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An amusing paean to childhood education, in rhymes

Did you like elementary school? Did you like your teachers, or at least some of them? Were you fairly successful in school?
If your recollections of school are positive, you’ll probably enjoy reading a collection of amusing poems about school days, particularly elementary and junior high, written by Neil Brewer, 48, a graduate curriculum instructor at Indiana University Southeast and formerly a teacher for many years at South Central Elementary School outside of Elizabeth.
His self-published paperback book, blessed with many wonderful old black and white photographs, is called ‘The 8 O’Clock Bell.’ It is a paean to an ideal world of early childhood education, as he remembers it, in the halcyon days before consolidation and computers.
Brewer is a professional educator whose heart is clearly in education. At South Central, he constantly came up with nifty programs that helped kids learn tons of stuff in the most enjoyable ways. I’m thinking of his Rebel Broadcast News show that the South Central kids expertly wrote and produced themselves each day, and the brilliant, year-long ‘Harmon’s Letters’ history unit that Brewer dreamed up and later shared with thousands of students through dozens of teachers all over Indiana and Kentucky. ‘Harmon’s Letters’ culminated in the spring with the World War I-era, globe-trotting adventurer named Harmon (Neil Brewer himself) flying home to Cedar Farm in a biplane before mounting an old motorcycle for a triumphant entry as the students roared with approval.
Only a teacher with a strong love for old school days combined with the amusing observations of a limerick writer could produce something like ‘The 8 O’Clock Bell.’ Brewer has produced about 90 pages of archival photographs and amusing rhymes, divided into two sections, about Teachers and Teaching, and Classmates and Class.
He clearly remembers all the fears young children have when they first set foot in school, the silly things that go on behind the teacher’s back, the ‘lining-up’ for almost every conceivable activity, the joys of science class discoveries, and the shocking discovery that not all students are the same. Some come from terrible backgrounds and may never rise above it, and others are late bloomers or insightful teacher discoveries, like the hyper little boy who drove everyone crazy until the teacher hands him a drum ‘ and a vocation.
In ‘Safety first,’ Brewer laments the passing of dangerous playground equipment:
They banned us from the seesaw
and I guess we all know why.
But still, we didn’t know six girls
could shoot a boy that high.

Brewer gets it just right remembering the excruciating embarrassment that came with showers after the P.E. class in the seventh grade, the ridiculous plays that caused otherwise sane teachers to become obsessed but somehow make everyone feel good in the end, the ‘incredibly cold’ bone-chilling bus rides when it’s four degrees out, the spring camping trips with 60 kids and the guarantee of horrible weather.
Brewer does comment on a contemporary subject that’s a hot topic even now: ‘teaching to the test.’ It’s something all teachers have grappled with since accountability and higher standards became state and national issues. In ‘My Ducks in a Row,’ Brewer writes:
I’m teaching the test ‘
forgetting the rest ‘
cause I’m sure that others above me know best.
No time for excursions
or senseless diversions.
What matters the most is we learn the same versions.
So farewell to free time
and thoughts that are random.
I’ll ready these kids for any test they can hand ’em.
And we’ll all be impressed by the things they recite,
the names they recall, and whose words they can write.
And all will be calm, no more movers or shakers ‘
with the world in the hands of the expert test takers.

You can get Brewer’s book of poems from Brewer, at Town Square Gallery in Corydon, the IUS bookstore, or Borders in Louisville. It’s a bargain at $10.