Children the world over walk home from school. Even with today’s heightened concerns about child abduction, drug trafficking, and street violence, one can see children sauntering home after a day in the classroom in virtually any country and any type of community. That self-guided field trip is often the most instructive part of the day. It certainly was true in Appalachia during the 1950s when I went to elementary school.
Our family farm was about a mile from Barnes Elementary School, so we always rode the morning school bus to be sure we didn’t miss the start of class. Return trips were another matter. Our school was last on the bus driver’s route for the day, so he didn’t pick us up until an hour or so after the 3 o’clock dismissal bell. Bus passengers had to sit on gym risers under the watchful eye of a tired, short-tempered teacher during that time. Our other option was to strike out for home on foot. Unless the weather was rainy or cold, my brother and I always chose to walk home.
Of course, there was more than one way to get there.
We could walk along Star Mill Road, which took us by its namesake (an abandoned flour mill once owned by our grandfather), a trailer park where one of our classmates had a hen house for his small brood of egg-layers, a log cabin where a club-footed old man lived alone (we took refuge there once during an electrical storm), and the pasture where our family’s Herefords grazed. As you can imagine, this route afforded plenty of diversions. Road kill changed weekly and we found fascinating litter from city dwellers along the way. Spring filled the ditches with tadpoles. Autumn scattered a profuse variety of colored leaves on the railroad embankment. Hard to conceive of a boy getting bored by such things.
But we did, so we tried any number of shortcuts. We could leave the road to walk behind an old furniture warehouse and through a storm culvert beneath the railroad to rejoin the road on the other side. This cut several minutes off the half-hour trek, which could be used to scavenge other relics along the way. We could walk the railroad itself, balancing on the polished steel rails or hopping from one creosote cross-tie to another. Train passengers occasionally discarded some attractive items. (My brother and I once found dozens of retail cards of costume jewelry strewn there. When we took samples to our mother, she called the sheriff. A penny-ante shoplifter had filched them from the local Woolworth’s and tossed them from the train when a conductor got suspicious.)
Another shortcut was to climb through the barbed-wire fence at the back of the school grounds, transit a field where a rather threatening bull waited for us, then through a couple of other fences past an old clapboard farmhouse and apple orchard to rejoin the road. Not many souvenirs on that route, though, certainly not enough to risk the bull.
Mama would scold us for arriving home with muddy shoes, but not for walking. She seemed to understand this was essential to a child’s education.