The first school I attended was the storied one-room schoolhouse. An old whitewashed building with a red roof and a vane on the peak, it sat at the top of an unpaved hill surrounded by farmland (including a barn rife with livestock) in a then-unincorporated area of Urbana, Illinois, in the heart of the American Midwest. The school housed all six primary grades and, as I recall, there were about thirty-five of us, mostly very young, although we ranged in age, of course, up to twelve or thirteen.
The year was 1953, and I was six years old, a first grader, the son of a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois. My peers and the upper-graders were farm kids or children of other undergrads and grad students taking advantage of the GI Bill. Some kids’ families, especially those who farmed, simply weren’t able to live in the city; that would have qualified them for a much-better city school. (I suspect my parents dismissed the relevance of first grade, as much of my future education came at home, at their hands. But we were poor too: My mother worked part-time in a grocery store and my father drove a cab to make ends meet.)
The sole teacher in that school was as classic as the building itself. Mrs. Knapp was a “schoolmarm by profession, and I’ve been doing it all my life,” she said,. By then, I’d guess, that meant more than forty years on the job. She had to have been in her sixties: white hair in a perfect bun, petite (memory puts her at barely five feet, perhaps ninety pounds). Bony, with tightly drawn skin and sharp features. Prominent eyebrows. Prominent knuckles. Perfect teeth. She brushed after lunch and made sure we did too.
She handled our diverse intellects with perfect aplomb, guiding those of us who could read well through the pleasures of Stevenson’s poetry and Mr. Popper, and those who struggled through the joys of Dick and Jane. If every grade was a different country, Mrs. Knapp was fluent in the geography of each, and their six languages, always having appropriate conversation to offer on whatever subject — academic and non- — that our curiosity was heir to. She knew, for example, more about baseball and its history than my father did and was always ready to argue the merits of PeeWee Reese (her favorite shortstop) against Chico Carrasquel (mine).
The one Mrs. Knapp incident that will always remain engraved in my memory (and created a state of wonderment in me that has not only lasted until this day but was the foundation on which my pursuit of writing as a career was laid) didn’t happen at school, however. It happened on a deserted country road that divided cornfields, on the afternoon of the last day of that, my first full-fledged school year. To celebrate the beautiful weather, she’d taken us on — literally — a field trip, through the bright yellow and green of corn and wheat stalks that were taller than I was (and as tall as she was) but still a couple of months shy of harvest.
We wandered, as large groups of children are wont to do, our eyes catching on the wonder of every bug and bird and leaf — every one of which, unfailingly, Mrs. Knapp had explanations for. We trekked along utterly untrafficked gravel and dirt roads that had been bulldozed just wide enough for tractors, or a single flatbed truck, to travel. There were no trees: The Illinois prairie land was flat and we could see only the blue of the horizon and an occasional farmhouse rooftop beyond the gently waving crops. We ate our lunch sandwiches at ancient roadside picnic tables (which, conveniently, had a hand-pump and boys’ and girls’ outhouses adjacent) that we came upon at just the appropriate moment, listening to the rustle, the cries of the crows, the chirrs of the crickets and beetles.
After lunch, we walked more. Now, though, the trip had become repetitious — more fields, more crops, more birdcalls — and I, certainly among others, was becoming impatient.
And then it happened: In the absolute middle of nowhere (straight out of what, some years later, I would think of as The Twilight Zone or a Stephen King novel), on the side of another single-lane road hundreds of yards from anything that resembled civilization, there stood an ice cream stand. Nothing fancy, just a wooden counter eight or ten feet wide, five feet high, two feet deep, with poles supporting a wood sheet that served as sun cover for the grizzled but smiling middle-aged man who stood behind it. The words “Ice Cream – 10 Flavors” were painted prominently on the front.
The man and Mrs. Knapp greeted each other as old friends. Then she turned to us and said each of us could have an ice cream cone, any flavor we wished, her treat. Our enthusiasm was, naturally, boundless, and debate over whether to stick to the known delights of chocolate or vanilla, or whether to experiment with the exotic Rocky Road or Blueberry, raged among us. But we each settled on something, and the man scooped large scoops into waffle cones and handed them out. We savored and devoured.
And then he asked her, “What would you like?” I like to think there was a twinkle in his eyes as he did, that what followed was a ritual between them, although the few kids who’d attended Mrs. Knapp’s classes in years before hadn’t been to the stand.
She paused thoughtfully, then said, “I think I’ll have a cone with a scoop of each.”
He didn’t bat an eyelash, but we did. A scoop of each? All ten flavors? In one cone? Mrs. Knapp, this woman who was smaller than the oldest of her students, was going to eat a ten-scoop ice cream cone?
With the same aplomb she displayed in the classroom, she took the mountain from him carefully and licked the top. She said something like “Mmm” and smiled. And we watched, in utterly astonished envy, as she consumed every sweet mound, moving her tongue up and down from vanilla to strawberry to butter pecan, not losing a drop to the heat of the afternoon. I’m not sure how long it took for her to finish — probably only fifteen or twenty minutes — but, our own cones long-eaten, we stared, agog, the entire time.
Afterward, we walked back to the school, perhaps just a mile or so away, packed up our things, said our farewells for the summer to her and each other, and walked home or waited for our parents to come.
Of course, I told my Mom and Dad about the event, and, of course, they smiled. We drove past the school the following week. It was closed, and Mrs. Knapp off somewhere, with Mr. Knapp, I supposed, eating copious quantities of ice cream stacked in sky-high cones. I never saw her again, and though we looked, I never found that ice cream stand either.
Now, sixty-some years later, though the little-else I can recall about that first school year is only dimly remembered, Mrs. Knapp, her ten-scoop ice cream cone and the magic it created in me remain one of my clearest childhood memories; and often — as I watch children sitting in the sun outside modern twenty- or thirty-flavor ice cream emporiums — I wonder if perhaps she isn’t somewhere watching, a well-filled waffle cone in hand, still enjoying it mightily.