Ruth Hughen was the "iron lady" of Sunset Acres Elementary School. She was the school's first principal and she stayed a long time, and there was no question who was in charge.
She was a small, middle-aged woman with a gruff voice and, seemingly, a demeanor to match. I know it wasn't so, but it seemed like it in the late 1950s. She was omnipresent and kids were in fear of her. I'm sure her staff and faculty were leery of upsetting her, too.
I can see her still, on rainy days, in her yellow slicker suit out in front of the school directing cars through the traffic circle. I can see her in the cafeteria during lunch time, also directing traffic.
She and I had many a talk in my two years at Sunset Acres (1957-58, 1958-59). I was sent to the office every day of my fifth-grade year (there was a reason for it), and more than enough times as a misbehaving sixth-grader.
She was as patient with me as she could be. I'm sure I tested that patience. More on Mrs. Hughen later.
The school's layout was five wings of classrooms, six classes per wing. In the late '50s, we had two fifth-grade classes and two sixth-grade classes. I'm wondering, if each grade had two classes, that's 12 total -- for 30 classrooms?
I know this, by the late 1960s, there were temporary buildings -- shacks -- for classes at Sunset Acres, and it certainly was a growing neighborhood. So ... if someone from those days can explain, please let me know.
As I've noted in previous blogs on Sunset Acres, we spent hours and hours on that schoolground. You could play between the wings -- and hopefully leave the windows intact.
One of our favorite places to play was a covered area next to the cafeteria/auditorium (which was next to the school office). This area had a fairly low roof and at the end leading to West Canal Street, there was an opening above the back wall.
So we had baseball games there -- two-man games, playing with a tennis ball, and you'd get a single, double or triple depending on where you hit the ball. If you hit it through the back-wall opening ... home run. If you hit the ceiling, an out. This was a great place, even on rainy days, and this was a regular stop ... until we found wiffle ball (that's another blog).
Loved that schoolground, too, for recess -- baseball, always baseball -- and for Field Day. Who didn't love Field Day? It was something we talked about all year. Blue ribbons, red ribbons, white ribbons ... no ribbons. And those events -- the potato-spoon race, the sack race, the 50-yard dash, the class rope pull and -- most important -- the class baseball game. One fifth-grade (or sixth-grade) class against the other. We planned our lineup for weeks, and it was so important, I don't even remember if we won or lost.
Making the move from one elementary school to another (Line Avenue to Sunset Acres) was much easier than the move from Holland to the U.S. a year and a half earlier. I would have been OK if we'd stayed in the older neighborhood where we first lived and I would have gone to Hamilton Terrace Junior High and C.E. Byrd High School. But moving to southwest Shreveport proved to be a blessing.
The keys to my fifth-grade year were (1) the Sunset Acres kids who quickly made me one of their own and (2) by that time, I had learned to read English fairly well.
So my favorite memory of Mrs. Maxie Cooper's fifth-grade class is the library in her classroom. Here I found simple biographies written for kids on George Washington and Abe Lincoln and George Washington Carver ... and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
I was already a Yankees' fan. When I read the book on Gehrig -- whose parents were immigrants -- and he was a Yankees' great and left-handed, I had a hero. He wore No. 4 on the back of his jersey. When I joined a baseball team that next summer, I asked for No. 4, and wore that number throughout my "career."
And I learned to love to read. That was also the first year my dad got a subscription to the daily newspaper -- the afternoon Shreveport Journal (he knew he could get the morning paper, The Times, at work). Every weekday afternoon, I would get the Journal, spread it on the floor, and was on my hands and knees reading all I could in the sports section.
Who knew how important those papers would be in my future? Talk about foreshadowing.
Another highlight of the year was studying Louisiana history. Mrs. Cooper, who was an excellent teacher, prepared us all year for a field trip ... to New Orleans, by train. We knew all about St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Andrew Jackson statue, the boat ride on the mighty Mississippi, and, yes, the French Quarter.
Mrs. Cooper also taught us about elections and campaigns. A week into the school year, we chose class officers. For some reason, I was chosen vice-president; I sure didn't volunteer.
Every school day started with the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord's Prayer and the class vice-president read a Bible quotation. First day when I went to read the quotation, it had a quote from Jesus ... it was in red type. "I can't do this," I told Mrs. Cooper. She was caught a little off-guard.
Next day, she informed me that every day I would take the class lunch money to the school office while the class went through the routine. Some days, I would hurry and I would be back before the routine was finished, so I just waited outside. (And so now you know why I was always against prayer in school.)
Sixth grade didn't go so well. Mrs. Lyndall Tinnin had taught for a long time; I doubt she had many students who gave her as much trouble as I did. She bugged me, and I bugged her. Lots of trips to the office for me. But I never got anyone else in trouble (Pam Parker and Diane Thomisee will have a different opinion of this.)
One day, I saw my dog Snowball on the school ground. That wasn't supposed to be. I bolted out of the classroom -- without permission -- and took him home. So, another visit with Mrs. Hughen.
In 1985, when I was working at the Shreveport Journal, I noticed in the paper that the Sunset Acres Elementary School PTA was having a Ruth Hughen Appreciation Night. I had to go, and I took my kids, who were 11 and nearly 6.
Hadn't seen Mrs. Hughen in probably 20 years. When I walked in the office, where she was visiting with her old secretary, Mrs. Canal, and she realized who I was, she gave me one of the greatest hugs of my life. It was hard to hold back the tears.
Saw several familiar faces from the old neighborhood that night -- among them, my first good friend there, Lynn Mills; Larry and Kent Wheeler's mom; and Mrs. Ruby Beadle, who lived in the house closest to the school ground (at the end of our block of Amherst).
When she spoke to the crowd, Mrs. Hughen introduced me and talked about my mother, about my mother's Holocaust experience and how fragile and apologetic Mom had been at times in my troubled sixth-grade year. Again, I had to choke back the tears.
I get emotional thinking about those two years at Sunset Acres Elementary. Those kids, those wonderful kids.
They took me in -- a tiny, loud, temperamental, brash but also self-conscious, left-handed Jewish kid from Holland, crazy about sports -- and made me feel like someone who belonged.
I know at least eight of us, maybe more, went all the way through the rest of school together -- Sunset Acres, Oak Terrace, Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech. I'm prejudiced, but that's a special memory.