Not much of a schoolboy

     July 11 – Since today is my dad’s 83rd birthday, and he’s on a mystery tour with his new bride, I’m going to be a tattle-tale and tell some stories of his life as a schoolboy.

     I consider my dad to be one of the smartest people I know, even though his grammar reveals a lack of formal education. Whatever he was able to learn along the way, and he’s learned a lot more than I have so far, he did not gain his education in public school. The truth is – my dad was not much of a schoolboy.


     After returning from the foxholes of World War II, young Clarence Hibbs became the schoolmaster at Stony Run Elementary. Philip says, “He was a good teacher.” Hibbs taught fifty-six students from all grade levels. He found a way to help students learn on their own because he could only give fifteen minutes to each grade level for each subject. When resources weren’t available, he traveled to other schools to find what individual students needed. I remember Mr. Hibbs, during my elementary years, as a kind and gentle principal. (You can read more about Clarence Hibbs in the book Every Soldier Has a Story by Lincoln T. Hokenbrough.) Every Soldier Has a Story book on Amazon


     After one year of teaching, Hibbs attended college on the GI bill and was replaced by another man. Philip says, “He was not much of a teacher.” The new teacher, being fresh out of college, often sat in his car at lunchtime so he could hug the eighth-grade girls. He didn’t take a personal interest in the smaller kids. The new teacher didn’t seem to like little Philip Varner very much.

     Philip was the smallest, skinniest boy in school. The Stony Run schoolhouse had curtains on a wire at the back of the room. These curtains were often closed to provide smaller, separate classrooms. This was sometimes used for Sunday school, too. On each side of the partitioned section, a hook came down from the ceiling to hold the curtains. 


     When this schoolboy was in second grade, the new teacher picked him up by the straps on his worn denim coveralls and hung him on the hook, leaving him there for what seemed like hours but was probably only four or five minutes. It was a great humiliation for the little guy. 


     The teacher asked the second-grader to read aloud. Philip was supposed to read the words “A little bear was frightened,” but Philip read, “This little bear was scared.” Since my dad still struggles to read, I’ve never known if he had a reading disability or if he was never taught to read properly. It’s interesting that, 76 years later, he still remembers the exact words he was supposed to say and the words he actually said. Not bad for a struggling schoolboy.

     For three days in a row, Philip was asked to read, and each time he read the words incorrectly. The teacher told him, “If you read it incorrectly tomorrow, I’m putting you back in first grade.” Philip practiced the words over and over so he would get them right, but when the time came to read, he read, “This little bear was scared.”


     Philip was immediately returned to first grade. From that time on, he refused to read aloud. The teacher said, “If you won’t read, go stand in the corner.” Philip spent a lot of time in the corner. My dad said, “What you do to little kids stays with them for life.” 


     This teacher was only at Stony Run for two years. But they were two important years, and Philip would never catch up or become a strong reader. 

     In 1948, the Fayette High School in McAlisterville burned down. The area high school students attended Stony Run in the afternoon, so elementary students ended their days at noon. 


     In 1953, when Philip was in sixth grade, he attended the newly built East Juniata High School in Cocolamus. All the students from McAlisterville were scared and said, “This can’t be good, putting that many kids together in one school.” Students were coming from McAlisterville, Richfield, and Thompsontown, and all the smaller towns in between. 


     On the first day at East Juniata High School, which included grades six through twelve, the administration put the students in the gymnasium, where they sat on the bleachers. The students were told they would not be allowed to wear any clothes with rivets because they would scratch the new desks and chairs. 

     School was not Philip’s favorite place to be. He probably spent more time working for local farmers, fruit growers and saw millers than he spent in school. He seemed to prefer working with his hands to book learning. 


     In high school, Philip started skipping classes, especially music classes. I guess that’s why he never joined our car-ride sing-a-longs. Instead, Philip would go to the high school basement and hang out with the janitor. There he took up a different kind of learning, one that would provide him with an income and skills for the rest of his life. He spent his school days working on small engines, fixing school equipment, and tinkering. 


     Since Philip often lived away from home so he could work for local farmers, he didn’t always live where he attended school. In eleventh grade, Philip was given an ultimatum, either attend the school at the other end of the county, or drop out. Philip dropped out in eleventh grade, though he would say many times over the years, “I wish I had finished school.”

     The rest of his education came from experience and a mind that was keener than most of his public school teachers would have imagined. During his years as a small engine repairman and business owner, Philip invented and built gadgets and devices that were needed for many tasks. One of his inventions was even used by a major chainsaw manufacturer. His homes have always had a collection of ingenious little devices that simplify life and solve the oddest of problems. 


     Philip’s school teacher daughter cringes a bit when she imagines what might have been, but she’s smart enough to know one enduring truth – when something doesn’t work or needs to be fixed, I can always ask Dad. He’ll know exactly what to do. 


You may also enjoy Changes in Public Education


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