First Grade Fears in 1914 |

First Grade Fears in 1914

Tim Willoughby
Washington School in Aspen's West End. (Willoughby collection)

Starting school is a tough transition for children. The prevalence of preschool has eased the transition between home and school, but the first few weeks are still a challenge for 5- and 6-year-olds.

Kindergarten teachers tell hundreds of humorous stories about the distorted perceptions and fearful experience of first-timers. The student who asks, “Is it lunch yet?” a half-hour after the day starts. “Did I eat my lunch?” asked a half-hour after the PB and J was consumed. Finding their lunch, knowing what to do with an unpeeled orange, and the buckets of tears shed over the slightest deviation from a home routine round out those long first days in school.When my mother started first grade in 1914 there were more ominous challenges. For one, it wasn’t until the 1970s that there was a larger first-grade class. Aspen was a shrinking-but-still-large town in 1914. The Panic of 1907 had cut the population of the county by 25 percent but in 1910 it was still 4,600, about half the size of Albuquerque at that time. The 1914 first grade was the last big class. In 1917-1918, Aspen’s largest mine, the Smuggler, shut down over an electricity rate dispute and the influenza struck, reducing Aspen’s population an additional 30 percent. Like most cities of the time, Aspen was proud of its schools. Aspen had three elementary schools: Lincoln, Garfield and Washington. In the beginning they were multi-grade schools, each located in a different section of town. When the Washington School opened in the West End in 1890, they began separating students by grade rather than by location. First through fourth grades were located at the Washington School.

There was no kindergarten in Aspen’s schools until 1955, so my mother entered school in first grade at the Washington School. Most students in those days did not make it through high school, leaving after eighth grade. The Washington School was a large, permanent brick structure with big windows and Victorian flourishes, larger than the high school and still a “modern” model, but it had one component that confounded my mother.In 1914, indoor plumbing was rare. Children like my mother were used to using an outhouse. Her term was “the chick sail,” a name popularized from a play about an outhouse builder written by Chick Sale. Cold in the winter, smelly and always too far from where ever you were, they still served their purpose. Spiders and bees were a bother, and children always feared they might fall through the hole into the gaping pit below.The Washington School had a more modern facility, an indoor one. It was located in the basement and had a whole line of holes. What filled my mother with fear was that instead of the usual pit there was a continuously running torrent of water running below the holes, a kind of partially open sewer. Further complicating the situation, the holes were not calibrated for first-graders; they were adult size. At least they seemed that way to a first-grader.

“I was so afraid I would fall through and be carried off to God knows where,” my mother told me. She remembered little else from her first year of school. A 6-year old’s nightmare aged into a senior’s amusing remembrance.Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while a teacher for Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. He can be contacted at