First Grade Fears in 1914
Starting school is a tough transition for children. The prevalence
of preschool has eased the transition between home and school, but the first few
weeks are still a challenge for 5- and 6-year-olds.
Kindergarten teachers tell hundreds of humorous stories about the
distorted perceptions and fearful experience of first-timers. The student who
asks, “Is it lunch yet?” a half-hour after the day starts. “Did I eat my lunch?”
asked a half-hour after the PB and J was consumed. Finding their lunch, knowing
what to do with an unpeeled orange, and the buckets of tears shed over the
slightest deviation from a home routine round out those long first days in
When my mother started first grade in 1914 there were more
For one, it wasn’t until the 1970s that there was a
larger first-grade class. Aspen was a shrinking-but-still-large town in 1914.
The Panic of 1907 had cut the population of the county by 25 percent but in 1910
it was still 4,600, about half the size of Albuquerque at that time. The 1914
first grade was the last big class. In 1917-1918, Aspen’s largest mine, the
Smuggler, shut down over an electricity rate dispute and the influenza struck,
reducing Aspen’s population an additional 30 percent.
Like most cities
of the time, Aspen was proud of its schools. Aspen had three elementary schools:
Lincoln, Garfield and Washington. In the beginning they were multi-grade
schools, each located in a different section of town. When the Washington School
opened in the West End in 1890, they began separating students by grade rather
than by location. First through fourth grades were located at the Washington
There was no kindergarten in Aspen’s
schools until 1955, so my mother entered school in first grade at the Washington
School. Most students in those days did not make it through high school, leaving
after eighth grade. The Washington School was a large, permanent brick structure
with big windows and Victorian flourishes, larger than the high school and still
a “modern” model, but it had one component that confounded my mother.
1914, indoor plumbing was rare. Children like my mother were used to using an
outhouse. Her term was “the chick sail,” a name popularized from a play about an
outhouse builder written by Chick Sale. Cold in the winter, smelly and always
too far from where ever you were, they still served their purpose. Spiders and
bees were a bother, and children always feared they might fall through the hole
into the gaping pit below.
The Washington School had a more modern
facility, an indoor one. It was located in the basement and had a whole line of
holes. What filled my mother with fear was that instead of the usual pit there
was a continuously running torrent of water running below the holes, a kind of
partially open sewer. Further complicating the situation, the holes were not
calibrated for first-graders; they were adult size. At least they seemed that
way to a first-grader.
“I was so afraid I would
fall through and be carried off to God knows where,” my mother told me.
She remembered little else from her first year of school. A 6-year old’s
nightmare aged into a senior’s amusing remembrance.
family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for
Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his
native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.