Paul sat in front of me, an arm’s length away, at our connected first-grade desks. His scruffy home haircut and the frayed collar of the green flannel shirt he wore day after day became familiar sights. I knew little else of Paul, but felt for my quiet and lonely classmate, especially on a snowy Iowa day in January 1944.
Beyond school, Paul and I seemed to have nothing in common. Our parents were not acquainted, he didn’t attend my Sunday school, and he didn’t live in our neighborhood. I did not know the precise location of his home, an unusual circumstance in Guthrie Center, a town of 2,000 friendly people. I knew only that his family of a dozen children lived “over the hill,” a location beyond the city conveniences of electricity and indoor plumbing.
What Paul and I did share was a classroom with blackboard-lined walls, letters of the alphabet displayed above, and a semicircle of little blue chairs for our reading class. Our teacher, Miss Cora Thomas, was something of a community institution, having taught first-graders in the elementary school for three generations. When not passing among her pupils with a large smile and encouraging pats on the back, the gentle, gray-haired lady sat at a large desk adorned with a photo of President Roosevelt.
On Fridays, the class lined up in front of Miss Thomas’ desk to purchase 10-cent war bond stamps — except for Paul. One by one we dropped a dime in a White Owl cigar box in return for a stamp we licked and pasted in our war bond books. All the while, the forlorn Paul sat at his desk staring vacantly out the window. If I had possessed an extra dime, I would have given it to Paul. But he didn’t have a war bond book in any case, and as a 6-year-old I didn’t know what to say or do.
The normally mild-mannered Miss Thomas had strict rules that included leaving our wraps and overshoes in a hallway outside the classroom door. “Let’s not be tracking snow and mud into our room,” she directed. “Mr. Nelson has enough to do as a janitor. Let’s not leave him any unnecessary messes to clean up.”
On that winter day of 1944, Paul wore his overshoes into the classroom and took his seat in front of me. Such blatant disobedience of a firm rule surprised me, especially coming from a compliant and respectful classmate.
Melting snow soon produced a pool of muddy water beneath our feet. Paul sat in subdued silence. I sensed his unease and awaited nervously for Miss Thomas to return from playground duty.
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Miss Thomas strode into the classroom and announced, “OK, children, let’s get out our Dick and Jane books and get ready to read.” When she looked about the room to see whether we were prepared to start, she noticed the puddle of muddy water.
“Paul, you know the rules,” Miss Thomas said in a soft but commanding voice. “Would you please go to the cloak room, remove your overshoes, and bring some paper towels from the restroom to clean up your mess.”
Paul didn’t budge. I watched the back of his neck turn red.
Several moments passed before Miss Thomas again turned our direction. “Paul, did you hear me?” she asked with a tone of impatience.
Paul remained silent and motionless. The classroom grew stony quiet. Something of a showdown was developing between the usually mild-mannered Miss Thomas and my timid, withdrawn classmate.
“Paul, I’m not telling you again. Do as I say, and right now!” Miss Thomas snapped in an unfamiliar, stern voice.
Paul rose from his desk, trudged the dozen steps to the door, and left the room. Awkward moments passed before he returned and stood hesitant in the doorway clutching a fistful of paper towels. Tears streamed down the cheeks of his bowed head. He was barefoot.
Miss Thomas, her face flushed with distress, rushed to Paul’s side, wrapped an arm around him, and ushered the little boy out the door and out of sight. A woeful silence blanketed the classroom.
When Miss Thomas reappeared, Paul wasn’t with her. To this day I have no idea what happened outside the classroom. I do know Miss Thomas had been crying. Indeed, she continued to dab at her eyes with a handkerchief the rest of the day.
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The next morning Paul arrived at school wearing new shoes. I do not know the name of his benefactor, but it’s a safe guess Miss Thomas was the good Samaritan.
Years and then decades passed with the heart-aching experience of 1944 reappearing from time to time in my memory. On those occasions, I wondered what became of Paul. I hoped the best for him, but had no information beyond his dropping out of high school and joining the Navy.
Some 50 years later, Guthrie Center sponsored an “all-class reunion” for anyone who attended the local school. I flew to Iowa and joined friends for a weekend of reminiscing and catching up. While seated at a banquet table, a finger tapped me on the shoulder. “Do you know me?” a voice asked.
It was Paul!
We spent the evening sharing the events of our lives over the past half century, never mentioning the overshoes incident in first grade. Paul said he earned a GED high school diploma in the Navy where he became an electrician’s mate and eventually rose to the rank of chief petty officer.
When he finished a 20-year stint in the Navy, he took his electrical skills to Hollywood and worked in the movie industry until he retired in his mid-50s. As we spoke he had a family and grandchildren, living the good life in Ontario, Calif. — a city whose snowless climate does not require overshoes.
• Carroll McKibbin is a native Iowan who lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif., as a retired Cal Poly dean.