Supplements to learning

Ed Smith
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I remember clearly being given my school supplies. In Grade 1 they consisted of a slate, a slate pencil and a damp rag.
I was the only kid in the place to have such stuff and I was the envy of the school. You wrote a few sums on it and perhaps a couple of spelling words, such as "Mississippi" and "cat." When you wanted to get rid of your misspellings, you simply wiped it all off with the damp cloth.
When they gave your homework, you could only do what your one slate could hold, and that wasn't much. Marvelous invention, the slate.
I had it for only a short time. The teacher convinced my parents that it might be in their best interests if they saw what I was doing in school, which wasn't a heck of a lot. To be aware of my daily educational efforts, there had to be a daily record of my "work."
The slate wasn't much good for that. I used to wear out wet cloths something awful. Takes a lot of experimentation with a slate pencil to get the right tilt to a cowboy hat on a cowboy head. When I got home in the afternoon, the slate was always beautiful and clean.
Enter the next giant technological leap in my school supplies world - the scribbler and lead pencil. The lead in those pencils was always hard as rock and the paper in the scribblers so soft that it still had wood fibre in it. Consequently, by the time you'd finished writing on a scribbler page it was in one hell of a mess, which was almost as good for hiding things as the slate.
Somewhere in those early years there came along that marvelous supplement to the math program known as the exercise book. On the cover were two oval pictures of the King and Queen, just to remind you where your loyalties lay. On the back were your times tables, up to 12 x 12 ,which is 144, just to prove I still remember.
Purists used to worry that having the printed tables laid out before you like that would erode mathematical abilities. Students should have to figure it out for themselves, they said. Not sure how they would have felt about the calculator.
Of course, we had books, the main one of which was the Bible. The workbook accompanying the Bible was the catechism.

What is the chief end of man?
The chief end of man is to know and glorify God.

That totally confused some of us, including me who spent a lot of time in school being confused by how things were said and done. If the catechism had asked "what is the chief purpose of men, women and children?" it would have made more sense. But it didn't. We had to figure out for ourselves that "man" included every solitary one of us, saved and unsaved, blessed and unblessed, sanctified and unsanctified, confirmed and unconfirmed, washed and unwashed (the great majority of us).
We were never told that our chief end was our purpose in life, and not our backsides, as some of us whispered to each other in great glee.
Of course I was the one who got caught whispering a little too loudly and spent the rest of the afternoon, including an hour after school, standing in the corner memorizing the catechism, which is why I remember it, like the 12 x 12 table, to this very day.
I remember Theorem 12 in the old Grade 10 geometry for exactly the same reason. I have to tell you that 14 is a particularly humiliating age to be "put in the corner." However, it beat the hell out of being strapped.
Textbooks in those days had a wonderful new smell. I understood those kids up north who were sniffing glue, because I spent nights at the beginning of the school year with my nose in the books. I wasn't taking in knowledge - I was inhaling whatever made that marvelous smell. Lord knows what it was. New books don't have it today. If someone were to do research on it they probably find it contained elements of saltpeter (to offset the effects of spying on the girls in their part of the outhouse), lice killer (cheaper than fine-tooth combs) and an olfactory suppressant (to allow us to go into the school outhouse without throwing up). What that stuff did to us mentally is anyone's guess, although a study of someone like me might reveal some interesting results.
With any luck you got a new bookbag, the plastic kind with a picture of Roy Rogers or the head of a Newfoundland dog on the front. The best ones had two compartments: one for books and pencils, and one for worm cans. Sometimes on your way to or from school you ran across a pile of horse poop with a worm or two under it.
Although poop worms (we didn't call them "poop" worms) were too soft and fragile for good trout fishing, it would be an awful waste not to have something to put them in.
Some mothers made cloth bags for their children and usually made them so strong that they lasted for years. They were positively butt-ugly compared with plastic bags, and designated the student concerned as being too poor to have a nice one. The only solution to that problem was to "lose" your bookbag over the wharf while "catching," or down between the "ballycarters" while "copying."
For those of you unfortunates who do not understand every word in the last sentence, I refer you to the "Dictionary of Newfoundland English."
I began this column intending to tell you about my trip with three of my grandchildren to purchase school supplies. But that will have to wait for another day.
I sort of got carried away with yesterday.

Ed Smith is an author and Telegram columnist who lives in Springdale. His e-mail address is

Geographic location: Mississippi, Newfoundland, Springdale

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