Our Town: Helen Baker Reynolds (Part V) “School”

Helen Baker Reynolds (Part V) by Ed Wenig

[This week we quote from the chapter School, in the book “Family Album” by Helen Baker Reynolds.]

Norhoff Grammar School, where Miss Baker went to school.

“The grammar school stood just across the road, opposite our side gate. It was a drab, square, two-story building, topped with a cupola housing the school bell, and with two out-houses behind it.

“The schoolyard of hard adobe soil was bare except for one large oak and some pepper tress next to the road, which the girls and the younger children congregated at recess and played tag or drop-the-handkerchief. There also in the spring we played marbles. The marble games were segregated according to sex, since the boys scorned competition with the girls, we being, of course, inferior.

“Playing for ‘keeps’ was forbidden; it was a form of gambling. The ‘bad’ boys sometimes broke the rules,at least, so we suspected. Their ‘smart-alec’ talk about the aggies changing hands was calculated to be not loud enough for a teacher to overhear but audible to the girls nearby, who presumably would be vastly impressed by the enormity of the sin.

“Baseball was the boys’ year-round sport. It was played in the bare yard on the other side of the school, participants daring to slide into base would return at the sound of the school bell, grimy with mud or with dust, according to the season. Because of this invariable result, sliding to base was forbidden. Those who were known to have broken the rule were kept in after school. The crime was not quite bad enough to merit the rawhide strap, but it gave a boy a high standing among his fellows. If often enough, he became an athletic hero.

“I hated school. The freedom of my earlier childhood made long confinement irksome, and the gentle propriety of our home had prepared me not at all for meeting the tough-and-tumble elements which, in our grammar school at that time set the predominant tone.

“On the walls of the outhouse words were scrawled which to me were unfamiliar but which I suspected, with good reason, were simply not nice at all, and some of the children often would giggle at things that made me blush.

“Most of the boys I considered dreadful. They were always yelling and pushing and starting fights in the schoolyard, whereupon Mr. Egerton, the principal, would haul them into the ante room where hung the rawhide strap.

“Mr. Egerton and his rawhide strap assumed in my mind an almost nightmarish quality. Actually he was a virtuous man and a conscientious principal. Toward me he was never harsh. I was even known as Egerton’s pet, being one of the minority who did the assigned homework and more often than not obeyed the rules. I knew at the time that I really ought not to harbor dislike of the principal, but the feeling of aversion persisted nevertheless. It may have been due to my inherent and home-instilled horror of violence, and Mr. Egerton, thanks to a host of obstreperous boys, seemed forever engaged in violence of the rawhide strap variety.

“Slight misdemeanors rated knuckle raps with the ruler; more serious offenses, the rawhide. He would collar the culprit and lead or drag him into the anteroom, from whence would issue horrifying sounds. Most of the boys in the schoolroom and even some of the girls would titter, a few of the boys of the bolder sort letting loose subdued guffaws, but the ‘nice’ girls would look distressed and would try their best not to listen.

“Friday afternoons after recess the whole school had an hour of singing in the assembly hall. Miss Reppy, who taught the primary grades (the one teacher whom the children loved) played the piano accompaniment, and Miss Shaw beat time for our singing, while Mr. Egerton stalked about, keeping order, ruler in hand.

[Editors Note: Mrs. Reynolds entered Nordhoff High School the year it was opened.]

“An excellent faculty had been procured, headed by Mr. Bristol, a competent, scholarly man. The community’s pride in its new school, and the spirit of the teachers, were reflected in the attitude of the 55 students, most of whom were entering high school with more or less serious purpose.

“I loved the school. With ambition and enthusiasm I proceeded to make straight A’s. Every month when I brought home a perfect report card, Father would smile his approval. I never knew at the time, however, what lay behind his invariable remark: “That’s just fine, Helen. That’s just fine. Mother, this little girl is doing all right. Yes, sir, the Ojai Valley is the Best Place in the World.”

The Intangible Spirit of the Ojai, by Ed Wenig

Our Town: Helen Baker Reynolds (Part III) “Days Ritual”

Helen Baker Reynolds (Part III) by Ed Wenig

This is the third in a series of articles consisting of quotations from passages in Helen Baker Reynold’s book, “Family Album”. The Following is from the chapter, Day’s Ritual.

