by Jeff Sykes

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We’re past Labor Day and the leaves are beginning to change. The air is dry and the sky is beginning to turn that luminous shade of blue that comes with each September.

Which means for the vast majority of people under the age of 18 that they are a couple of weeks back into the school swing. I’m not talking about the thousands of adults who go to any one of the fine colleges and universities in the Triad. I’m talking about school, man, bells and blackboards and new jeans and book bags and seeing that old friend you missed so much over the summer.

I was blessed to go to a great elementary school. The same school my mom’s father attended when he was young. Maybe it was that connection that made it seem so spiritual, but I loved going to school everyday at Old Town Elementary.

The school sits on a rise, a slow hill up from Reynolda Road, shielded by majestic oak trees. I began attending Old Town in the second grade, after my parents moved us back to Winston-Salem following a foray into Kernersville for a few years. My mom told me sometime before she passed away that it was the trendy thing to do in the early Seventies, move out of town to Kernersville, but that they got tired of the commute into town for work, to visit friends, and so we moved to Winston-Salem’s northwest side.

It was a sort of homecoming for her, being descended from Petrees and Ransomes near Mount Tabor. And so we settled in along Shattalon Drive. We had a Plymouth Volare in those days and it didn’t much like the long hill from Yadkinville Road up toward Old Town Elementary. On those cold mornings I can remember stroking the dashboard, coaxing the car along, anxious to see my friends.

I still know a few people from those days, on Facebook mostly, but between Tom and Tannon, Patrick, Steve and Oliver, it sometimes feels like an Old Town reunion.

I mostly remember those trees out front from the early years. How I could get lost among them, feeling dwarfed, yet comforted by their presence. We’d debate the merits of a book we’d read or plan out the next round of Duck, Duck, Goose or Red Rover, crouched at the base of a mighty oak, before taking off across the expansive grass fields.

I moved to the other side of the building for third grade. Maybe that’s why those massive trees on the far side where the younger kids play held such mystery for me. To this day, every now and then in September, I feel a dry breeze and see a crisp leaf sway and I’m six again, without a care in the world.

Mrs. Fetter was my second grade teacher that year. She taught me to love school, to enjoy learning new things, and to try harder, especially with my handwriting, which for years now has remained atrocious.

On the other side of the building there were no trees out in the athletic fields. We had a blacktop with basketball goals that quickly became the focal point of my existence. But back in the classroom Mrs. Gillespie taught me multiplication. The next year Mrs.

Morrow taught me how to do research and write a report. At home I would devour Childcraft Encyclopedia.

It was also that year in fourth grade that I discovered the richness of history in the school’s library. History became a passion for me that year. I remember it like it was yesterday, the day I saw the new book on the library shelf depicting the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. I devoured that book in a weekend and a lifelong love of the past was born.

That continued into the fifth grade with Mrs. Brown. I had a rough start to the school year but finished strong. We visited Old Salem that year, made parchment paper and learned calligraphy. It was the year of the Iran Hostage Crisis and the later election of Ronald Reagan. Mrs. Brown gave us extra credit if we brought in a typographical or grammatical error from print media. It was the year I began to read the newspaper and Time magazine and Sports Illustrated and anything else I could get my hands on. I ended the year with a 105 average.

The next year Mr. Grubbs made us read every novel known to man it seemed, and we visited Chapel Hill. My grandfather died in the fall and life seemed to change forever.

We did a project that year about Native Americans. I didn’t know at the time that I had distant traces of Navajo and Apache blood, but something about the project drove me to explore. My parents dropped me off at the Main Library Downtown on a Saturday and I explored and researched and developed my report before they came back and we went out and enjoyed Street Scene. I think it was a September day, much like the one outside now.

I never much liked school after that.

My other grandfather died the next year and I lost my place. We all began to change and I never really hit my stride until so many years later.

But I remember those September days, when everything seemed possible and I would promise myself I would fulfill my potential this year. I would remember those elementary school teachers, the love I had for learning, my mom waiting for me in the car when school let out among countless happy voices.

I have a son now. He’s in elementary school. It’s a small school, really old, much like Old Town Elementary. He has teachers who work extra hard to help him with his challenges. His third grade teacher, Mrs. Farmer, deserves a medal for helping him get passed state Sen. Phil Berger’s Read to Achieve law. The other three teachers he’s had have been a blessing, not missing a beat despite the seemingly devalued role of teachers and educators in our current political climate.

But I’ll never forget the good done for me by my elementary school teachers, nor the benefit I received from public amenities like the Main Library in Downtown Winston-Salem.

I ran out of room before I could wax poetic about my love for the old Reynolda Manor Branch of the Forsyth County Public Library. We buy ink by the barrel but I know money doesn’t grow on trees.

But as long as we as a society have money to invest, I’ll remain convinced that the public good, better schools, passionate educators, public libraries, are the appropriate place for that money to be spent. !