• Nora Walsh Kerr

Back to School Back Then


It's September, which means time to strap on those backpacks, kids, because you're going to school, IN PERSON! (Parents everywhere rejoice.) Isn't it funny to think that your grandparents very likely felt the same way sending Mom and Dad off to school?!?


School days provide great material for life stories. They shed light on the cultural norms of the day and reveal how much has changed and also what has remained the same.


Your parents and grandparents came into their own during their school years. They met their best friends, they found their voice, they felt their first crush and had their heart broken. Many found themselves in trouble and learned important lessons outside of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Do you know these stories? Here are some of my favorite lines from recent projects about school days.


“The nuns at St. Mary’s were tough. They would lock the gate at 8am sharp and if you were late, you had to go through the motherhouse and spend your Friday in detention."


"I played every sport my school offered. My letter jacket was so heavy, I could barely wear it."


“I was told to stuff my head and bring home good grades, which I did. I got a math award in grade school, but my dad was rarely pleased. If I scored 100 on a test, he would ask ‘What’s wrong with 101?’ He had high expectations.”


“I had a lot of energy and my head was always scattered. I didn’t learn like most people. I’m sure I would be diagnosed as ADD today. One day, I got into a fight after some kid threw food at me and I punched him so hard they had to reattach his braces. I had to talk my way out of suspension for that one.”


“My sister and I took three buses to get to school. The buses were segregated so we had to sit behind the “For Colored Only” sign toward the back of the bus. Sometimes we would move the sign when there were a lot of Black people on the bus and not too many whites.”


“I met J. in the parking lot behind school. He was a senior and graduating soon and drove this spray-painted Volkswagen Beetle. I honestly thought yuck, stop bothering me, but my friend kept saying he was cute. He just didn’t seem like my kind of guy, but he kept talking to me—he was persistent—and he eventually asked me to prom.”


"My dad didn't want us to go to Catholic grammar school. The nuns were brutal and I had no patience for that."

"The school was seven miles from the farm, but thankfully there was a bus service to pick up all of us farm kids. I enjoyed school--I appreciated interacting with people outside of my family! I enjoyed music and band lessons, but couldn't do it well. They told me not to sing."


"The Marist Brothers knew how to run a school. We had 800 boys changing classes and nobody said a word. My favorite teacher was Mr. Hayes, who assigned research papers and my topic was 'Francis Parkman--the Theory and Practice of a Literary Historian.' I spent days at the library working on it and that bastard gave me an A-."


"One time, a nun pinned a note to my mother on my uniform and I was so nervous on the bus ride home, I thought I would vomit. I got home and my mom read it to me: ‘They want to know if I can bring cupcakes to the luncheon tomorrow.’ Phew."


Inspired to capture some life stories of your own? Ask a loved one about their school memories and prepare to be educated. We're here to help if you need it.