Uncommonwealth: Classmates in 1953, group has monthly meetings with its first-grade teacher

ctruman@herald-leader.comSeptember 8, 2013 

The picture, in black and white, shows a first-grade class in 1953: 28 children, one teacher. Most are beaming. The girls are wearing frilly dresses. One boy, probably the class free spirit, is solemnly holding what appears to be a paper hat perched on his head.

Fast forward 60 years. Some members of Opal Lee Reynolds' 1952-53 first-grade class at the long-defunct University School still gather for lunch once a month, and Mrs. Reynolds, now 90, still remembers them as tiny children, the seeds of who they would become obvious even then.

She never forgot them, down to the tiniest quirks of their personality: who was organized, who was funny, who took care of other students when they got playground scrapes, who brought a snake to school.

First grade was crucial to Reynolds' worldview: She thought it set the tone for all future schooling, and she made sure that her students left her with an enduring love of learning.

That they also left with an enduring love of Opal Lee Reynolds was a serendipitous benefit.

"I think I was born to teach first grade," said Reynolds, who went on to teach in Barbourville, London and in college.

Her group of long-ago first graders met last week at sportswoman Diane Curry's home on Hart Road.

If students don't like first grade, Reynolds said, they won't like second grade, and that's not a path to lifelong achievement.

Although initially reluctant to teach college, Reynolds said she found that college students are "just first graders, older, but with the same needs."

In Reynolds' classroom, the interests of the students drove the curriculum. When a chicken was brought in and named Clucky, students learned to count baby chickens after they hatched and wrote poetry about poultry.

"We made up songs about it," Reynolds recalled. "Everything we did centered around that chicken."

Dana Paulson Davis remembered learning to read with the Dick and Jane reading series, the baby boomer classics that also featured little sister Sally and the dog Spot.

The students remember their first-grade addresses, a catalog of Lexington before the arrival of the massive IBM plant and a housing development boom that would last through the 1950s and 1960s: Kingsway, Holiday, Chinoe, Cochran, Tahoma, Elsmere, Parkway, Lakewood, Calumet Farm.

The class had three girls named Susan, all of whom were present at the luncheon. Susan was a huge name for 1950s girls, along with Linda, Patricia and Barbara.

Susan Mansfield Bartlett, who now lives in Missouri, remembers being in awe of Reynolds.

"In first grade, I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world," Bartlett said.

The group met up again at a reunion and began meeting monthly in 2008.

"Do you see the camaraderie between them?" Reynolds murmurs. "They got married and had children, but they're still close."

Last year the group gave "Miss Opal" a Chico's gift certificate, and Susan Blythe Jonas took her for a day out at the women's retailer, where Reynolds charmed the sales staff.

"All these years I didn't pay attention to age, and suddenly I was 90," said Reynolds, still fashionably dressed and sporting a scarf neatly tied around her neck. "I got a birthday card and suddenly that 9 was the biggest thing."

Before the group sits down for lunch, they take a group picture, a follow-up to that 60-year-old class portrait.

Just before the camera snaps, Reynolds flings away her cane, which she doesn't much like using.

She doesn't need it. Her students will support her.

Cheryl Truman: (859)231-3202. Twitter: @CherylTruman.

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