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Kentucky by Heart: Although mostly virtual this year, the opening of school brings back many memories

By Steve Flairty
NKyTribune columnist

The opening of schools, though mostly virtually these days, always recalls personal memories for me, both as a student and as a teacher.

But my first day in school as a first-grader in Mrs. Dorothy’s class at Grants Lick Elementary, in southern Campbell County, in the fall of 1959, is the most impactful. I can clearly picture the experience even now.

It seems this little five, soon to be six-year-old Stevie was about as excited as one could be to start school, and I woke early that morning. Allowing my younger brother, Mike, to sleep, I found my mother in the kitchen. She looked like she had already put in a half day’s work. She was ironing my “school” clothing, and close by her I can almost see and smell my new book satchel, red and black and having entirely too much room for my few supplies, consisting mostly of a box of crayons and a few pencil erasers. With a grin, she quickly informed me that I didn’t have to be up so early and there was still plenty of time before the bus came.

Young Steve Flairty, ready for school. (Photo provided)

But there was no way I wanted to return to bed. I simply was ready to go to school!

After a tasty meal of eggs and bacon and plenty of last-minute directions from Mom (Dad had left for work well before I awakened), we walked out on the side porch and headed out our gravel driveway to meet the bus on a busy and dangerous Highway #27. Mom would see that I got on the bus safely, but she had made careful arrangements (she thought) for the return trip with Mary, a pre-teen next-door neighbor girl who also rode the bus. Mary, according to the plan, would escort me off the bus and across the highway and to our driveway in the afternoon at the end of the bus trip home.

Well, the day at school was everything I expected. I quickly bonded with Mrs. Dorothy, a dignified, matronly sort who–by the testimony of hundreds, maybe thousands—was a teacher icon at the school and well-known in the Grants Lick community.

I enjoyed having a large pencil in my hand doing scribbles of handwriting, and I liked coloring pictures. I was shy around my classmates, but the idea of playing with them at outdoor recess was exciting. Going to the lunchroom and carrying a tray of food made me feel grown-up. I soon noticed that the school had a variety of smells that wafted about in different parts of the building, and they were not unpleasant. In short, the first day at Grant’s Lick Elementary School was joyous.

But then there was the bus ride home.

Getting on the bus that afternoon proved no problem, and I recall sitting quietly toward the noisy back part of the yellow monster and holding onto my precious book satchel; Mr. Reinhardt was the bus driver. He was a tall man, an older person who looked to be like a grandfather. (Doing research, I recently found out that he was then ten years younger than me now!) His overalls and suspenders that held them up made him appear to be a farmer. Mr. Reinhardt didn’t seem like the type who would suffer fools lightly, though I didn’t think in such literary terms in those days.

All pumped up with a bunch of stories ready to tell my mother and my brother when I got home, the bus pulled to a stop in front of our white and blue-framed house, the place where a standup birdbath and three pink plastic flamingos stood in the middle of the front yard. I recalled the directions from Mom earlier that morning, that I was not to leave the bus without Mary leading me off and across the highway, hand in hand. So, I would wait for Mary to come and fetch me when it was time.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

Well, the bus stopped, and I waited for Mary. But Mary didn’t make an effort to come and fetch me from the back of the bus. In fact, I don’t think she even thought about little Stevie being on the bus that afternoon. The reason was probably because, well… she forgot me. I froze and didn’t say a word.

I sat there with my book satchel as the drama unfolded. Looking out a window on the left, I could see our house, white with blue frames and in the front yard, a birdbath with the flamingos, still pink-colored. I also saw Mary depart the bus, cross the highway, and walk toward her house.

In a few moments, Mr. Reinhardt revved up the bus, and soon we were traveling at a pretty brisk pace down Highway 27. Today I know it as northward. And yes, it was still noisy in the back of the bus; I knew that because I was still sitting in the back of the bus and noise was all around me.

From my perspective, I thought my five-plus years was likely over and I’d never see my parents and brother again. What would I do now? There was no car at our home for my mom to drive on Highway 27 and catch the bus down the road. Besides, it didn’t matter because she didn’t even drive a car in those days…

Well, I wasn’t normally a crier, but I started to cry.

Soon, as if by appointment, a few older elementary school-aged girls noticed my weepiness and hovered around me, asking me what was wrong or something of that nature. I know I probably wasn’t eloquent in my response, and I probably had to mouth the words a couple of times, but it came out something like this: “Mary didn’t c-c-c-come and get me and I m-m-m-missed getting off the bus at my house.”

While the bus was moving, one or more of the girls made a beeline to Mr. Reinhardt to deliver the message about an upset child who had missed getting off the bus at his home. Aware that he had been notified, I nervously sat in my seat as the bus continued ahead for a minute or so, but then the bus slowed down and turned left into a roadside park, one that our family had driven past many times and even had eaten a picnic lunch there one time. Mr. Reinhardt stopped the bus and walked back to where I was sitting as my newfound angel friends pointed me out.

I don’t remember his words, but I got the impression that he tried hard to soften his stern way as he asked me why I didn’t get off the bus at my home. I muttered something about Mary not coming to get me, but I’m not sure Mr. Reinhardt understood. He soon went back to the driver’s seat, revved up the engine, and headed back southward on Highway 27 toward the Flairty household, the one with the white and blue-framed house with the birdbath and pink flamingos in the front yard.

The bus arrived, and Mom was out front in the driveway waiting. I’m pretty sure she had already talked to Mary, and I could tell she was pretty mad at her. But I could tell she was also quite relieved that her oldest son was home and safe.

Being a nervous child, I’m sure it took me a while to start telling our family the stories of the day at school and everything that happened on the bus, but today, 61 years later, I can talk and laugh about it… sort of.

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