, Mikey had an old .30-30 saddle gun and I had my Marlin .22. We took those guns on most of our adventures in the hills and nobody told us we couldn’t. But we were taught how to be safe and not kill anyone. There was a level of trust put upon us, so we didn’t do anything stupid, at least not stupid enough to get anyone killed.     

My formal classroom education started in 1970. I entered Mrs. Thomas’ first grade class in August of that year. Mom walked me to school, along with Mikey who was entering third grade. It was about a mile’s walk from our house. That walk from River Street to the school would become common place until our family moved out to Perreau Creek. Nobody ever gave us any rides to school.  

I was not a big fan of school. There were too many people all in one place to suit me. With all the kids running around everywhere, the whole place seemed like a bunch of ants crawling around on an ant hill. I wondered whose idea it was to send kids off to school all day. Damn those people!

Mrs. Thomas greeted me as I walked into the room. She looked like she could be anyone’s grandma, serving up molasses cookies with milk. “Find a desk and put your stuff away. My name is Mrs. Thomas.” I knew who she was. She was the supreme authority in this room–the room that for the next year, would become my home away from home.

I was a timid little kid who just wanted to be playing Tarzan in the trees behind our house. I strapped a big silver handled Buck knife on my belt, took my shirt off, and instantly transformed into an “apeman.” In my six-year-old mind, out there behind the house playing in my fort, I was King of the Apes. In Mrs. Thomas’ classroom, I was just a kid who couldn’t color within the lines.

The first week of school, the kids were instructed to stand next to their desk and sing a line in, “My Country Tis of Thee!” It was audition time for Mrs. Thomas’ classroom singers. Those were the kids who were given special privileges throughout the year. They got to sing special musical numbers while the rest of us worked on math and spelling.

As I belted out my line of that famous song, my voice crackled and croaked and was two octaves off key. Before I could finish, teacher ordered me to, “sit down!” I learned right then that the world is not fair. My ego was scorched and I wondered how I would survive the whole year being a lowly member of the peasant class of singers.

I soon figured out that school recess was something to live for each day. Three times a day, they let all us kids out of those dimly lit classrooms to run wild and free. Recess was a time to play kickball, football, or shoot marbles in the gravel, covering the few acres of our school playground. Collecting peeries, steelies, and boulders was parlance for winning the biggest and prettiest marbles in those games of skill.

One day, I was playing on the slide with my best friend, Danny. He wondered who my girlfriend was. “Wait, what? Girlfriend?” The pressure was on. My girlfriend from Mrs. Whiting’s White House Kindergarten from the year before, was nowhere to be seen. So, I pointed out a little brown-haired girl on the slide. “There she is,” I said.

“Oh, you like Stacey? She’s really cool!” Danny said.

I didn’t know Stacey and had never met her. But she was a girl and thus, a likely candidate to be a girlfriend. I felt the need to fulfill my place in the budding social strata among the Pioneer School first graders. Actually, I really liked girls. And I thought having a girlfriend was cool! Occasionally, I got involved in little games of kissing tag on the playground. It was then that I fell hard for a little girl named Diana.  

My best friends were Danny, Mark, Barry, and David. But I also considered Diana my best friend too. In my book, she was the prettiest girl on the planet. One day, I went to her house and picked her up on my bike. Her family was coming over to our house for dinner later that evening. Having her join me on my flashy, cool bike made me feel like I was a king! At that moment, I was even greater than the King of the Apes! That little date was my first foray into the mysterious world of romance, and I liked it.

The next year, my younger sister Julie and I hit on a brilliant plan. I knew Julie really liked one of my best friends, so I bargained with her that I would invite that boy over for a sleep-over if she would invite Diana. The scheme worked, and so I got a full weekend of playing with Diana uninterrupted by school bells. And Julie got the same, playing with my best friend. That weekend was the highlight of my existence up to that point.   

Elementary school days seemed to drag on forever. It was a blur of short recesses and long, boring classes. Teachers pounded grammar, math, and spelling down my throat to the point I thought my brain would burst. I couldn’t seem to make the connection between all that academic stuff and my real happiness.

Take math, for example. In my young mind, it was a waste of time to know the answer to all those abstract numbers problems. Who cared how many apples Sally carried home from the store or how many pieces of bubble gum Jimmy would have left if he had eight, but chewed up two. All I was concerned with was whether Jimmy was smart enough to hide his gum so his brothers and sisters wouldn’t steal it!

Math did not come easy for me. Probably because I couldn’t see the value in learning it. I saw math as an evil practice that had no place in my life. One day as I was struggling along in class, Mrs Thomas ordered me up to her desk. As I huddled over her shoulder, she taught me how to count on my fingers. “This goes against my better judgement, but some kids just don’t get adding and subtracting any other way!” she explained.

Using my fingers to add and subtract was the best lesson that little old lady ever taught to me. Funny how nearly a half century later, I still visualize everything mathematical, in base ten. And the finger method worked okay until Mrs. Olsen’s second grade class. Then I had to extrapolate adding and subtracting numbers into multiplication and division. And suddenly I was slammed right back in the dredges of the peasant class of mathematicians. Life as a student was depressing.