Our household was a smug little world. Father was its Absolute Monarch, whose cardinal principle in dealing with children was “No Talking Back”. Mother’s cardinal principle was taken from the Bible: “Little Children, Love One Another.” If Father was Absolute Monarch, Mother was High Priestess. Between the two of them the family’s world rode its orbit with the exactitude of any heavenly body.

Breakfast was at seven o’clock. Actually the daily routine was not nearly so arduous as to demand such early hours, but, regarding the principle involved, Father was adamant. To lie abed after six o’clock was, in his judgment, slothful, and his own father always had said, “A slothful man is a sinful man.” So that was that.

Breakfast was the opening Trumpet blast introducing the daily rituals. As we assembled in the sitting room, each greeting the other with a “Good Morning!” which must ring with loving kindness (otherwise Mother would be grieved), Esing (the Chinese servant) would thrust his head in at the door, announcing “Blekfassy he alledy.”

“Good morning, Esing!” we would chorus, and all would troop into the dining room.

Along the sides of the table, with Father and Mother at the two ends, would be ranged as many of the seven children as were not away at school: also Grandmother and usually some visiting relatives or one of the old family friends who came to live with us from time to time. Seldom fewer than seven and more often nine or ten would be seated at the table.

The casual in-and-out breakfast of today, the fast consuming of coffee and toast behind sections of the morning paper, was unknown in our home. Our parents would have thought it rude and unseemly and from the standpoint of nourishment shamefully inadequate.

Breakfast with us was a ritual the pattern of which never varied. It began with a long and fervent “blessing” pronounced by Mother, while we sat with bowed heads. Mother’s blessings were not mere murmured formalities. She went before the Throne of God and took her family with her, earnestly thankful for favors received, leading us willy-nilly, into a day of Christian Goodness.

Our regular fare for breakfast included cooked cereal, bacon, eggs, steak, potatoes, two or three kinds of hot bread, fruit, jam and jelly, and a large assortment of breakfast drinks. Calorie counting was unknown. To be fat was to be healthy. Fortunately obesity did not run in our family.

Breakfast lasted for nearly an hour. It was a time for conversation. Conversation abounded at all of our meals, Esing often joining in. “In Chiny,” he would say from the kitchen doorway, balancing a tray on the palm of his hand and squinting his eyes to slits, “in Chiny we no do sings like you do”. Then he would hold forth on Chinese customs, while we listened with respect. Father sometimes would laugh tolerantly, as if humoring a child, but we young people were taught to be very respectful to servants. Mother never used the word “servant” except in the general sense. A household worker she called “Our Helper”. This was an affectation on her part; it was natural to her, expressing her Christianity.

There were duties for everyone after breakfast. Father would have had the boys up at five-thirty for the early-morning chores, but girls were accorded consideration on account of being delicate.

Of my sisters’ morning assignments the two most dreaded were cleaning and filling the coal oil lamps, a sooty, smelly job and (even worse) servicing the chamber pots. Not until I was ten years old did we have an indoor toilet. For several years after the modern fixture was available and installed in most “good homes,” Father held out against the innovation. His contention was that the things wouldn’t work; hence, they would be unsanitary. Only after one in an outdoor privy had proven its competence beyond the shadow of a doubt was he finally induced to assume the risk of having them inside. Meanwhile he saw nothing unsanitary about the chamber pot. It was time-honored; therefore, it was right.

Most of the routine of cleaning and tidying was done by my mother and sisters. Esing did the entire family laundry, with boilers steaming on the wood stove in the “wash house” outside the kitchen. I always found it fascinating to watch him sprinkle the clothes before ironing. He would fill his mouth with water, then blow in a fine spray. Mother had forbidden this unsanitary method and had shown him how to sprinkle with a whisk broom. Accordingly, Esing kept the whisk broom at hand to use when he heard Mother’s quick, light step approaching. At other times he went back to his own technique. Cheeks bulging, squirrel-like, he would blow out a spray so fine as to be no more than a mist. Between mouthfuls of water he would look at me, who stood watching him, wide-eyed, and would squint his almond eyes to slits with a mischievous, conspiratorial smile. Once in a while he would say to me, “You no tell your mudda.” This admonition always made me feel guilty, for deceiving one’s mother was wicked. I never did make a report, however.

The Intangible Spirit of the Ojai, by Ed Wenig