Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Locks and Lockers

Remember these?

It all started with my morning walk yesterday. I locked up the house, enjoyed a pleasant walk and went to put the key in the front door and I couldn’t unlock the door. After various efforts were successful, it was time to replace this thirty-seven year old lockset from when our house was built, which led to getting some extra keys made and making sure some other locks worked smoothly–you know how it goes!

In the weird way my mind works, it took me back to junior high and high school and the days of putting padlocks on our lockers at the beginning of each school year. At West and Chaney, I remember being told that they had to be combination locks, not key locks. I guess they were afraid keys would get lost more easily than combinations. I know that when I would get a new lock, I’d practice opening it about a dozen times to get the combination ingrained in my head. After a few days, you didn’t really think but it was as if the dials turned themselves to your combination

Lockers. The one space at school we could call ours. Some did really fancy jobs decorating their lockers. I think the most I ever did was tack a poster from a record album inside the door of mine one year. Supposedly lockers weren’t actually that secure. It was said you could bust one of those locks open with a well-placed blow with the heel of a shoe. I never tried it and don’t ever recall getting my locker broken into. But I wasn’t exactly a fashion pacesetter and didn’t keep much in the locker but a jacket, a sack lunch, maybe a gym bag, and whatever books I didn’t need for that part of the day. As I think about it, I probably didn’t need to put a lock on the locker, but probably better safe than sorry.

It always seemed your locker was at the other end of the school from where your next class was, and so it was a dash to make it before the bell–a controlled dash that is because we couldn’t run in the hallways. There were those tales of kids getting stuffed in lockers. I was probably too big to stuff and I can’t think of anyone I knew who had this happen–of course, would they admit it?

Then there were gym lockers. These weren’t assigned, you just grabbed an empty one. I think they all smelled of sweaty socks! You stripped off street clothes, donned gym clothes (including those embarrassingly short shorts!), and locked up your things before lining up in front of Mr. Angelo. For me, the most precious thing I locked up was my glasses–we weren’t allowed to wear them during gym. That was fine when we had to run laps or do calisthenics. But then as now, I’m pretty near-sighted and that was a distinct disadvantage in any competition with a ball. Mostly, people learned pretty quickly that it was a disaster to pass to me, so I would just stay on the move, defending, looking busy–the trick was not to look like a slacker. When I went to shower and change, I had to get within a foot to see the combination–I wasn’t trying to keep others from seeing the combination so much as seeing it myself in my glassless state!

I’ve noticed that the lockers these days tend to be brighter colors (I recall ours being pretty drab) and they have locks built in. It makes me wonder, do the schools change the combination each year. I wonder how that works. It’s been a long time since I put a lock on a locker–I’m surprised we still had one around the house! It was my wife’s and she even remembered the combination. I can’t say that I remember any of the combinations of my locks.

It’s funny how memories are triggered. Now you are probably thinking back to getting a lock at the beginning of school for your locker. Maybe you can still see that locker in your head. Maybe, like my wife, you remember the combination of your lock. I’d love to hear your locker stories. They were so much a part of our school days but probably not the first thing you remember.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Back to School

The end of the Canfield Fair on Labor Day always marked the beginning of school when we were growing up. Usually the first day of school was the Tuesday after Labor Day. Before that happened I would have to go through the dreaded ritual of getting measured for new school clothes and buying new shoes. Mom would get out the tape measure and then we would look through the Sears-Roebuck catalog and order clothes. Truth was, I wasn’t one of the “cool” kids, and catalog-ordered clothes probably didn’t help, but I was kind of a “geeky” boy even back then so I was probably oblivious most of the time! Anything fashionable would be wasted on me. Durable and inexpensive was better.

Site of Washington School. From:

Site of Washington School. From: 

We always learned about our new teachers on our report cards at the end of the year. So when we gathered outside of school, Washington School in my case, the big subject of conversations were what each of the teachers were like. After first grade, I found out that my second grade teacher was Mrs. Smith, the same teacher I had had for first grade. I thought I flunked! Instead, she moved up a grade along with me. That wasn’t so bad–I always liked Mrs. Smith, except for the time that I discovered that the answers to quizzes in our reading workbook were in the back of the workbook. She tore the pages out!

Schools these days publish school supply lists ahead of time. As I recalled we learned what school supplies we needed after school began, which meant going out and shopping for No. 2 pencils, protractors, and whatever else we would need for class. My wife used to love this and organizing all her school supplies in her pencil box.  Some kids would have Peanuts (boys) or Barbie (girls) pencil boxes. For me, the pencil box was usually an old cigar box.

When we got older, we began to get textbooks, so one of the first things we did each year was make book covers. There were fancy ones you could buy in the stores with superheroes, rock bands, or even the name of your school, but in our house, book covers were brown paper grocery bags (courtesy of the A & P at which we shopped) on which we wrote in magic marker the subject and my name in smaller print. Seems we usually had to re-cover the books a few times during the year.

First days of school were usually fun. Somewhere in there was a school assembly talking about safety issues and other things. We usually had a fire drill–nice because it was still warm outside. We also had Civil Defense drills. This was the 60’s when we were in a Cold War with Russia and there was fear of nuclear attack. We would shelter in our school basement. Not sure how much good that would have done!

Teachers usually eased us into homework, printed out on mimeographed worksheets. There was the inevitable theme on “what I did on summer vacation”, always kind of challenging because we didn’t vacation much–just went swimming, played baseball, read a few books from the library, went to Idora Park and on family picnics. The trick was to figure out how to make that interesting.

At the end of the day, I always remember mom asking, “how was school?” I’d tell her about the teacher and who was in my class and what supplies I would need. And off we would go into another school year.

What were your memories of the first days of school?