Beloved Disney Legend, Bob Gurr, shares his memories of school days past and compares them to today. We think you’ll agree, this story is priceless.
Today’s Wheel of Years has stopped at 1937, and off we go. Everyone usually remembers their first day in school since it’s the first big day away from home all alone in a strange place and other kids. Sometimes exciting I suppose, or even terrifying – certainly was for me in September 1937 starting at Glendale’s Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, just a few blocks from where Imagineering was located later in 1961. Not because it was school, but because I was razzed mercilessly for wearing short pants when none of the other boys did. That was my dad’s idea, not mine. By lunch time I had made my escape and walked crying all the way home from kindergarten by myself. Not today – you’d have a gauntlet of security blocking your path.
But within a few days (in long pants) Miss Goldman’s kindergarten class was turning out to be very interesting. First thing I liked was lots of paper and crayons so I could draw all the cars and airplanes I wanted. But within a short time I had trouble in a dispute with another kid, whom I’d smacked over the head with a heavy toy. Marched immediately to meet school principal Mr. Johnson, I soon learned about “authority”. In later years I told people that I always deal directly with upper management. Kindergarten was serious stuff after attending two prior easy going nursery schools.
First grade was a chance to learn useful stuff – reading and writing taught by Mrs. McClure, then with Mrs. Holman in second grade, I refined my car illustrations – best drawing was a blue and orange gasoline tanker truck that she liked. But Mrs. Thornberg’s third grade class at Riverside Drive School in Studio City was a bummer. Not only did she force us to do endless arithmetic papers with triple digit multiplication, she did not approve of my airplane drawings in the test paper margins. She marched me to the principal’s office where the stern lady drove me home to consult with my mother. I loved the ride – she drove the hottest car, a black 1939 Ford Coupe and my buddies could see me riding in it – way too cool.
I was then sent to Burbank Military Academy as incorrigible. I didn’t miss Riverside since we were on half day sessions in old un-airconditioned bungalows due to more kids than schoolroom availability in those pre-WWII days. Fourth and fifth grades in the military academy were totally outstanding with small classes and very strict uniformed military personnel whom we’d have to address as “Sir”. Field marching every morning, mid-day classes, but model airplane building in the afternoons. Since class grades covered second thru sixth, with some students as live-ins, everyone had to learn to get along or suffer severe reprimands from headmaster Captain Utter.
When WWII came along, the federal government seized the academy, installed U.S Army troops and anti-aircraft guns to guard the nearby Lockheed Aircraft Factory, then building fighters and bombers. So, off I went to sixth grade at Lankershim Elementary School in North Hollywood with teacher Miss Myrtle Magee. She allowed me time to make airplane drawings and sell them to the other kids for 25¢ each. My best seller was the sexy looking B-25 twin engined bomber. Alas, authority intervened again and I was expelled just before graduation. Next came seventh grade, the big time with multiple teachers and classes rather than our sole elementary school teacher-mother experience.
North Hollywood Junior High starting seventh grade then finishing twelfth grade at North Hollywood High were my glory days during a wonderful period of strife-free learning from 1943 to 1949. The differences between then and now are sad for today’s students – so many basic freedoms have been eliminated. Then, schools were fenced and gates closed only at the end of the day. Everyone in the neighborhood was free to use the athletic equipment and other facilities unsupervised anytime. Today, many schools have security gates, gun searches, hired guards, even policemen on duty during school hours. Any after-school activities must be supervised.
We had lockers where we could keep all our books and personal items free from drug dog searches. Today, lockers are becoming scarce so students must backpack everything rather than being able leave after class unburdened with stuff. We walked home unescorted, sometimes for several miles if you did not live on a school bus route. Today, mom transports you both ways by BMW or Minivan.
Today, kids get mass-murdered on campus by crazed young people with assault weapons. Then, you’d never think of bringing even a pocket knife to school. Today, many classes are interrupted by staff trying to just keep the fighting to a minimum. Discipline seems to use up more time than actual learning. Then, if you sassed a teacher, you’d suffer an instant reprimand – worse yet, get sent to the Boy’s Vice Principal. In gym class you’d get swats with a big paddle while bending over grabbing your ankles in front of your peers. Today, if a teacher physically touched or said anything unkind during a reprimand, a parental law suit would soon follow.
Then, parents would happily attend PTA meetings with a teacher. Today, parents resent any criticism of their child, sometimes refusing to meet with a teacher. The best feature of schools 65 years ago was all the elective classes in addition to the required subjects. Wood shop, metal shop, auto repair shop, architecture, home economics, print shop, theater crew and so on. We had opportunities to learn useful crafts and skills. Then, gym classes were mandatory since physical education was highly valued. We’d get in a great sports workout, then enjoy a hot shower before going off to the next class.
Getting good grades was the main goal, truancy and dropping out was completely unacceptable. Kids pretty much treated each other with respect, albeit racial slurs were common. Today, some students are driven to suicide by cruel social media texting. Some neighborhoods become segregated by gang affiliations. Yes, then and now have many differences. We pretty much got in a lot of basic useful learning while almost never suffering rudeness, cruelty and crime.
We were pretty much free to come and go as we wished, never having to submit to security searches, electronic surveillance and all sort of legal requirements, environmental prohibitions and the like. And boy did we have fun! We had lots of time for this; no smart phones, iPads, video games or TV – you actually ran around and did stuff with friends outdoors until dinner time. Lots of physical activity, no sitting around the mall slurping big gulps and scarfing junk food. Fast food was unknown then, but we did have the classic soda fountain, which was the social center.
The guys all dreamed of getting a car back then, not so much today. Schools provided free Driver’s Education so that by the time you were 16 you were an expert driver. The local auto dealers would supply brand new free cars for us to use for on-the-road training. No automatic transmissions, so every became skilled with manual shifting. Yes, we had it real good back then. By high school graduation day we’d all be trained drivers with a number of skills so as to immediately be able to get a good job without waiting to go to college. Yessiree bob…then and now!
– Bob Gurr