Opinion: Growing up in Devils Lake: School days

Staff Writer
Devils Lake Journal
Robert Pfleiger

Growing up in the fifties, we did not have a lot of school descriptions. 

Pre-school, middle school, junior high school were pretty much all wrapped up for us in “grade school” and “ high school.”  Those were simpler times so we got by with fewer names.

My last two school years in Devils Lake were the seventh and eight grade at St. Mary’s Academy.  These were grades one worked their way up to, literally and figuratively.  The two classes shared the same room and teacher, on the top floor of the school. Our teacher was Sister Mary Aquin.  She was the seventh grade teacher.  She was the eighth grade teacher.  She was sort of an ambidextrous teacher.  

The seventh grade was on her left side of the room and the eight grade on the right side. No matter where she was, there was not much doubt of who was in charge. There were times it would have been hard for me to believe, but she may well have been the best teacher I ever had, twice.

Shortly after the start of seventh grade I was moved to the last desk in the first row. It was in a little alcove with a window at my back and a bookshelf on my left. Any further back and I would have been out the window, which I am sure at times would have satisfied Sister Aquin.  

When our class studied while the eighth grade was being taught, I found a treasure trove of National Geographic magazines on the bookshelf. Young boys received a lot of education from National Geographic in those days, and not just world geography.  They did have some interesting pictures. Sister must have really liked me because I was soon moved toward the front of the room. The moves coincided with her discovering my extracurricular reading. Anyone who went to a parochial school eventually found out that nuns actually have rear view mirrors. We never saw them but they had to be there. How else with all that stuff around their heads would they know who was misbehaving when their back was turned to the class? If the behavior was bad enough, Sister Aquin could turn in an instant and throw a chalk eraser at the offending party.  If erasers were baseballs she could have pitched for the Yankees. I was targeted a few times even though

I still claim mistaken identity.  

Unfortunately for her, Judy sat behind me. I learned to anticipate and duck. Judy was very smart but she never did get that ducking thing down. You would think after getting hit a few times one would be more alert. I felt sorry for Judy because I secretly liked her, but I could not just take one for the team. I thought learning to duck would serve her well down the road.

Being punished in school was usually a case of mistaken identity.  The one thing you did not do was come home and complain about my punishment.  Parents were not going to go to the school door with lawyer in tow like too many parents today. If they found out you got punished at school, it started all over when you got home.  There was no future in going home to complain. There were some cool and not so cool classroom jobs. If you lucky enough on the day weather permitted, you got to open windows. This was not your ordinary window opening. These windows opened from the top and required a pole with a hook on the end that was stuck into a slot near the window top. With the hook in place you pulled the window down to open the top. All the while the other boys in the class were wondering why they did not get the cool job that day.

The not so cool job was cleaning erasers. This job was done after school by people who had some sort of disagreement with Sr. Aquin. My mother would always ask why I had chalk dust all over me when I got home. I just explained I was helping the teacher after class. To Sr. Aquin’s credit, she never ratted me out to my parents over my after school “helping.”

In eighth grade I majored in math and minored in eraser cleaning. We did have our share of drills. Fire drills were great because we got out of class to walk down three flights of stairs to gather outside. These were spring and fall drills. It did not take a genius a understand you do not practice walking out of the school during a North Dakota winter. Winter was a time to practice the get under your desk and cover your head to protect against an atomic bomb attack.  I never did figure out why someone was going to atom bomb St. Mary’s or what good covering my head was going to do.

Each week we had a memorize a poem and some spelling words. I had to practice and recite them at home. By the end of eighth grade my mother knew more Longfellow and Frost than the average English professor. I think she retained more from the spelling than I did.  If I had known spell check was coming I may not have tried so hard. Somehow we survived not having all that pre, middle and junior stuff. We just got by with the old fashion stuff, having involved parents and dedicated teachers.

Robert Pfleiger was born at Mercy Hospital 4/10/1943. He spent his first 14 years in Devils Lake. Pfleiger attended St Mary's Academy through eight grade. His father, Casper Pfleiger, worked for Fairmont Foods and was transferred to Minneapolis in the summer of 1957. He attended high school and college in Minneapolis. After the University of Minnesota Pfleiger was married to his wife Mary and worked for Honeywell. He was transferred to Nashville, TN in 1967. In 1980 he left Honeywell and started Ener-Tech Industries which he has since sold. Now, he is semi retired but still works part time at Ener-Tech. The Pfleigers raised four daughters, have five grandchildren and like to travel when possible.