West of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, I stopped today and collected some thistle and took a few pictures. More than 50 years ago I marveled at the same plant growing across the road from my home in Pownal, Maine.
Back then the town had five one-room school houses with no running water. That meant an outhouse, drinking water collected from an oak-barrel spring, and an old stove in the middle of the room. It was an education system that had worked well for about a century, open classroom ahead of its time. Four of the schools had two grades each. One, in West Pownal, had all eight grades in one room. There was usually less than a couple of dozen kids in each school.
Every spring, it seems, we’d take the closed tops of the thistle to school — no easy feat — and hang them upside down in the windows, watching them turn over time into big puffs of cotton. It was something the teacher, Mrs. Tryon, had us do. Mentioning windows… Above is Pownal’s town hall, the same building when I was there 50 years ago except then it had a two-story outhouse attached to the back. (Years later I would wonder about the engineering involved in a two-story outhouse as they were over/under each other.) Downstairs it had one big room for the annual townhall meeting. Upstairs I attened Boy Scouts for a while. Not more than 100 feet to the our right was one of the schools just outside the picture. It was for seventh and eight grade kids, and once an overflow of four sixth graders, of which I was one along with Diane York, Peter Goss, and Bruce Spencer. The school was unusual in that it had several windows, but only on the north side of the school.
Things were certainly different then. On May Day we’d hang a basket of candy on the teacher and disappear into the woods for the entire afternoon, sometimes getting as far as the top of Bradbury Mountain, the rocky knob of the local state park more than a mile away. Hanging a May basket and scattering had been happening on May Days for decades and no one thought a thing about it. Now days, two dozen kids running into the woods at noon to disappear for three or four hours would be cause for dragnets and law suits. Never was a child lost or hurt. It really makes you believe that less is indeed more.
And let me tell you about Mrs. Arlene Frances Tryon, the teacher: A hundred pounds wet and in her 60’s was more than able to put a teenage boy in his place. Of course, back then the teacher had rights and was right and when you got home dad took you down another notch for being a pain in the class to the teacher. There was a lot to be said for that one-room school… and yes, I did get to the top of Bradbury Mountain on May day, three years in a row.
As for the thistles, they would puff out and hang in the sunless windows for a few weeks until they began to fall apart, another sign school would soon be over for the summer.