Roots: Fletcher School Friends

Class photo from Fletcher Elementary School, 1956-57. Archive photo

When I was a child in Jamestown, often during winter months I would awake before dawn to horses’ hooves on the pavement. You knew it was snowing then because the hooves were muffled, because the horses were there to plow the sidewalks for me and the hundreds of children who would soon be walking to school on the South Side.

I’d step from bed to window where the old leaded glass would be coated in ice. I would trace my name in the frost there, looking down Ivy Street for the moment when the horses would appear under the street light dusted with snow. The house would be ice cold and silent. Hoof beats announced the morning. Hoof beats: one two three four, a steady determined trot, paced out the time.

This memory is so sweet; I can fairly taste the cold from a half-century back. Then I’d crawl back into bed until my mother came to wake me. Sometimes I’d fall asleep; other times, I would lie there in the predawn half dreaming. These are my roots, not just family but people, places, sounds, memories.

After a hearty breakfast, I would be off to school, my hair pulled tightly back into a pony tail. I remember proudly carrying a red leather purse mother bought me in second grade. It was my first handbag, soon followed by another, a navy blue feedbag type with a folding top. At the corner of Cole and Ivy, I would stop and turn back to see my mother, standing there on the front stoop. She would wave, and I’d be off up the big hill to school.

On the way, I would often see or walk with friends like Diane Peterson Anderson, whom I later knew at Maple Grove High School in our teen years. She lived at the top of Cole Hill. (Her daughter, Kristin Anderson Millward, is now my hairdresser at Honeycomb Salon in Fluvanna. She is beautiful and kind, like her mother. That is how connections go in life). Diane and I reconnected years after that when our loved ones were in the same wing at the Heritage Home in Gerry. Diane is still her lovely, shining self.

Barb Rissel Stewart and me in Mrs. Alden’s first-grade class. Photo from Rissel archives

Milton J. Fletcher Elementary School gave me my basic education from kindergarten through grade four. At school, my classmates were kind and funny, quiet and good natured. I recall Freddy Bengston and Brian Illig, my first crush Lance Buckner, and adorable Tommy Peterson who always had a smile for everyone. Ingrid Carlson was in my class as was Debbie Peterson, Christine Osborne, Marilyn Phillips and Denise Ahlstrom, some of whom I recently refound on Facebook. Years ago at a horse show in Cattaraugus, a pretty blond woman ran up to me and said, “You’re Sandy Johnson! I would know you anywhere!” It was my old friend Marilyn from elementary school. What a joy it was to see her again. And what a fine equestrian she had become.

I recall my teachers well but particularly my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Alden, whose enormous kindness and gift for teaching made me want to emulate her. She taught us to read and write; she opened the whole world of knowledge to us. I think of her every time I walk into an elementary school classroom. By the time she sent us off to second grade, and for me that was Mrs. Sharp, we were good writers and spellers, good readers and apt learners. Mrs. Alden had a great gift. I never saw her again, but she is at the top of my list for fine teachers in my life.

At Fletcher School, we children were some of the first in the nation to get the polio vaccines, two years in a row as I recall. I recall standing in line with dozens of other children, all hushed, as if we knew the importance of the moment. One by one we walked up and got a plastic cup of red liquid, which we drank immediately and politely handed back the glass. Barb Rissel Stewart recalls it was a sugar cube doused with vaccine. This is my memory though, I could be wrong. My mother could finally stop fearing I would catch polio. I could stop wearing the white gloves in public. I could perhaps swim in the outdoor pool at Allen Park.

In one or more grades, we were escorted down to the basement (where the luncheon room still is!) to get a glass of ice cold milk from a spigot in a waxy disposable cup. For some reason, that milk tasted better than any milk I’ve ever had. I wonder if my classmates remember.

And recently, I had the good fortune to reconnect with a few of my classmates again. Barb Rissel Stewart wrote to me to say, I think I remember you from Fletcher! We met for coffee at Eckloff’s and hugged like the old good friends we were. Sixty years had passed between us. Later I connected with Kay Williamson Dracup and her cousin, Lynne Williamson Anderson. We laughed and traded memories over coffee and plan another outing soon. Kay turned out to be a dog lover too. Now she and her sweet dog Libby meet Rosie and me at the park for walks. Rosie and Libby are good friends now too.

Barb Rissel Stewart now, pictured at right. Photo by Sandy Robison

On Facebook, I chatted with Tom Peterson, who is a nurse in West Virginia. His son is an actor. Tom himself is a fine musician. I have run into few old friends on Barb’s Facebook page, some remembered me and some who did not. But I remembered them all. I could even picture where they sat in class or how they walked down the halls at Fletcher. They were all nice kids. I’m leaving out all the heartaches and battles these friends have dealt with through the years and now too. Today I am celebrating the seeds and memories of friendship, planted deep.

Elementary school is the place where you find your voice, your way, yourself. If you’re lucky, you have teachers who champion you, who make you feel all right about yourself in the world, who show you all the basics from ABCs to math. They teach you about the world around you, far beyond your little world, and people you will never know but can admire and care for. They show you respect and teach you to respect yourself. If you’re lucky, all the good things take root.

It’s a gift we don’t realize often enough. It sends us off into the world, prepared, strong. Ready. Fletcher Elementary sent me and thousands of other children off well equipped for the world. I remember our principal standing tall and handsome by the door of his office every morning — Mr. Hardenburg. He was in charge of our precious world of learning, with gracious charm, a handsome elegance and calm authority, in a place where we were safe and well-tended. It seems almost everything of value in life I learned then. Maybe we all feel that way.

Last week, Kay gave me some rooted Brown Eyed Susans from her garden to plant for next year in my own gardens. That’s the key, friendships rooted in childhood, like the lessons learned in childhood, blooming perennially in our hearts.

Kay and Libby.

Cousins Kay Williamson Dracup and Lynne Williamson Anderson.