I remember the first day of school in September of 1938. I would turn six years old on September 17, so I got an early start compared to many of my classmates. We rode the rickety old cold and frosty primitive school bus for an hour or more over mostly bumpy and rutted roads to the consolidated school in Powell WY which collected students from a wide area surrounding the town each day. I must have had a new pair of denim bib overalls, which was my uniform through early years of grade school, and I must have had a new lunch pail, since school lunches didn't come to Powell WY for several years yet.
I remember that a girl named Lucille was crying on that first day of school and that our teacher, Miss Shinn, went to the second grade to get her older brother, Felix, or Red, as he was known through school. Felix would later play a key role in my life when he made it possible for me to come to Laramie in January 1950 to begin school at the University of Wyoming, and then introduced me to a 16 year old blonde girl who would become my wife three years later.
We had 55 first graders in our classroom, a number that seems appalling by today's standards, and a number I didn't learn until one of my classmates recently sent me a clipping from the Powell Tribune from that early September. I don't remember much about the first grade except that much of it was boring and that I got tired of counting red balls and coloring little drawings. My sister Louise had taught me how to read the previous year as she started school a year earlier than I did and was a dedicated schoolmarm even at that early age. Thus, there was little to do in first grade even though I was the only one in the first grade allowed to have a library card for the Powell Branch of the Park County Library just adjacent to the school. We had the luxury of indoor plumbing during the school days and were turned loose for recess in the rocky playground where we had teeter-totters, a merry-go-round, tall slides, and a sandbox, all of which would typically be deemed too dangerous for today's children.
Thus began my lifetime odyssey in school. From 1938 until the year 2000 when I turned 70 I was either in school or teaching school, except for two and a half years working for the Wyoming Legislature in Cheyenne and nearly a year at the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C. in the Office of Tax Analysis. That makes, give or take, about 59 years spent in school. Eleven years of public school in Powell WY, four years at the University of Wyoming scrubbing bathrooms and dumping waste paper at night, a year at Montana State for a master's degree in agricultural economics, and three years at the University of Michigan for a master's and Ph.D. in economics. That leaves about 44 years in the classroom at Penn State, the University of Wyoming, Colorado State University, and Brigham Young University.
And then, twelve years ago the bells signaling the change of classes fell silent, the thousands of young and often not-so-eager economics students disappeared, the classrooms, often with as many as 400 students (how about that, Miss Shinn, you only had 55!), the crowded hallways and campus walkways, the knocks on my office door with young and eager "got-a-minute?" inquiries, the nights and weekends of lecture preparation and exam grading and reading and keeping up with everything happening daily in the complex world of economics, the exam rooms with hundreds of students sweating, literally, over exams the grades which often meant the difference between scholarships and medical school or grad school or getting into accounting or the MBA program, the tension palpable and real--all of it, everything, all of my life for a half century just disappeared. I hauled out the boxes of books I wanted to save, sent hundreds of books to the library, cleaned out my desk, and left my wonderful sixth floor office with a picture window looking north to Mount Timpanogos and LaVell Edwards football stadium, with the vultures outside the door anxiously awaiting for my departure to gain a much coveted office location.
There were a few good things about retiring. No more nearly-compulsory faculty meetings, at which only rarely did anything ever get resolved or anything memorable take place. No more whiners over grades. No more "do we have to know that?" questioners in class. No more pressure once the treadmill of a semester began, preparing lectures, giving lectures and class discussions, preparing exams, grading exams right up until Christmas eve, every day, every night, every morning, no escape even with a belly ache or a sleepless previous night, back to the classroom, back to the office hours, back to the last minute efforts to make sure you knew what the markets and the GDP and the unemployment rate and the inflation rate and the global economy and the politicians were doing that day so you didn't look like a nitwit in front of your classes.
Now every September I shed a tear or two. I feel like I should be back in class. I miss my student family. I miss arguing with my misguided colleagues, one of whom I argued with every day for 20 years, telling him about the gaps in his knowledge and him telling me that I knew nothing, and then parting, sadly, after 20 years. I have asked him since how he has managed to get by day-to-day in his continued state of ignorance without my erudite and correct guidance, and he tells me life has been hard. One of his brilliant daughters, once my student, is now teaching one of the classes I used to teach.
Where did they all go? What has happened to them all? Typically, I keep running into former students who had me in class, who remember a joke I told even if economics was over their head. I wouldn't trade one minute of my life in academia for anything else. The world of books, and reading, and learning, and arguing, and fresh-faced freshmen students just turned loose from moms and dads, and curious and brilliant and worldly-wise graduate students, and attachments to a vast family of learners and seekers is a world to be treasured, a pearl of great price. No, Septembers will never be the same, will never seem normal, will always leave a deep hole in my heart. But I remain grateful for the many years and seasons I had an opportunity to walk into my classroom of new students each September and invite all the students from Idaho to leave since the class was too big and watch as they all looked at each other and said "What did he say?" and no one ever left.