One day, as I sat at the kitchen table trying to figure out how I was ever going to learn my multiplication tables, I started fantasizing about running away and living as a hermit in the mountains. No hermits I knew were required to know those damn multiplication tables. Not even Buckskin Bill who lived down the Salmon River had to know that stuff!

Mom was in the kitchen cooking dinner and soon sensed my demise. So she called in the big guns. 
“Mikey, can you help your brother with his math?” I knew my older brother was good at multiplying and maybe he could save me from a lonely life at the hermitage.

He sat down next to me and explained, in kid-talk, how multiplication worked. Within fifteen minutes, I could recite those tables through the fives. After a half-hour, I was up through ten. It’s amazing how my adolescent brain responded to those instructions by my older brother. Without him teaching me math skills, I’m sure I would now be living as a hermit in an obscure log cabin along the Selway River somewhere, dining on fresh venison and pine needle stew.

About the only classroom activity, I liked in school, was show-and-tell. Every day, I hoped every single kid in class had something to show and tell about. And I hoped everyone would take twenty minutes each when it was their turn! I wanted, just once, to go all day long with that fun activity. I used the finger method Mrs Thomas had taught me to add up how many minutes each student would have to take in order to make show-and-tell last all day. I figured it was a doable goal for our class and hoped that someday we might reach it!

One time, I plum forgot it was show-and-tell day. The anxiety from not having something, made me feel ill. How could I have been so absent minded to forget about my favorite part of class? So, I slipped into survival mode and set my mind to thinking of something quickly! While my little classmate, Lori was giving a spiel about something or other, I was brewing up in my mind the best story in the history of the Pioneer School.

You must understand one thing. I come from a long line of BSers. Nobody has ever accused any Hicks that I know of, of not having a good story to tell. I suppose that art of storytelling goes back generations to ancient ancestors I’ve only heard about from my dad and grandpa. Those two guys were two of the biggest BSers I knew at that time or since!

And to keep the tradition alive, as a little first grade kid, I wanted to follow in their footsteps! Between dad and grandpa, they had enough BS stories to keep an audience captivated for a full week or more. I knew that because I grew up hearing every single one of them. Those stories of adventure and intrigue were implanted in my young mind, never to be forgotten.

So, as a little first grade kid, I knew it was time to pull a chair up to the family table and join the others as a teller of fantastically wild and captivating stories. And my first try at that would be sitting in a circle with the rest of my peers, in Mrs. Thomas’ classroom. It was show and tell day and I had a story to tell!

I sincerely and with a straight face, related this giant whopper. I told how my dad flew his airplane into the Idaho backcountry and ended up crashing into the side of a mountain. He survived the crash, but had a broken leg and was bruised and skinned-up from head to toe.

But being one of the toughest men in the world, he wrapped a bandage around his leg and just walked out of the backcountry, broken leg and all. Of course, he made a make-shift pair of crutches from a tree limb. His expert carving skills with his Bowie knife made that possible. 

As he journeyed along, he slept out in the open, in a lean-to shelter he made out of sticks and pine boughs. And he lived off the land. Fortunately, he had that big Bowie knife on his hip when he crashed, and used that to kill wild beasts as he trekked back to his family. The big knife idea I took from Tarzan of the Apes.

I went into great detail about dad’s journey back to civilization, limping and crawling through the thick timber and undergrowth, with a broken leg. All the while, bears and wolves were trying to kill him. My story would’ve made Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs proud.   

After a long time of yammering away, I decided it was time to wrap my story. So I ended by relating how happy my mom and us kids were when dad came limping into our house only last night, just as we were all sitting down to a dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes! We were all so glad he made it back home alive!

All my classmates were spellbound. I could see it in their eyes. Their little faces showed utter amazement. They said “Ooooh yuck!” as I described dad eating raw meat from the bears he killed. They all seemed to be fascinated that dad knew all the wild berries and mushrooms he ate to keep him alive as he trudged through the vast wild and primitive area of Central Idaho. They were mesmerized as I told them how he built lean-tos with sticks and pine boughs and ate ants and bugs when he couldn’t find a bear to kill with his knife.

As I lied my way through that giant yarn, Mrs. Thomas asked a few direct questions about my tale. I covered all her questions with the skill of a politician. She was obviously not convinced because later that evening, she called my mom to verify my story. And that’s when mom, that sweet, petite lady who fixed my food and washed my clothes, threw me under the bus! She had the nerve to tell Mrs. Thomas, “My husband, Mike, teaches seventh grade social studies at the Brooklyn School.  And he doesn’t even own a plane, nor does he know how to fly one if he did!”

Mom disappointed me. I thought she would have my back. Didn’t she know I was claiming my place at the family table as a big BSer just like dad and grandpa and all the other ancestors? Crap!

The next week at school was hell for me. Mrs. Thomas yelled at me in front of the class for lying to all my friends. She took away my Show and Tell privileges for two weeks and made me stay in from recess for five days. My punishment was almost more than I could bear! It was shameful! I was unhappy and confused that I got no kudos for making-up a really good story, or for being able to tell it in a dramatic fashion and with a straight face! Some adults obviously had no sense of adventure and I was certain Mrs. Thomas was a bridge troll.



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