Important Perks and the Soda Machine | Mark’s Remarks

When we got into fourth grade in 1976, the promotion brought all types of life-changes for us. We no longer went to the little grade school on the north end of town; the one with the long hallway, easy to find classrooms and memories of our early childhood. We now had to go across town, over a mile away, and make our way into the huge old building that housed grades 4-8.  There were three stories in this school. It was enormous.

We’d heard stories of this school. Everything was tougher.  The teachers were meaner. The rules were more intense. The older kids would beat you up. It was a place to be feared. We went from being the upperclassmen-third-graders at Northside to being the little ones at Center Street. Thankfully, there were some kindergarten students there, but they were way on the other side of the school.

As most things in life, this huge change brought with it many perks. We had more independence along with the new expectations. Fourth grade meant switching classes for reading and math, so that made us feel more grown up. We had more opportunities to go to assemblies in the big gym, rubbing elbows with the much admired, yet feared, junior-high kids.

Perhaps the best perk at our new school was the soda machine. It sat at the end of the basement hallway right outside the cramped and spotless cafeteria. I remember it well. It was a blue-and-white Pepsi machine with the long narrow door on the left hand side. Thirsty customers put in their quarter, pulled out a frosty bottle of the beverage of their choice, and popped the top off with the handy bottle opener to the right.  After you were finished drinking your soda, you put the empty in a crate just inside the janitor’s room and headed out to the playground.

When you were finished with your lunch, you could stop at the soda machine and make your purchase. You had to stand there in the hallway and drink it, though. There was no lounging or taking the glass bottle out to the playground. In fact, I even remember some of the lunchroom aides hurrying us along. I doubt the soda drinking was that pleasant, really. We probably chugged it down as fast as we could before Mrs. Lunch Lady shooed us outside.

Still, there were perks-within-a-perk when it came to purchasing sodas. My friend, Scott, and I had a crush on a girl named Pam who helped out in the lunch room. All of the upperclassmen who helped out in the lunch room wore aprons.  The girls wore bandanas on their heads and carried hot soapy rags around with them to wipe off tables and benches in the lunchroom.

Scott and I would buy sodas and stand over on the north wall so we could get a good glimpse of Pam. I can’t believe we had any feelings other than a bit of puppy-love for Pam in those days, but we knew we liked her. And she was an older woman, probably in seventh or eighth grade. I remember her coming out one day and asking us to buy HER a soda. Even though she was kidding around, she flashed that pearly white smile at us and we considered ourselves a couple of Romeo’s from that day forward.

I think we probably only purchased sodas once a week if we were lucky, but those moments were savored.

Another perk was avoiding the cold playground on long winter days, even though we enjoyed playing out there regardless of the weather. We were dressed accordingly, unlike the kids today. Even so, it was sort of empowering I guess to lean against the old heating vent on the wall and sip that soda a little slower when the thermometer was dipping.

The crowning glory, of course, was who could burp the loudest, making ourselves heard above the lunchroom rattle, our belching vibrating off the cinder block walls. It was a bonus if we could get a few of the girls standing around to tell us we were disgusting. Even though our families probably would have chastised us for such manners, at school it seemed to be culturally acceptable.

I doubt that old soda machine is still there, but I hope kids are still making memories outside that lunch room — and belching as loud as they can.

Yes, I wrote a column about bad manners last week. Go figure.

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Mark Tullis

Mark is a 25-year veteran teacher teaching in Columbia. Originally from Fairfield, Mark is married with four children. He enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with his family, and has been involved in various aspects of professional and community theater for many years and enjoys appearing in local productions. Mark has also written a "slice of life" style column for the Republic-Times since 2007.
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