Once upon a time, I attended Rheems School, a two-room school with a bell on top, accommodating eight grades of students. It was a charming little school set in the middle of the quaint village of Rheems, Pennsylvania, in mid-twentieth century.

 

Rheems School, circa 1954. I spy my sisters Jean and Janice on second and third rows.

 

My aunt, Miss Ruth Longenecker, was my teacher for the first four grades, a plain Mennonite lady with lots of whimsy–flamboyant art classes and movies every Friday afternoon.

Aunt Ruthie was a very young teacher. She graduated from college at age 19, having skipped two grades. Photo, early to mid-twenties.

 

Many second graders pose for school photos with two front teeth missing. I probably looked like this at age seven in Miss Longenecker’s classroom.

 

Second Grade: Rheems Elementary School

 

 

In fifth grade, I transitioned to the “big room,” where Elsie Kilhefner taught grades 5-8. Mrs. Kilhefner, a kindly woman, was the wife of the Elizabethtown High School principal at the time. Once I asked her the meaning of the word “oblige.” She struggled to explain, using the word “helped,” as a synonym, which didn’t sound quite right to me. My memory is fuzzy here, but she probably referred me to the Webster’s Dictionary in plain view on the bookshelf.

 

 

At Rheems School, we followed our daily ritual for all grades: Bell ringing from the schoolhouse steeple (always by a boy), Bible reading, the Lord’s Prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance, and then singing from this songbook before lessons began. In Mrs. Kilhefner’s room we had the benefit of a piano to accompany Songs from the Golden Book of Favorite Songs.

 

This is the pristine version of an ink-splotched song book now resting on my piano.

 

“This is My Father’s World,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and “Home on the Range” were staples in our little ochre-toned songbook. But many of the lyrics we sang would be considered insulting and even offensive to various ethnic and racial groups in our times. For example, “Old Solomon Levi,” played to the false stereotype of the wily Jewish merchant:

My name is Solomon Levi

At my store in Salem Street,

There’s where you find your coats and vests,

And ev’rything else that’s neat:

I’ve second-handed Ulsterettes,

And ev’rything else that’s fine;

For all the boys—they trade with me,

At one hundred and forty-nine.

Chorus.

Oh, Mister Levi, Levi, tra, la, la, la.

Poor Solomon Levi, tra la, la, la, la, la, la, la

 

Other mornings, we might sing “My Old Kentucky Home” with what was back then dubbed the Negro dialect. “The sun shines bright in my Old Kentucky Home, ‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay.”

What! Darkies are gay. . .”? Innocent of the dissonance in the words we would discover repugnant later, we sang the chorus at the top of our lungs. “Weep no more, my lady. Oh, weep no more to-day: / We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home / for the Old Kentucky home, Far away.”

The dialect continued when we belted out “Dixie”:  “I wish I was in de land ob cotton, Old times dar am not forgotten, Look a-way! Look a-way! Look a-way Dixie Land.” There was even a winking nod to obesity in one stanza: “Dar’s buckwheat cakes, an’ Injun batter, “makes you fat or a little fatter.”

And finally, we sang the wistful, “When You and I Were Young, Maggie,” and “My Grandfather’s Clock” sung by youngsters who had no conception of aging or of mortality.

 


 

Do you remember singing in elementary school? If so, tell us some titles.

What experience with music do you recall from school days?

 

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